In Waco, whisky is worth the wait.
“It takes years to play around with different varieties of grain, and then make them into whisky, and see what they taste like, and then go back to the drawing board and tweak something,” said Jared Himstedt, head distiller at Balcones Distilling in Waco.
Himstedt’s latest project is the High Plains Texas Single Malt Whisky, the first made with barley grown in Texas.
“Malted also in Texas,” said Himstedt. “Cooked, fermented, distilled, matured, all in Texas.”
Can you smell the Texas pride? Turns out there's some Aggie pride in that bottle, too. The barley variety used by Balcones was developed at Texas A&M University.
“We're not usually considered ideal environment for barley production,” said Clark Neely, a small grains and oilseed specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
AgriLife researchers like Neely tested variety after variety of barley, trying to find one that would withstand the hot, dry Texas climate. In the U.S., most barley is grown in the Pacific Northwest, where the climate is more amenable.
“In addition to yield, quality is important,” said Neely.
The testing was performed for Blacklands Malt in Leander. Then, that Texas-grown-and-malted barley went to Balcones to become whisky.
Himstedt says that he decided to keep the initial formula for the Texas malts fairly basic--for now.
“We wanted the end result to be about the grain differences and not anything else,” said Himstedt. “Now that we have it… We’ve barely gotten started.”
Balcones Distilling's usual barley comes from Scotland. Himstedt says they didn’t buy the Texas grain to save money.
“Uh, no,” said Himstedt with a laugh. “This is much more expensive.”
But for the team at Balcones, the value is about more than the price.
“Supporting local stuff, the local agriculture, and the bigger picture of the impact of Texas whisky on the economy,” said Himstedt. “But your ultimate goal is to make the best whisky you can, so when those things can converge..."
That’s where the High Plains Texas Single Malt comes in. Himstedt could go on about the notes of this and that, but ultimately he concludes his taste-test with this evaluation:
“Whatever Texas tastes like,” said Himstedt. “We’re finding out, little by little.”