Bourbon might get much of the spotlight on the liquor shelf, but drinkers are increasingly dusting off the rye whiskey as they clamor to try interesting, new-to-them spirits.
Distilleries all over the U.S. are responding in kind and have returned to the spirit famously once produced by America’s first president, George Washington, at his Mount Vernon estate. Prior to Prohibition, rye was as popular as its corn-based cousin of bourbon is now, but it had fallen out of favor for decades until the craft cocktail revolution of the past few years.
Over the course of seven years, from 2009 to 2016, production of the whiskey rose by an astronomical 778 percent and led to a 900 percent increase in revenue, according to the Drinks Business publication. It’s an explosive level of growth that the Distilled Spirits Council, which reported a similar boom for rye last year, doesn’t see slowing down any time soon.
Now, one of Texas’ most innovative whiskey distilleries is contributing to that explosion with the release of its very first rye earlier this year. Balcones Distilling in Waco went all-out with the 100-proof, deep ruby-colored whiskey, a boozy signal the eclectic brand isn’t resting on its laurels as its 10th anniversary approaches. The distillery joins a few others in the state, such as Ranger Creek in San Antonio and Yellow Rose in Houston, that have also released rye whiskeys.
But the Balcones Texas Rye, made possible when Balcones moved to a much larger, multimillion dollar facility in 2016, isn’t quite like the others.
“The rye is a departure from the norm, from what you’d typically see (in the rye whiskey category), and it’s definitely a first for us,” Winston Edwards, Balcones’ brand ambassador, said.
For one thing, it’s made with 100 percent rye. One of the few legal requirements U.S. distilleries have to follow to call their spirit a rye whiskey is that it must have a grain bill of at least 51 percent rye — and, because of the hardy grain’s rough-around-the-edges personality, very few choose to use all rye.
A bulk of Balcones’ grain bill, 80 percent, is Texas-grown Elbon rye. The remaining 20 percent features darker roasted specialty ryes imported from Germany: chocolate rye, caramel rye and roasted rye. Each of these are malted to pull out additional sugars that can be gobbled up during the fermentation process — Balcones makes its whiskey from scratch, so to speak, and must first ferment the grains before they are distilled into whiskey.
Another notable element of Balcones Texas Rye, a year-round product, is that it spent no more than 15 months aging in dry seasoned oak casks. A little over a year in these barrels, with the Texas sun a constant influence, was the sweet spot for the whiskey, preserving the “grassy and spicy” character of the raw grains while still giving it much of the characteristic vanilla and caramel notes found in a barrel-aged spirit, Edwards said.
The result is a whiskey — or whisky, as Balcones spells it, a variation that Scotch distillers use and most American ones do not — that might give you the sense you’re drinking dessert with your dinner. Rye tends to lend whiskeys made with the cereal grain a bold, dry and spicy essence, in noticeable contrast to bourbon’s sweeter, often more mellow profile. Thanks to the specialty ryes used, Balcones’ version also has heavy bittersweet chocolate notes and an aroma of cold-brew coffee.
You’ll get “lots of the characteristic rye spice,” Edwards said. “But ours is a deeper flavor focused on the base chocolate notes. Typically with rye whiskey, people expect green, grassier notes, something sharper and more treble than bass. We went in the opposite direction with notes like cinnamon, licorice, mint. It’s really great in cocktails.”
Most of Texas’ rye whiskey makers source distillate from elsewhere that is then finished and bottled at their facilities, Jessica Sanders, the owner of Austin cocktail bar Drink.Well, said. Balcones is a notable exception in that regard as well as in another — a majority of the rye it uses is purchased from North Texas farmers, Edwards said, who were shocked to hear their grain was wanted by anyone else.
“We didn’t know Texas could grow rye,” he said. “From what I understand, the grain itself was developed in Oklahoma, but it’s grown in Texas as a kind of cover crop. When we approached these guys about buying some, they were like, ‘Wait, what? You want what?’ Because they just mill it back into the ground for nutrients.”
Sanders hasn’t yet tried Balcones’ rye, but she said she’s excited to get her hands on a bottle because of the distillery’s knack at creating experimental whiskeys that are great in cocktails. When Drink.Well debuted in 2012, she said, Balcones’ corn whiskeys — like Baby Blue, made from roasted heirloom blue corn — were prominent on the back bar. The youthful Baby Blue was the Waco whiskey maker’s first product, and Balcones’ latest year-round bottling is still being made with a local focus.
“They’re taking the time to source what they can from Texas, to see what a rye whiskey truly from Texas tastes like,” Sanders said.
You can find Balcones Texas Rye at liquor chains like Spec’s, Twin Liquors and Total Wine & More, as well as at smaller stores like Austin Shaker and Austin Wine Merchant, with a suggested retail price of $39.99.
THE RYE WAY: OTHER TEXAS WHISKEYS TO TRY
Kooper Family Rye: The 84-proof rye whiskey might not be made from scratch, but husband-and-wife team Troy and Michelle Kooper barrel, blend and bottle the nuanced spirit at their Fayette County facility with a dexterity that belies their relative newness in the booze business. Kooper is “vibrant, wild and untamed, but with enough aging that the sweetness of the barrels come through,” Jessica Sanders of Drink.Well said.
Ben Milam Rye: One of the Hill Country’s newest distilleries can’t stop raking in the awards for its whiskeys. Though the single-barrel bourbon in particular is a gold medal liquid, don’t miss out on the 90 proof rye, which bursts with notes of nutmeg, black pepper and leather.
Ranger Creek .44 Rye: It’s got to be nice when your booze operation doubles as a brewery and distillery — you can brew the mash that will go into the whiskey. Ranger Creek’s .44 whiskey doesn’t exactly follow U.S. specifications to be a proper rye, as it’s aged in the distillery’s former bourbon barrels rather than the required new oak barrels, but there’s no denying the San Antonio spirit, spicy and warming, is otherwise a classic example of the buzzy category.
What: A whiskey distillery in Waco that offers a warm, industrial-like tasting room selling flights, drams and rotating cocktails. You can also book a tour to explore the whiskey-making process.
Where: 225 S. Eleventh St., Waco
Hours: 2 to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 1 to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday