Balcones Brimstone

Balcones BrimstoneThe Balcones Brimstone is perhaps the most disappointing whiskey I’ve had in a while. It’s a corn whiskey from Texas, smoked with Texas scrub oak, and many of the reviews I’d read noted aromas and flavours of barbecue smoke and bacon and barbecue sauce and so forth. As I love all of those things I expected to love this whiskey. I opened it for a tasting of American whiskies that I hosted for the group of friends I do monthly tastings for (see some pictures, and get details of how we do our tastings here). As most of us mostly drink whisky in the Scottish style I put together a tasting that included two highly acclaimed bourbons of different styles (Four Roses Small Batch Ltd. Edition 2012 and Pappy 15, Fall 2011 release) and two experimental whiskies (High West Campfire and the Balcones Brimstone). Based on reviews I’d planned to pour the Brimstone last. However, I opened the bottle two nights before the tasting (I don’t like to use freshly opened bottles for tastings) and really did not like it at all. Raw wood was all I got. I didn’t want the tasting to end on a low note, and so decided to begin with it and put a LOT of space and palate cleansers between it and the rest (we usually take three hours to drink one ounce each of four whiskies). I also hoped that two days of air might take the edge off.

Well, that didn’t end up happening. If anything, it tasted worse on the night of the tasting. And that wasn’t just my view: nine of the others at the tasting thought it was terrible too and the tenth thought it was merely very bad–and we rarely achieve anything approaching unanimity (all but me taste everything blind). We score whiskies out of 40 points at our tastings (10 each for nose, palate, finish and wildcard, with 5 points the “drink again” mark) and usually our low whisky on a night gathers an averaged aggregate of 20-22 points. Such, for example, were the scores of the Glen Moray 12 and the Strathisla 12, innocuous but by no means undrinkable whiskies. Well, the Brimstone got an averaged aggregate score of 9.7 points! (For reference, the Four Roses was the high score that night with 27, the Pappy scored 26 and the Campfire got 20 points–in line with the group’s usual spread.) We all thought it was an interesting whisky to experience but nobody wanted to experience it again. And as if to drive the point home, the three year old daughter of the group members whose house the tasting was held at woke up vomiting violently as the tasting ended.

What I was mostly thrown by was the discrepancy between our response to this whiskey and that of some reviewers I trust and whose tastes are generally not too far away from mine: Oliver Klimek had given it a rave review, and it got a good review, if not a rave, on Scotch & Ice Cream as well. I, on the other hand, thought it was utter swill. That seemed like too wide a gap to accomodate the old de gustibus saw. I figured therefore that batch variation had to be the answer and that I had lucked into the worst possible batch. However, in a recent discussion on a Facebook group for whisky bloggers a number of people (including Oliver and also Joshua Gerson Feldman of the Coopered Tot blog) once again posted rave endorsements of the Brimstone, and Joshua noted that he too had started out disliking it intensely and now loves it. Billy Abbott, who works and blogs for TWE (and also has his own blog,) noted that while he hated it as much as I did he had drunk it alongside others who loved it. So, it didn’t appear that batch variation was what accounted for the difference, and it seemed possible that it might improve with time. So I decided to give it another try and here we are:

Balcones Brimstone (53%, Batch BRM 11-10; from my own bottle)

Balcones Brimstone

So, Brimstone fans, is this the batch you had?

Nose: Freshly sawn wood; varnish; pine floor cleaner; pencil shavings–to be more accurate, the paint that chips off cheap pencils when you chew them (this takes me back to my childhood but not in a good way). A little hint of maple syrup but the raw wood dominates. Gets a little more sour with time–something like balsamic vinegar mixed with cheap white vinegar; maybe a touch of soy sauce. Later, notes of vinegary barbecue sauce, but that goddamned raw wood never goes away–it’s like being trapped in the lumber section of a Home Depot. Water dials the wood down a tad but the Pine-Sol is still there. A little inkier too now, and I am finally getting some bacon.

Palate: Ugh. It leads with the freshly sawn wood and transitions into cheap wine vinegar. Maybe some concentrated beef stock in there too. Let’s see if water improves it tonight–it certainly can’t make it worse, can it? Okay, water does make it palatable. The raw wood recedes and the beef stock trumps the bad vinegar. More brown sugar now and better quality barbecue sauce than first appeared on the nose. Some umami flavours now too: the liqueur from soaking dried shitaake mushrooms in hot water.

Finish: Mostly tastes like a cheap pencil. Mercifully, it’s not as long as it threatens to be. Water improves the finish as well and keeps the beef stock/soy sauce note going. The pencil shaving note comes back later and sticks around for a long time.

Comments: I’m afraid that while the nose has registered some mild improvement in the last two months the palate without water is as nasty as ever. It’s as though someone tried to make vinegar infused with pencil shavings, but couldn’t even be arsed to use a decent vinegar. Neat, it’s best served to enemies. With water it did improve markedly tonight (or maybe I was just excited that I could finish it with water). I can’t say it turned into something I’d want to drink on a regular basis but it did turn into something different and drinkable enough to bust out every once in a while; and I can see how some good vermouth, ice and lemon peel (but hold the bitters) might bring out the best in it. Okay, I’ll set it aside for another two months and check again.

But I do think that cask variation must be in play: neither Oliver Klimek nor Scotch & Ice Cream mention the overpowering raw wood that’s all over the nose, palate and finish in this bottle. I see that the Scotch & Ice Cream review, at least, was based on an officially provided sample from a different batch (BRM 12-2).

Rating: 60 points. (30 points without water.)

10 thoughts on “Balcones Brimstone

  1. You mention that some of the positive reviews are from people you respect. I wonder how many of them reviewed the whisky from bottles they bought with their own ca$h?

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    • Well, Scotch & Ice Cream notes that he got a sample. I believe Oliver doesn’t really get samples (he’s said something to that effect in the past on WhiskyWhiskyWhisky). But these are two (though not the only two) bloggers whose integrity I don’t worry about, based on the notes and scores they post. They’re not cheerleaders (the Brimstone only got a B from Scotch & Ice Cream–which is not a bad rating on that blog but probably not what the distillery would like to see).

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      • Hey MAO,

        Rereading my notes and comparing to yours, I definitely see a tale of two different whiskeys happening here.

        I’m planning on picking up a bottle (as well as a specific batch of Campfire if I can find it) and giving it another taste based on this.

        If it is the case that I got a cherry sample, hopefully another tasting (and abundance of evidence to the contrary) will suss that out. I definitely recall Brimstone being a very unique whisky, and it having polarizing reactions aren’t uncommon — even the group I tasted with was split heavily.

        I’m sorry if my notes led you or anyone astray. This a large part of why I’ve elected to no longer review samples provided by producers on S&I. I’d rather pay out of pocket and taste what’s on the shelf versus advance a specific marketing interest.

        Hopefully revisiting it will provide a little more clarity to the choice sample vs palate shibboleth question. Stay tuned! Hopefully quite soon.

        -T

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        • Yeah, I don’t think the source of your sample has anything to do with it–enough people have posted similar reviews of bottles they purchased themselves (Josh, for example). And as Billy pointed out elsewhere, he’s seen people rave about the very bottle that caused him to gag. Though it is entirely possible that I do have a particularly foul batch, i think it may also be possible that reactions to this whisky are conditioned somewhat by experience with/tolerance of a strong woody profile. I don’t drink very much bourbon compared to some, and it may be that I am therefore more sensitive to stronger wood notes or likelier to pick those up as off notes. If I recall correctly, you liked the Chieftain’s Brora 30 that some others found to be too woody. Whatever the case, the particular wood on this smacked all of us across the face in the larger group tasting and I just don’t see that mentioned in a lot of reviews. And please don’t worry about your notes leading me astray. I’d read enough interesting reviews of this one to want to try it.

          I’ll be in L.A for two weeks later this month (and again in August): I’m happy to bring you a sample of mine as well, so you can see what you make of this one.

          I did like it more with water two months later–who knows maybe my response to it will follow the trajectory of Josh’s.

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          • Just coming back to this.. I tried a couple pours of batch 13-3 in the last 24 hours, and I definitely would stand by my take of it as a B (absolute minimum B-) whiskey. 13-3 has a more rubbery smoke quality than I remember in the past, but a lot of the same stuff I tasted from 12-2 was still present, just at different levels.

            I did like the Chieftain’s Brora 30 as well as the Mortlach 22y – both, I’m sure, are more woody than some. I also have a fondness for older bourbons, so certainly worth noting that I have a tolerance for (and even enjoy) woodier profiles.

            That said, at least to my palate, 13-3 didn’t have anything that I considered aggressive wood. It’s there, but I really get a lot more kind of chocolatey, raisin-like qualities.

            My schedule may actually permit a connection this time! I’ll save some of this batch for you as well for compare and contrast. Maybe Brimstone is just a like it or hate it whiskey, based on the comments here and elsewhere.

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    • Having discussed Balcones with a bunch of people, writers and non, I can safely say that I don’t think people have had their opinions bought. Some have got caught up in the romanticism of Chip’s endeavours but people really do like the Brimstone. Weirdos… :)

      I didn’t get so much of the vinegary edge and did get a bunch of hammy smoke, but otherwise this sounds pretty much like the batches I’ve tried. The core flavours don’t seem to change, but there’s a little bit of difference in the levels of smoke, as I’d expect as Chip refines and rebuilds the various bits of his equipment.

      I’ve heard tales of a ‘bad batch’ where the mash was burnt which has turned out excellently. It’s meant to have been bottled separately, but unfortunately seeking out some in the UK is Hard…

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  2. Thanks so much for the shout out, Reverend. Certainly Brimstone is a strong and polarizing flavor profile. I know a number of folks who are deeply divided. However, I never got any vinegar notes in any of the 5 batches I’ve tried over the past year. On the bloggers group I’ve extended an offer of a later batch sample. I hope you take and get another view. But even if you don’t like that one, your view is as valid as any other’s, of course.

    As for Portwood’s valid question of whether I had purchased my own bottles – the answer is yes. A year ago Brimstone was rather hard to find, so I actually blogged about my trip to an out of the way liquor store, Le Du, to find Brimstone and Triple Smoke (March 30, 2012): http://www.cooperedtot.com/2012/03/visiting-le-dus-in-village.html

    My formal review of Brimstone was posted the following day. But please be aware that I initially scored it 3 stars and then increased the grade incrementally from 4 to 5 stars (out of 5) over the next 6 months as my impression of it improved more and more: http://www.cooperedtot.com/2012/03/smoked-whisky.html

    I have re-purchased bottles on two occasions. And, as a testament to the validity of “true believer” status, I chose to have Brimstone anchor my first independent public event (a whisky chocolate pairing event which features malts from Glenmorangie, Aberlour, Glendronach, Ardbeg, and Brenne, as well as Compass Box Hedonism – and which finished on Brimstone. All of these whisky selections purchased by the event host – none donated. The sold out crowd of 30+ liked it fine. I can quote a 3rd party blogger who had a positive impression:
    “Balcones Brimstone with Pacari Fig
    …Its sweet fruitiness married nicely with Brimstone’s uniquely smoky profile, achieved via Texas scrub oak (whatever that is—tastes sort of, but not really, like mesquite). It was like drinking a barbecue sandwich topped with fig preserves—and therefore awesome.”

    http://whattastesgood.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/an-evening-of-scotch-chocolate/

    So, no, my scoring of Brimstone wasn’t gratitude to the distiller…

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  3. Interesting, I have such a different reaction. When first trying the Brimstone, I started with the Balcones Baby Blue, figuring it would give me a good baseline to appreciate (Or, I suppose, dislike) the smoke effect.

    [My personal profile is bourbon drinker who has branched into scotch with a love of Islay & other heavy peated scotch. So maybe the Brimstone was meant for me]

    I really found the Brimstone to be not very complex but extremely delicious, and it really did have the effect of BBQ – smoked corn sweetness

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  4. I’ve not heard from Sku or Tim, who received samples of this batch of Brimstone from me in Los Angeles in August; however, I’m pretty sure this must have been a particularly aberrant batch, as I had a very different response to a sample Tim gave me from a batch he endorsed. See here.

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  5. Thanks for the sample Mao. I didn’t have as violent a reaction as you did to this whisky. I can’t say I like it, or that I’d want a bottle of it, but I could see how others would. Especially those growing up with popcorn at the movies, corn syrup in, well, everything, and barbecue in the summer.

    It’s a two-note song: smoky and sweet. The smoke is a dry one, chaparral fire in San Diego county, one month after the firemen put it out. The sweetness is oily (sweet popcorn butter mouth feel) and intense, not unlike maple syrup or even balsamic vinegar. There are some fermented elements as well – soy sauce? Some industrial oil, mixed with flax and rape seed oil. It feels experimental. The finish is a long one, and it’s all fire smoke. Having lived through several fires in San Diego it’s not an aftertaste that I cherish. It’s a tomayto – tomahto thing: you say smoked bacon for breakfast, I say evacuations.
    It will sell better in Texas than in Southern California. 2.5* (.5* for effort).

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