More Texas farmers are wading into the whiskey business, but their end users are far removed from the era of moonshine stills and midnight raids by ax-toting lawmen.
The burgeoning Texas whiskey industry is doubling down on Lone Star pride by recruiting growers from the High Plains to Hutto, from West Texas to the small Central Texas community of Moody.
An ode to this phenomenon is High Plains Texas Single Malt, a whiskey produced at Balcones Distilling in Waco using Texas-grown barley malted by Blacklands Malt in the Williamson County town of Leander. The finished product had its roots in an experiment involving Balcones, Blacklands and Texas A&M University Agrilife, which was exploring ways to develop a barley industry in Texas.
Now, after 27 months of aging, High Plains Texas Single Malt has arrived. It is priced at $80 a bottle and available exclusively at Balcones, the distillery ensconced at Mary Avenue and South 11th Street that has become a popular tourist stop. It hosts tours, tastings and invitation-only “pairings,” multi-course gourmet meals at which whiskies are paired with entrees.
“The two years of aging have been worth the wait,” said Jared Himstedt, head distiller at Balcones, who issued a statement. “We ended up with some very welcome subtle nuances during maturation we’re excited about.”
A description provided by Balcones announcing the arrival of High Plains Texas Single Malt said the whiskey “features opening aromas of stewed apples, Sauternes, honeycomb and light mink oil. On the palate, it delivers manuka honey, suede, cedar, tea tree oil, nutmeg and roasted chestnuts.”
In 2016, when Texas Agrilife began experimenting with hundreds of barley varieties, Texas farmers only grew about 30,000 acres of barley, mostly for animal feed. Researchers saw an opportunity for at least 100,000 more acres to supply the growing Texas craft brewing industry.
Brandon Ade, founder of Blacklands Malt, said securing Texas-grown barley suitable for use in fine whiskey proved a long and winding road. Abundant wheat supplies could be found in nearby Hutto or in the Texas Panhandle and West Texas, but Colorado served as the most reliable source of barley.
“I learned early on that you need a backup plan in this business,” said Ade, speaking by phone. “I took on the challenge of reestablishing barley in Texas. Wheat and rye could be exclusively sourced here, but barley was another story. Eventually we found some folks willing to replace cash crops they had been growing for years and agreeable to trying barley. I was first approached by Zack Pilgrim at Balcones back in January of 2015. He had heard about the work we were doing revitalizing barley in Texas, and was excited to find a way to incorporate us into their work. The idea for this project and others ultimately was born from conversations with Zack, Jared and (Balcones production manager) Thomas Mote.”
They wanted to get their hands on the first Texas malted barley, Ade said.
A deal eventually was struck with Kip Harvey Farms in Brownfield, a community in Terry County, where West Texas merges with the Panhandle, to produce barley featured in High Plains Texas Single Malt.
“At least for me, this project represents a four-year effort to establish and bring forward malting barley into the state of Texas for the first time in history,” said Ade, in an email to the Tribune-Herald. “A release like this, a 2-year-old American single malt, is historic for our state. No product like this has existed before now . . . It also is historic and worth noting that it is pure Texas, because such a thing was not even possible before 2016.”
Ade said his pursuit of distilling grains began with the researchers at Texas A&M Agrilife. His business continues to evolve, picking up steam through relationships with Balcones and TexMalt, a Fort Worth-based craft malthouse that partners with area farmers to raise barley, wheat, rye, triticale, oats, heirloom corn, white corn, Jimmy Red corn and organics, says the TexMalt website.
Malting is the process of soaking and sprouting raw grain, then drying it with hot air, creating enzymes that make it suitable for use in brewing beer and distilling whiskey.
“Our target is about 200 short tons of finished malt annually,” Ade said. “Compare that to the top malthouses in the world, large industrial malthouses, the smallest of which produces 30,000 tons a year. But small malting houses are springing up around the country to reinvent the malting industry, with the focus being on local ingredients. We were, I believe, the fifth in the nation when we got started. Now there are at least 70, and it appears there will be a about a couple hundred in North America in a couple of years.”
“I remember personally hauling sacks to Balcones,” Ade said. “Their facility is world-class. It was hard to take in how nice it was.”
Mote, with Balcones, said the distiller typically uses barley from Scotland, where it is grown, malted and shipped. Its use in whiskey making begins within two to three months after its arrival, no longer than a year.
Himstedt said the linkup with Ade and Blacklands Malt will continue if High Plains Texas Single Malt is a good example of coming features. Offering a “sensory assessment,” Himstedt contrasted High Plains Texas Single Malt with other single malts, saying, “Bread notes on this malt are more toasted, and the fruitiness is from darker fruits and berries. There is more peach and apricot marmalade. The honey and beeswax notes are more pronounced.”
Himstedt said Balcones continues to pursue deals with local growers. Those efforts haven’t worked out so far, he said, citing a venture with Waco businessman Roane Lacy, who owns cropland near the Brazos and Bosque River confluence.
“He attempted to grow blue corn on a couple of test plots, and it did not do very well,” Himstedt said. “The yield was horrible, and the corn that did make was kind of unhealthy. It was a futile endeavor. We didn’t waste a ton of time on it. So far we have not had success close to home.”
Lacy, whose family owned and operated the Plantation Foods poultry processing plant on Lake Shore Drive before selling to Cargill, said he did not personally try to grow blue corn. Rather, he leased acreage to a local farmer.
“It was a failed experiment for a lot of reasons,” said Lacy, adding the local climate is not ideal for blue corn, which typically grows in arid New Mexico. Lacy said he has redirected his attention to the Christian nonprofit World Hunger Relief, which used his acreage this year to grow corn for farmers markets and the nonprofit grocery Jubilee Market.
Meanwhile, another homegrown success story has emerged in Moody, where 36-year-old Wes Perryman is growing five varieties of heirloom wheat for shipment to Still Austin. The whiskey distillery acquires all ingredients from Texas farmers, according to a profile appearing online at farmprogress.com.
The soil has run in the Perryman family since the late 1800s. Perryman and his father also grow corn, cotton and wheat on about 3,600 acres, but these regulars now share space with newcomers bound for the distillery: heirloom wheat varieties known as Frisco, Purple Straw, Knox, Mediterranean and Fulcaster.
“We’ve been looking for alternative markets, niche markets, to try to drive up our income,” Perryman is quoted as saying. “The commodity markets have been brutal, so we’re just trying to find a little more security and little less stress.”