My aunt lives in Dixon, New Mexico. It is a small town sloped gently along some foothills of the Rockies, abutting the eastern bank of the Río Grande between Taos and Santa Fe. Dixon has one road, two wineries, a cafe, open walking trails that rank among the most scenic in the country, and that rare simultaneity of frequent hospitality with zero crowds. It is, without a doubt, a New Yorker's perfect getaway.
Another of Dixon's rightful boasts is its locally grown produce. "Large" farms and individual gardens alike are absolutely everywhere, and the people there lack for nothing when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables. One delight to which my aunt introduced me on my first visit there was a grain that she called atole. I could not help but remark, amusedly, that the hot cereal she was making from it was blue. "Isn't oatmeal supposed to be tan or something, tía?"
Shame on my younger self! Shame on me now, for ever having been such a foolish child! First and foremost, it was not oatmeal at all; it was cornmeal. It is common in the Southwest to prepare ground blue corn, or atole, into a hot cereal for breakfast, and one mouthful will make quite clear why. To describe its unique flavor is a bit difficult, like describing what turkey tastes like, or what a strawberry tastes like; how can just using words possibly meet such a task? But I can tell you that it is a rich, energetic, giving grain. It is not sweet, but to eat it satisfies a demand for sweetness. It is savory, and fulfilling, like a hot piece of chicken or a crisp, lush apple. Atole was far and away the best hot cereal I had ever tasted, and remains so to this day. Whenever I visit, I ask for it daily; and whenever my dear aunt comes to New York, I beg her to bring me a couple of bags of the Dixon-fresh delicacy (which she is, of course, kind and loving enough to do).
While we are at it, there is another "shame on me" item over here: shame on me for never having considered that atole would make a dynamite whiskey. I say dynamite not only because it tastes great, which it does, but also because it is a vibrant spirit, with the flavors ebbing and flowing about, and a spiciness adding its own degree of kinetics. At least, that seems to be the case with Baby Blue from Balcones Distilling.
First, a note about Maysville, the whiskey bar in Manhattan at which I sampled the spirit. It is only fair to mention this, but I do so eagerly: the servers there are both knowledgeable and patient, to great degrees. They were out of one or two other items that I had wanted to try, and the poor young lady offering me suggestions was met with more than a couple of interruptions and refusals, not at all due to the inadequacy of the whiskey being offered, but simply because I was being more picky and fickle than any mere mortal has the right to be. (A fourth "shame on me," and by far the most shameful.) Still, her confidence and fluency with whiskey won me over, and soon enough I was coaxed to try the Balcones Baby Blue, made in Texas. And I am very glad indeed that it worked out that way.
The whiskey has a deep, rich amber color to it. It looks syrupy to the eye, though it is actually of a standard viscosity. It shimmers in the glass cleanly, smoothly, calmly, as though it enjoys the movement but is no hurry about it at all. Of course, this glimpse of inner tranquility shares a trait with many other sights: it is deceiving.
The nose is piquant; not overbearing, but powerful. The notes are a grand conglomeration of toasted confections and related aromas: toffee, toasted caramel, maple, molasses, black tea, and vanilla. The piquancy and the sweetness are opposites that attract quite nicely, though after a little while, the nose does mellow out some, which is just as well.
The palate contains some varied hints of smoke, but not such that deliver a burned quality to the whiskey; it is more, naturally enough, like a toasted type of thing. I noticed right away that it is spicy. Some of the toasted caramel notes remain, as do the black tea and vanilla; added is popcorn. Halfway through, the sweetness emerges as the principle theme, and distinct notes of toasted caramel and toffee also appear.
However, the spice has by no means subsided. The sweetness may grow to define the body of the whiskey, but the spice is its spirit. It is not spice in the sense of picante cuisine, and it is not an herbal spice. It is, rather, a piquancy of both the alcohol and what I am comfortable assuming to be the local terroir, resulting in a play of the drink about the mouth. Quite as in the nose, the spice and sweetness get along real well on the palate; they float and shimmer and undulate around and through each other simply, basically, easily - and they do so right through the finish, which lingers for a long two seconds.
The result is a delicious, dynamic whiskey that is sophisticated without being complicated; rugged without being harsh; and sweet without sacrificing spice. Quite like the state from which it hails. Have a dram or two this evening, and enjoy.