- Photo by Scott Andrews
- Chip Tate and his hand built condenser.
It seemed like history repeating itself last December when Balcones Single Malt Whisky beat out the competition in a blind tasting in London, England. Taking top honors at Best in Glass, a judging of new international whisky releases, the contestant from the five-year-old distillery in Waco, Texas, bested some of the most time-honored names in the Scotch industry, such as The Macallan, Glenmorangie, and The Balvenie (which entered a 17-year-old single malt). Soon referred to as “The Judgment of London” in the blogosphere and heralded in the New York Times, the win by Balcones was notable as the first time an American whisky had won the five-year-old competition, organized by the editors of the British online journal Caskstrength.net. The jury included 11 UK industry notables, including Alice Lascelles, drinks columnist for The Times, of London, and spirits editor for the magazine Imbibe, andBen Ellefsen, director of prestigious spirits vendor Master of Malt.
There are many larger, older competitions, such as the San Francisco World Wine & Spirits Competition (where Balcones single malt and corn whisky have taken Double Gold Medals), but beating the Brits on their home turf raised the pulse of many an American spirits and wine aficionado.
The win harkened back to 1976, when a California cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Cellars took first place over a range of Bordeaux at a blind tasting in Paris. The competition was judged by 11 French wine experts, and organized by British wine merchant Stephen Spurrier (who dealt exclusively in French wines). Dubbed “The Judgment of Paris” by the press, the upset victory staggered the French, who were appalled that an American had won in a field considered synonymous with European culture — wine making. It was the tipping point for American vineyards, which rushed to compete in the world market.
The 1976 Paris win led to great gains by the American wine industry, and was a pop-culture moment, too — chronicled in Bottle Shock, a film that debuted in 2008 at Sundance Film Festival, and in Judgment of Paris, a book by George M. Taber now in production as a movie. Whether this award will be looked back on as a similar moment in the rise of the nascent craft-distilling movement is yet to be seen.
Asked whether the comparison to the 1976 competition was apt, Best of Glass organizer Neil Ridley told the Current, “It's flattering for this award to be compared to such a significant event in the history of American wine making, but I don't think we're alone in our support and praise for American craft distillation, or indeed the production of whisky made elsewhere, for that matter.” Past winners in the London tasting have included a blended Scotch whisky, two Scotch single malt whiskies — and a Japanese whisky.
Corsair Distillery in Kentucky, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, and Hudson whiskies made by Tuthilltown Spirits in New York State are, like Balcones, garnering national and international whisky acclaim. Meanwhile, Texas is booming with craft distillers. Garrison Brothers, in Hye, make a fine bourbon, as does Ranger Creek, one of two whisky makers in San Antonio, along with Rebecca Creek, also known for their vodka — which is booming in Austin, with Tito’s leading the pack.
But for now, the British are apparently remaining as unflappable as usual regarding what could be regarded as an affront. Juror and spirits columnist Alice Lascelles commented by email, “I'm not aware of Balcones being mentioned in the UK mainstream press so far — I could be wrong though.” Lascelles had, however, profiled the company last year in the trade journal Imbibe, as part of a feature about “Guerilla Distillers who are breaking the rules.” Lascelles added, “I'm certainly planning to write about them in the Times, however I think at the moment the majority of consumers are still getting to grips with the basics of whisky, so it's going to be quite a conceptual leap for them to grasp a blue corn whisky from Texas! I however think they'll warm to the story of Chip Tate — provenance is hugely important in food and drink right now.”
Set under a bridge in downtown Waco, the Balcones building is a small, squat structure located next to an abandoned bakery. Outside the front door, a dozen five-gallon barrels are receiving the company logo from a bottle-gas branding iron. Tate, full-bearded, with intense, bright eyes, ushers us inside past the new stainless steel fermenting containers that just arrived. His business partner, Stephen Germer, saunters along. With the laid-back air of an Austin musician (which he happens to be), Germer is the marketing manager and Balcones’ main investor — so far. But marketing is restricted to bringing samples to liquor stores and entering competitions, which have brought the new company 40 awards to date. “The barrel-branding you saw outside is the only branding we do,” says Germer. “We don’t have an advertising budget.” Pointing to the new stainless, Tate explains, “These will allow us to double our production.” The rooms, which barely contain 2,000 sq. ft., are low — very low, by distillery standards, which demand ceilings of 40-plus feet to accommodate a gleaming still and condenser column. Not so here, where Balcones Single Malt; Brimstone, a smoked whisky made with scrub oak; the rum-hybrid Rumble; and their blue corn whiskies — Baby Blue and True Blue — have all been born.
Past the new stainless fermenters, which are having their mash contents removed by production manager Jared Himstedt and a few of Balcones’ crew of 10 people, lay two small copper pot stills. “These are two stills that we accidently built,” Tate tells us. The first (and for now, only) working stills at Balcones were made by a Portuguese craftsman who looked to the distilling business when his specialty, handmade copper cookware, fell out of fashion. A master of simple handwork, he was a bit lacking in understanding how to weld a still that wouldn’t blow up under pressure. The beautiful hand-peaned domes and bases are about all of the original purchase that could be retained. Tate and crew have remade the necks and fabricated new bottoms, drains, column, side-glass, pressure relief valve, and added a new spirit-safe and built a new condenser. “But everything else was fine,” Tate says. “That’s when I realized it’s easier to build a still, than rebuild a still.” A back room holds the tops of two stills, soon to be mounted to their bases, all made from scratch by Tate. Along with the retrofits, these are his first forays into hand-working metal. But not his first experiences in industry.
Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, Tate spent five years in Germany during grade school — returning to Lynchburg with, he says, “an unclear notion of boundaries in English and German.” That “weirdness,” along with spending time with his engineer father, set Tate along the geek’s path. During high school he took up cooking (especially baking) and began home brewing “somewhere close to legal age.” Undergrad studies at William and Mary College, sponsored by a physics scholarship, started him on the way to becoming an engineer. But somewhere in the flux, Tate’s interests veered, and he graduated with a degree in philosophy. Paradoxically, it was leaving physics for liberal arts that landed him a tech job. His understanding of argument, blended with a sufficient grounding in science essentials, was the perfect background for a technical writer in the nuclear industry, the first of many varied jobs, including a small patch in commercial brewing, and an internship at a Scottish distillery. Prior to founding Balcones in 2008, Tate served as assistant dean of graduate studies at Baptist-run Baylor University. But he hadn’t moved to Waco to work at a university or make whisky. Tate wanted to start a brewery, but in the course of things, the project got delayed, and his marriage crashed. In the process, Tate realized he wasn’t a beer guy who liked whiskey — he was a whisky guy who liked beer. One day, he says, “I woke up and decided I had been putting off a lot of things, and decided ‘I want to start a Texas whisky tradition.’ And why not? What am I going to get, divorced? Become broke? Like, I’m good — worst case, I start right where I was.”
Known as “Jerusalem on the Brazos” as home to Baylor (and many churches), Waco seems an odd spot to set-up whisky making. “People have told me that the last thing they need in town is a distillery — next thing, porn shops will start opening,” Tate says. But Tate and Germer hope to make Balcones Distillery a point of civic pride; maybe even a tourist destination.
Though he’s been away from the nuclear field for some time, Tate hasn’t forgotten his science basics. “How does nuclear reactor design and sub-critical heat have anything to do with later in life? When I was studying philosophy, I didn’t know, but now I totally know. Heat transfer calculations, fluid dynamics, alloy construction, and designing all of those things — that’s a big part of what we do now,” says Tate. Mounted on a wall close to the running stills is proof. Cramped under short ceilings, and so missing the 12-and-a-half vertical feet needed for a standard condenser, Tate and crew fabricated a contraption of copper that would have made Rube Goldberg proud. With only 51 inches in height available, they resorted to building a condenser — the apparatus that allows alcohol to rise away from, then reflux back into the still — with a helical coil, hand wrapping the spiral of tube themselves. The usual distiller’s condenser is a column with, perhaps, several straight pipes. The ploy resulted in amazing control, leading Richard Forsyth, the fourth generation of the top still makers in Scotland to comment, “We’ve never built a condenser that efficient in our history.”
If all goes well, Forsyth’s company, which supplies the lion’s share of the whisky industry in Scotland, will be fabricating new, much larger, stills that will be placed in the monstrous four-floor warehouse that occupies half a block several streets over from the building under the bridge. Before we drive over to see the facility (and aging barrels held within) we go back to Tate’s office, where he spends a few moments to take notes o his main job — whisky blending. This demands a little tasting. Trenton Smith, a young but avid assistant, sets up a collection of glasses filled each with a dram from barrels intended to become Brimstone, which must be monitored as they age. “This is barrel 2617, most recently re-barrelled on 1-13, 227 pounds of spirits, 61.5 percent alcohol,” explains Tate. “It’s pretty nice, it’s going the right direction, but it’s just not there yet.” If the barrel isn’t going in the right direction, Tate will “redirect it.” Perhaps a little more, or less, heat is needed.
In the warehouse it gets to, says Tate, 137° in the summertime — a searing heat that forces some visitors to rush out of the building. Known to outsiders as hot country, Texas has an incredible range of temperatures, but does tend to range on the warm side. This, says Tate, is the reason Texas whisky can age so quickly. Maturation is heat activated, but most importantly, it’s the temperature change in coming into spring, and out of the summer, that accelerates the aging. Daily fluctuations help, too. Maturing whisky at high temperatures is tricky, though. Leave it in the barrel just a bit too long, and it literally gets burnt, resulting in an overbearing — and somewhat simple — wood taste. “It’s what we call our Navy Seals training program for whiskies,” says Tate. “Not every one is going to make it. But the ones who do are going to be some badass whisky.”
The warehouse is a beaut, a far cry from the cramped quarters of the original building. Rows and rows of barrels, ranging from five to 60 gallons, are lined up on the four floors. But whether the Forsyth Company will build the huge still Tate envisions, is a matter still to be decided. On one hand, it makes sense to take the momentum — both of his company, and of the craft distilling movement — and run with it. But there is a tiny problem.
“There’s no exit strategy,” Germer explains. Most investors hope to recoup their money with a profit when the company sells. “But,” Germer says, “Chip’s dream is to run a distillery where he makes all the calls, not to get rich. That’s not why he’s doing it. That means, we’re not selling. Ever.” I ask if he’s serious, or just trying to make a point.
“We don’t do focus groups, we do what we do because we think it’s awesome,” Tate explains. “And of course, we hope people like it. But we are performing in front of a crowd, and not to one. That is a key artistic principal to me. You have to consult yourself first and foremost — it’s not that you don’t care what other people think, but otherwise, intentionally or not, you’re pandering.”
No wonder getting extra investment is tricky business. “Big companies buy small crafty makers — it’s what I call ‘petting butterflies,’ something that almost always results in killing the butterfly,” explains Tate. As if to acknowledge the rather atypical position they are both in, and Tate’s control of it, Germer recollects, “A year ago, when Chip was making Brimstone, he told me that he was really learning an incredible amount about how wood and alcohol interact at the molecular level. I know that Chip is a really bright guy, but I wonder half the time — is he crazy?”
Not crazy — crazy people (and companies) don’t succeed as many times as Balcones has, or as quickly. “This is the biggest whisky boom ever,” says Germer. “What used to be referred to as developing countries — India and China, are consuming increasing amounts. We ship our first shipment to Japan in four days, to Australia four days after. We’re already in Norway and Sweden, and we’re about to re-ship to the UK.”
Meeting demand is the issue.
But idealist? Hell, yeah. “You’re obsessed with truth,” I tell Tate.
“He has a masters in divinity,” says Germer, on cue. Later, Tate will explain that the school, Union Presbyterian Seminary, in Richmond, Virginia, does not specialize uniquely in developing clergy. He attended for personal reasons. But Tate does acknowledge that though he is “less religious than I used to be,” his parents “grew up Baptist.”
“Brimstone. Think about the name,” challenges Tate. “Baptists are if anything sociologically unique. They are not easily captured, but what defines a Baptist is that they are congregationally run, rather than structurally based — like Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and such. And whatever they think about things — many of which they are not sure about — they’ll be damned if anyone else is going to tell them.”
Academics, a Presbyterian divinity degree, and the nuclear industry aside — I think Chip Tate is making Baptist whisky. And I, for one, am sure as hell not going to tell him how to do it.