Balcones Distillery was started in the remote town of Waco, Texas and has quickly gotten national attention for their whiskey. In 2010 they took home a Double Gold for their Baby Blue Whiskey from the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Chip Tate is considered by many to be one of the most significant and unique small craft distillers. Chip is outspoken, opinionated, slightly iconoclastic, and has one of the most interesting takes on American whiskey that you’ll hear. DrinkUpNY sat down with Chip Tate to talk about his whiskey and how his hometown of Waco has influenced what he does.
DrinkUpNY: So you are located in Waco, Texas, not the first place that people think of when they think of whiskey.
Chip Tate: But everybody can do something cool in Austin, huh?
DrinkUpNY: When you were looking at starting a distillery, why did you choose Waco?
CT: It’s really kind of simple – I live in Waco. When I decided to start a distillery I wanted it to be close to where I live. Not a very elaborate story, but it’s a true story. I also wanted to do something that is local in every sense, not just constructed. You find yourself where you are and then be inspired, you know – culinarily, culturally, and so forth like that. That’s why I did it.
DrinkUpNY: What was your first product?
CT: BabyBlue Blue Corn Whiskey. Baby Blue and Rumble were released in September of 2009, and it wasn’t until the following summer of 2010 that we released the True Blue. The others were a little more recent. I think it was in May of 2011 that we released Brimstone, and then probably September and November respectively for the Rumble Cask reserve and Malt. The Malt would be the most recent, totally different release that we’ve put out.
DrinkUpNY: Blue corn and whisky aren’t things that you would think necessarily go together. So what was the thought process starting with blue corn?
CT: It started more as a concept of corn whisky and then moved towards blue corn. I was thinking about bourbon, which is something I love. It’s a little bit like barbecue – the meat is certainly important, but when you think about the dominant flavors in barbecue it’s really more about smoke and the spice with the rub or the sauce, and bourbon is like that. The ingredients that go into it are important but the character of the yeast, the percentage of wheat versus rye, and the barrel all really significantly influence the flavors that you get from bourbon. Which is great, but it just made me wonder out loud, ‘What if you made a corn whiskey that was supposed to taste like corn? Not moonshine, not bourbon, but something that was aged, refined, and made to almost completely taste like corn?’ That was the initial idea that I ran with and started tasting through different corns. In the end, the roasted Hopi blue corn was the one I thought had the most interesting, full corn flavor. That’s what we used for the base in the blue corn whiskey.
DrinkUpNY: From Baby Blue you go to Rumble, which is made with honey, which is kind of known universally as difficult to work with. So we go from something very uncommon to something very difficult.
CT: I’ve brewed and made mead for even longer than I’ve been distilling and you are not wrong, it is difficult in a number of ways to work with. Those problems are very easily solved. It has mostly to do with what honey does not have in it in terms of nutrition for yeast. As long as you are kind of a nerd about yeast biology and metabolism and so forth, that’s a problem that can be fixed. Of course in the Rumble it’s not just honey, it’s sugar and figs. Fruit has a lot more nutrients in terms of amino acids that yeast need to be healthy and to grow and therefore make good smells. The obvious downside of not having healthy yeast is not only not getting enough alcohol, but getting stinky smells, which you don’t want when you are making consumable perfume. You want a really nice aroma of off the fermentation. So honey is roughly a third of what goes into Rumble, and it’s Texas Wallflower honey, which is a really deep, dark south Texas honey. The other two thirds are Turbinado sugar and Mission figs. Those three things together are kind of a celebration of what I think of as Texas flavors, and pulling those together into a unique Texas spirit was the point of Rumble.
DrinkUpNY: How did the Texas Single Malt come about?
CT: The malt is probably the hardest to explain outside of just saying that I had an idea that I thought would be really good. I took a lot of brewing principles that I learned as a brewer and applied them more directly to whisky. This meant doing things like taking more care with the fermentation and having a longer, cooler, slower fermentation. A lot of it was just flavors that I thought would be lovely together that we don’t typically see. For instance, most malt whiskeys are Scottish, Irish, perhaps Japanese, and they’re typically aged in second and third barrels which is delicious, but it does raise the question: What if you created a bold malt whisky that had more grain emphasis and then complemented that with not all first till wood, but more wood components? We use really nice, pretty expensive custom barrels and have enjoyed exploring how those two things can complement one another.
DrinkUpNY: One of the things that you did with the whisky was really create a new category of single malt whisky.
CT: That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create Texas styles of whisky. One could ask, “What’s distinctively Texas about making malt the way that you do?” Outside the influence of the heat and our aging process, nothing. But then honestly, what is it about Scotland that they use second fill and not first fill barrels? What is it about America that they use heavier char? It’s just tradition. We did set out to make a unique style of malt that combined a lot of different influences, both American and Scottish, to form a new unique type of malt whisky, and one that frankly is interesting a lot of bourbon drinkers who shy away from traditional Scottish and Irish malt whiskeys but tend to find our malt more approachable. I’m guessing in part because there’s more wood there, more sweetness, more color.
DrinkUpNY: What has the reception been for it?
CT: It has been really good. It’s always on allocation, so for the most part, we contact distributors when it’s available for purchase and they purchase it, so we’re very fortunate that way. Of course part of it is just that we’re a small distillery, we’re trying to grow a little bit but we’re not going to let any malt out, even though we have very many barrels, until it’s fully matured. I’m really happy with the blend – it’s probably our most popular. It’s hard to say whether Baby Blue or Malt would be more popular, but I would think probably the malt.
DrinkUpNY: What are some of the spirits that both inspired you to do Balcones and continue to inspire you?
CT: There are so many distillers that I find inspiring and not just in whisky. In Scotland, Bruichladdich is obviously one of them. The Balvenie is an amazing whisky. Buffalo Trace does some amazing stuff, especially their antique series. It’s really inspirational in terms of defining what American whisky can be. Some Japanese whisky, too, as close as that is to Scottish whisky – you see some deviation with the use of Japanese oak and so forth. I also find it really inspiring to work outside of the whisky category, like brandy, a number of traditional and new brandies that are most fascinating. Some of the aging methods that we’ve used are actually inspired more from traditional brandy distilleries. There are too many to name…
CT: Well, the true back story is that I had a little time to myself, which doesn’t always happen. It was just me, an axe, some wood, and a few cigars in the backyard and I started having crazy ideas. I love peated malt whiskeys, and we’d actually intended to make a peated malt whisky at some point. But the thought just popped into my head: what if we made ours smoked whisky, which would have been our peated whisky. What if we made it with the corn? And what if we use wood rather than peat? And further, what if we smoked the whiskey rather than smoke the grain? We don’t talk about exactly how we do that but anybody who works with smoke will tell you, what you are smoking determines a lot of how you need to smoke it and what flavors will be absorbed. A smoked salt is going to act very differently than a smoked fish and so forth. It was just a fascinating thing to wonder what it would be like to work with whisky, a very good solvent, and how intense would the smoke be. The result turned out to be kind of an iconic Texas whiskey – you’ve got a corn whisky with our Tex Mex tradition and tortilla flavors, combined with the Texas scrub oak, one of the traditional woods that defines some of the barbecue cuisines in the state. We pull all those together into a pretty unique whisky.
DrinkUpNY: What is in the products you are working on now and what can we expect from Balcones going forward?
CT: Well, we just recently released True Blue 100. A lot of people struggle with a whisky that is cask strength and have difficulty watering it down to where they want it. High proof is also problematic for export markets in Europe where the excise taxes are quite high. So it lead us to produce a lower proof version that has had time to settle down and really relax in at 100 proof. It turned out pretty nicely.
We’re also working on rum. Why? Because I thought it would be fun. If you are a big rum fan, you realize that a lot of the sipping rums out there are super interesting but they’re also in some cases a little unapproachable. What if somebody made a round sipping rum that has a lot of the same kind of complexity and integration that our malt whiskey has? That was the initial concept. For the rum, rather than using a lower grade molasses that’s typically used to make your average rum, we got the finest we could possibly get, a nice Barbados style molasses, which taste to me kind of the ale malt of the molasses world. So we carefully, slowly ferment that and try to bring out the natural flavors of the molasses and preserve those, and then age in newer oak, which again is not typical of most rums.
DrinkUpNY: What are some of the events around the country that you’ll be appearing at with Balcones?
CT: I’ll be in New York in September, from the 7th to the 11th. We have a tasting at DrinkUpNY which we’re excited about. Also, there’s a producer dinner at Dell’ Anima, which is a great West Village restaurant in New York. I’m very excited about that. We’ll be at the Indie Craft Festival in Chicago in October. A few small craft festivals in Florida. This will be the first year that Whiskeys of the World is in Texas, so we’ll be doing that on November 2nd and 3rd in Austin.
Cheers from DrinkUpNY!
Interview by Geoffrey Kleinman, a nationally published drinks writer who has appeared in Playboy, Tasting Panel Magazine, and runs DrinkSpirits.com.