Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Visiting with Chip Tate, Founder of Balcones Whiskey Distillery in Waco, TX

There is a place in Waco, of all places, where everything is good in the world, where the stars have aligned, and where unicorns can be found. Well the last little bit may be overstatement, most people have never seen nor heard of the place I'm talking about, the Balcones Distillery in Waco. Yes, my friends, this is a whiskey distillery in Texas. This is the only whiskey distillery in Texas, and from what I've tasted, is an excellent start to hopefully a great relationship between our state and this homegrown product.

In a defunct area of downtown Waco, underneath the 17th Street bridge connecting it to Franklin Street lies a non discript building. The building has no reflection of the frivolous activity inside and the magical substance being created within it. "Low key" seems to be the motto around here, reflected upon by the single, faded painted sign of its namesake strategically placed behind (blocked) by another small freestanding structure. At first drive by, I was completely unsure of what kind of building I was looking at. I had to ask an employee next door at the Mrs. Baird's plant whether I had found the correct building.

Immediately after entering through the barred doors, I was greeted by the Founder and Head Distiller, Chip Tate. A modest looking man in beat up Carhartts and tee, but rocking a respectable full goatee and beard a la Rick Ross or Baron Davis. The look seems to transcend across the workplace as even Chip's assistant whisky maker is rockin' the same facial do. More Pacific Northwest lumberjack than talented craftsman at first glance. After intros, Chip admitted he hadn't ate all day and was feeling dizzy from tasting all morning (not good on an empty stomach), it was 1:00pm in the afternoon. He immediately apologized for not expecting my visit to be so prompt, and wanted to get a bite to eat, and I obliged. So we turned a corner from the main entrance into what looked like a make shift kitchen/break area for the workers but also had been stacked almost to the rafters with barrels of his "Rumble Reserve." The "Rumble" is a mix of turbinado sugar, mission figs, and wildflower honey, all locally sourced, fermented, distilled, and then barreled. A single table sat in the middle of the dark, dimly lit room, and scattered across the table were dozens of barrel samples in Glencairn glasses covered with metal caps. Across each glass was indistinguishable chicken scratch and numeral writings in black marker. (pictures)

Chip, after heating up what looked like the bottom of the pot leftovers of beef and barley soup, explains the mess. He and his assistants had been barrel sampling, tasting, and blending bottles to be show-cased at this years La Dolce Vita Food and Wine Festival, being held that day in Austin. While eating his soup we talked a little bit about what we like to drink, talked about wine, fermentation, food, and even the fact both our mothers are registered nurses. In a break from the direction of the conversation, Chip explained his product line, future releases, and the exciting direction they have been heading due to loads of positive publicity and great reviews. He then grabbed one of the glasses on the table and pushed it toward me and asked me what I thought. I swirled the amber liquid, stuck my nose in glass and breathed in,.........incredible. Heavy aromas of candied nuts, caramel, fig, and vanilla were followed by the unmistakable kick of whiskey notes. I could tell this was a big (high alcohol) product but it felt also at the same time subdued and beautifully integrated. I could keep smelling the liquid for hours, but that's not the point of going to a whiskey distillery, I had to taste it. I was hit with the flavors of figs and honey that were round and full with an excellent citrus ending, the finish was BIG, and lasted over a minute. It wasn't truly whiskey, more like brandy but the power of the cask strength and the over all taste immediately let you know that this was serious. "That's new stuff, hasn't been released yet," Chip chimed. "That's the Rumble Reserve, cask strength (>60% abv), do you normally drink whiskey straight?" "The good stuff," I replied, "Excellent." Chip went on to admit that the "Rumble" was actually a sauce that he used on banana's foster dessert and thought it would be even better if it was fermented and distilled.

Commercially, the "Rumble" isn't the most demanding, it's Chip's "Baby Blue" that has collected the most attention (Gold Medal Winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition). Made from strictly from Hopi blue corn from New Mexico, he has added a twist to traditional corn whiskey. "Most corn whiskey is terrible stuff, like moonshine, what we are doing here is high quality, low production, artisanal type whiskey" Chip adds. As with the "Rumble," the "Baby Blue" has been followed with a cask strength version called "True Blue."

As Chip finishes his soup, he brings me over into the production area, a cluster f*** of holding tanks, bags of stacked corn, hoses, and barrels shoved in every available space. Nothing really seems in order, but I can't argue with a man's process, only with the product. Something that catches the eye when walking into the warehouse is that all of the equipment, stills, holding tanks, and condensers have been built entirely to fit the building, not the other way around. Also, I noticed that every piece of metal and copper tubing has been put together and welded by hand to custom fit the structure of the building, a total pain in the ass if you ask me. But this seems to be the way Chip wants and demands it.

He goes on to show me around the place and explains the equipment and how it works, and how the fermentation process begins and ends. He also goes into depth about how his product competes with the likes of more aged products from his competitors, although most of his whiskey sits in barrel on average less than a year. Chip purchases the best, most top notch small cask barrels and does not let them sit in temperature controlled rooms, but instead lets the seasonal temperature highs and lows speed up the maturation process. Chip explains the process "Due to the heat of the Texas weather the whiskey is pushed into the wood and when the temperatures drop, they are extracted back out." "At most large scale facilities, this process may only happen a few times over a year, where ours instead may do this several times within a day or week." At this instance Chip gets a phone call and excuses himself (it's a busy day for him). Some friends have shown up to talk to him about some order placements and plans for that night at the La Dolce Vita Festival. So he gathers all of us up and heads back to the front of the building where all of us take notice of the wax gun and some unlabeled bottles. Chip's friend immediately asks "You put the labels on by hand, and then wax stamp each one by hand too?" "Yup," Chip explains. "Your crazy," the friend replies. Next to the table is approximately 30 barrels of "True Blue" stacked in front of the windows of the room.

We head back into the makeshift kitchen area to see Chip's new assistant pulling samples out of the barrels and dropping them into beakers and mixing the different barrel samples one by one. Chip's friend starts picking up the previously mentioned barrel samples sitting in Glencairn glasses and starts smelling and sipping the samples. We pass around a few to everybody and have a taste. "These taste completely different from the sample you gave me earlier," I say. Chip replies "Each of the glasses taste different due to the unique flavors that each barrel gives to the whiskey. I gave you the sample from the barrel I believe gives the truest expression of what I am trying to create." Then I realize the daunting task of trying to make one uniform product from possibly hundreds of distinctly different nuanced barrels. Along with the barrel samples, Chip and his associates have scattered everywhere other bottles of whiskey and bourbon from other producers. We sample of few sitting in the kitchen, none really intrigued me like Chip's though. His friend tells us they have to go, but asks Chip that they should all hang out after the Festival. He says "Sure, meet us in the parking lot after the show, we'll be there for awhile partying." Modest suggestion considering the high dollar clientele he will be schmoozing with all night.

After they leave, Chip suggests before I have to leave too, that I should try the rest of his whiskeys. He breaks out the "Baby Blue," "True Blue," and the regular "Rumble." I'm not a huge whiskey drinker, and I have a hard time admitting to Chip that drinking any more than I already have may not be in my best interest. But I quit being a little b**** for now, and grab 3 or 4 glasses to taste with. He pours each in the glasses and I begin to smell each one. The "Baby Blue" and "True Blue" both have the aromas of olive, nuts, masa, and citrus. It's the cask strength "True Blue" that brings the thunder with deeper aromas and strong backbone of vanilla from longer oak aging. On the palate, both are excellent, the younger is light bodied, citrusy, with hints of dry corn on the finish, a perfect mixer. The "True Blue" should be sipped, a good cigar would be complimentary, as it is complex with a less dry finish and rounded out more by sweet vanillin. The "Rumble" tasted reminiscent of it's cask strength cousin I sampled earlier, but more refreshing and light bodied. All-in-all, I admit, the cask strength "Rumble Reserve" was the overall favorite I admitted, "Mine to," Chip surprisingly agreeing. I was surprised to hear him say that considering him to be more a whiskey purist. But, nevertheless, I will be awaiting the release of the "Rumble Reserve," as it may be my new cigar buddy in the future.

At the end of our engagement, I ask Chip, "Where do you see yourself in ten years, what is your goal?" Without missing a beat, like he had already answered my question before I asked it, he replied, "I want to be the #1 CRAFT distillery in all of America." Well, I hope Chip that your statement rings true one day, but until then we will enjoy all that you create. Good luck and thanks to Chip Tate for his hospitality.

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