When the slow release news of Balcones Distilling's plans for a new and much larger distillery was finally made official, the reaction was mixed and typical.
First and foremost, great joy among the distillery's now global band of devotees, many of whom languish on order forms four or more months old.
Second, a slight jangling of big boy nerves, home and away. The expansion pressures of an award winning cult; a new, indefinable and streetwise organised religion operating in an increasingly crowded market place.
Third, raised eyebrows from one or two friendlies, fellow champions of America's burgeoning and innovative craft distillery movement.
All eyes on Chip Tate, founder, President, Head Distiller: the man has already heroically taken an idea to the top of a mountain.
I'm being dramatic. Two new and temporary sets of stills, Tate's first move, shortens future queues, aims to triple production and stays true to craft roots. The Beams of this world aren't losing much sleep over a Texas distillery's relatively modest plans for expansion. Balcones have a third set of investors, the reasonably deep pocketed PE2, but we're not talking billions. They're not here to make a quick buck.
They know Tate's not making cans of beans - ever. They've bought into something else, slower, something much more real. Ergo, world domination is not the Balcones mission statement.
Even so, as of 2015, the Balcones landscape looks set to change. How much, however, and say some, is what matters. See, the Balcones story is a story unsullied by speak of brand truths. It is what it is. It's a homemade distillery, located in Waco, Texas, in a place not known for knowing much about the making of whisky. It's housed in an exwelding shop situated beneath a flyover, in an area long bankrupted by a hurricane induced exodus. In nearly six short years it's produced a clutch of world class whiskies. It is the story of an American dreaming a life into being. It's real. Unbelievably so.
And, for the moment, it's a story that sticks. The American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA), upon whose board Tate sits, defines a craft distillery thus: a plant with a yearly yield of 100,000 gallons proof or less. Balcones made its mark on the world with a pair of stills 1000 litres small. The aforementioned interim measures fall happily short of anything approaching industrial. Those two sets of 2000 litre wash and 1000 spirit stills, again homemade, installed as of January this year, are doing Tate's bidding in exactly the same place as the old ones. They promise an annual haul of some 28,400 gallons. The Balcones story has some added weight, but that's all: it's still the same wonderful dream come true. Useful art is still being made.
But that, so goes the fear, is just for the now. The new Balcones still house is set to make mincemeat out of the ACDA's quantitative definition of what qualifies as craft. Immediate plans are for just the one set of Forsyths made pot stills, a 12,500 litre wash and an 8000 litre spirit, but space is made for an eventual six. Add to this four 30 tonne silos (two malt, two corn), the ability to 'roast on demand', a six roller mill Tate describes as 'a beast', multiple cookers, a 2.5 tonne mash tun, a clutch of five tonne fermenters, and if I've no definite figures as to how this will eventually translate into volume of distillate per annum, you can bet your bottom dollar that it's a river to the stream presently issuing from a ex-welding shop in downtown Waco. Tate projects, in the first instance, between 25,000 and 60,000 9 litre cases. That 100,000 gallon proof line is history -if not in 2015, then certainly once the second set of stills come into play. It's a brave new world.
Brave; yes. New; kind of. Understanding Balcones, and indeed the nature of craft, plays havoc with criteria that bend every which way in the face of an unmoving number. Truth is the ACDA is much more than this. Consisting largely of working distillers, the reasons why it splintered off from big craft brother, the American Distilling Institute (ADI), are many, but the mixed quality of players claiming craft status was high on the worry list. I'm half-guessing, but here's why: Craft's share of the spirits market remains relatively small, but as a category it's a rocket. It's growing fast, and growth, of course, attracts all sorts, good, bad and indifferent. The first we like. The second makes for a below average product. The third is in craft disguise, and either passes off the work of others as its own or pretends to be small when in fact it's a small bit of really big. Craft - as being synonymous with the small batch world of the independent innovator, the experimenter, the non-entry level handson maker of super high quality whisky - is under threat, from craft-hunting giants, and from the very people that, on the face of it, qualify for artisanal status. Size isn't everything clearly.
Which is why, rather than prepare to re-categorise Balcones the moment it hits non-craft status, I suggest we look a little more closely at what Tate's up to.
For, like a whisky producing version of Roland Barthes's poet, whereby the author, resembling the poem-singer of prehistory, is entirely given over to - and is conduit for - the materiality and rhythm of language, so Tate, like every master maker, hands the now and the future over to the technique and materials of his craft. Demand may well dictate growth, but only in so far as 'it is determined by the whisky.' Let the whisky speak.
Meaning, well, many things: First, the new still house may have space for six sets of stills, but that doesn't mean Tate plans to use it all, and if he does, then it certainly won't be in the name of upping the volume on a line just for the sake of getting something singularly consistent out there, across the world, to all people. As whisky blogger Joshua Feldman ably shows - in his batch-by-batch piece of geekery on the evolution Balcones's Texas Single Malt - when it comes to Tate, what seems finished is generally not, at least not for a good while. As with all whiskies, the single malt's been through many versions, only this one's hit the market (and won awards) at differing ages, rising proofs and occasionally from different woods. As Feldman intimates, the malt's not so much a case of natural batch variation as crafted statements of intent, and if he sees its evolutionary endpoint in batches 12-9/10, then I can hardly believe it, printed label or no. Nothing with Tate's set in stone, not even the malt.
Second, as a recent Balcones factfinding- come-stills mission to Scotland's Speyside underlines, Tate isn't nearly as concerned as we might think as to whether the magic born in the current distillery is directly transferable. It is and it isn't. The Balcones team: Tate, his engineers and constructionist Jim Winton, Rick Tullis and Tate Christensen, photographer and filmmaker Laura Meriens, and PE2 partner Noell Michaels had the opportunity to tour a number of distilleries, including Glenfiddich, which also serves as site for the Balvenie and the blend filler Kininvie distilleries. I mention these because they prove so well the notion of what Dave Broom calls site-specific terroir. As he says, all three are within long spitting distance of each other. They're run by almost the same people. They share the same water, the same barley, the same materials and processes. They produce discernibly 'different malts'. This from plants initially designed to plug gaps left by Glendiddich's inability to meet demand. Tate knows full well that maintaining the unity; of differentials, of speed, of experimentation that so marks the Balcones character will take more than a scaled up copy of what goes on at 212 S.17th Street.
Thus and third, let it be said: If Tate's neither worried about getting too big, nor the possible whisky mutations that the move might incur, then that's because, like Barthes's author, he trusts, intuitively and as a matter of general practice, in something greater than himself. Which sounds somehow religious, I know, but substitute omniscience for language and language for a notion of making that links technology to the aesthetic and to the ethical, and we arrive at something we might call craft.
In distillery speak, and for Tate, this means not placing a giant order for a purpose built whisky machine. Rather, it means retaining that which can be retained, leaving behind that which must be left behind, and moving just six blocks down the road into a five storey converted 1923 fireproofed storage building. It means keeping the build as Waco as it is possible to get. It means choosing Forsyths over Vendome, pot over column, instant barrelling off over multi-batch holding vats. It means designing the mill and the stills. It means coming up with methods (some highly unusual) for emergency cooling the roast, for mimicking direct heat with high pressure steam, for packing huge amounts of surface area into the condensers, for ensuring that the upscaled spirit still continues to offer both high levels of reflux and the greatest of opportunities to control it. It means finding Tate right there, in the whisky, from grain to glass.
Tate is after making the old magic, a new same magic. He's designed a spirit still that, in terms of what it can do, does everything you might expect of a traditional squat pot and also, if he likes, the super light outcome of 'something three times the size of the stills at Glenmorangie '. It's the old stills, and it's something totally new. It's a shape shifter, and together with a process the details of which you're going to have to read about elsewhere, its part of a distillery capable of peppering the flavour map wherever Tate may set his many sights. "No one has really built a distillery like this before." It's a beast with the gait of an angel. It's a new type, and it's craft, no doubt. Eyebrows down, please and stop frowning. A Texas handcrafted whisky is still speaking.
212 S 17th St, Waco, TX 76701
Visits available by appointment
Tel: 001 (254) 755 6003
The new distillery is at South 11th Street and Mary Avenue. Build out starts in March. The distillery opens in January 2015.
Joshua Feldman, The Coopered Tot, cooperedtot.com
Dave Broom, The World Atlas of Whisky, Octopus Publishing, 2010