Distillery Focus

Texas or Bust

Meeting the man behind Texas whiskey
By Dave Waddell
A confession: When I meet Chip Tate, founder and head distiller at Balcones Distillery, earlier this year, first and briefly at a bar and tasting in London, and then on home turf, in Waco, Texas, I am mildly disappointed. The mighty Chip Tate, author of Baby Blue, of super-smoky Brimstone, of the lip numbing Resurrection? Where's the hat, the bible? Why's he smiling? And how come his teeth are so white? Christ, he's quietly spoken, and gentle, and kind. Doesn't he know where he's from? Waco, home of the Texas Ranger, of the Cowboy, the Indian, of the gun, of Midwest America, of big cars, god fearing Baptists and a day when the Federal Bureau of Investigations showed the whole world how not to tackle a mad bad man called David Koresh? This place is biblical. Where's the preacher?

All of which says next to nothing about Tate, or Waco, and everything about me, about a childhood spent reading trash, about the strange lens through which I have for much of my life viewed Midwest America. Sure, Waco has history, and it is, judging by the parts I saw, a typical central Texas conurbation, a place of wide streets, corners, concrete, of rows of giant stick-like fast food signs, flyovers, sports fields, a place about a halfway between points A and B. However, if at first sight it appears, were I to walk into a bar and declare the 2nd Amendment null and void, or god the invention of man - exactly the sort of place born to show opinionated out-of-towners just how wrong they can be - then know that the real Waco, the place that is home to 125,000 alive people, is much more complicated, and much more interesting, than a scene from, say, High Noon.

Most pertinently, it is the real (adopted) home of the real Chip Tate, who until as shortly ago as 2008 had never made a bottle of whisky in his life, who's background - in philosophy, nuclear physics, in divinity, in education, in the nebulously virtual world of IT consultancy - is so varied as to positively disqualify him from the business of distilling, and who, one morning last April, picked me up from the wonderfully urbane Indigo Hotel, looking nothing like the deranged bible thumping born-in-a-distillery firewater maker I had madly imagined him to be. Fact is, on first evidence, Tate's an anomaly. How, if not born into the tradition, if in possession of not much more experience than making his own beer, plus a week on Islay, learning the basics, has he - in just five years - gone from an idea, a thought, to producing a line of whiskies that have won him more awards than he has fingers and toes. How, to wave a big stick, does a three year old American single malt win the 2012 Best In Glass? He's not a character from a book. He's actually done this. He's an enigma.

Or so it would seem, because at the risk of being accused of connecting dots that have no right being connected, I would argue that the key to understanding Tate and Balcones is the idea of craft. Craft, as I understand it, is a form of production that has at every stage, and every creation, the mark or hand of its creator. More, it has the fantastically oxymoronic character of both respecting and reinventing tradition. It's a useful art form. It pays its dues and it cocks a fiendish snoot, sometimes in the same breath. Lateral thinking, speed, surprise and living outside of the box are its calling cards. "I'm the crazy guy - and the more I say it the more ridiculous it is - who decided," says Tate, "to build his own distillery, by himself. In the end it became not only part of our story, but also formative, as from the beginning I not only wanted to make whisky in Texas, but also Texas whisky." By which he means that not only was he determined to not do 'what's been done before', which, as he says, "is already very excellent", but it is in working with what was available (his hands, his friends, advice from both the obvious, Richard Forsyths, for example, and the less obvious, production manager Jared Himstedt's contacts in the world of jet burners spring to mind), and within conditions unique to Texas, that he has been able to forge what may eventually be called a new tradition of whisky making: Texas whisky.

Necessity, then, is the mother. Had he had the money, Tate - by his own admission - would have bought his still, a ready fit, rather than learn how to weld copper, improve his brickwork and milk Himstedt's qualification in ceramics for something it was, I am sure, never intended. No doubt, he would have made a different whisky. As it is, for a year, and on a shoestring, feet and fingers green from copper dust, Tate turned 1,500 square feet of an ex-welding shop into a giant artisanal laboratory. The result, which has to be seen to be believed, is truly something else. Think Heath Robinson. Think fire. Think a mash tun on stilts, a still that serves as wash tank, water heater and spirit maker. Think a row of tanks, a bottling point that was once a door, small batch barrels, sea-cans, an old racing bike. Health and safety? Ha. Enter at your own peril. Serious ablutions? Pah. This is not, as Himstedt says, a tour facility. It is, however, one of the most thrillingly joyful distilleries I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

That's just the half of it. In fact, less than. Learning how to weld copper to make a pot's fun, but the real craft, whisky speaking, is in what you do with it. Which, for Tate, who in 2008 couldn't afford to make the single malt "I always wanted to make", meant doing something fast and new, something simple but full of maths and chemistry and the procedural logic of a man who knows his Kierkegaard and whatever it is that makes coders want to get up in the morning: that is, a 100 per cent corn whisky, one that "actually smells like corn", a corn whisky that, like a nursery rhyme, is both young and impossibly old, whose worldliness speaks in the voice of a child. This, in a word, is the Baby Blue. The first Texas whisky on the market since prohibition. The Balcones house whisky. The base from which grew True Blue and the True Blue 100, the source of the aforementioned wild boys, Brimstone and Resurrection, and largely, I imagine, of the new straight bourbon. Quite a feat - to put it mildly.

Quite a story too, though the one you and I know is the one we're meant to know. Exactly what Tate gets up to is anyone's guess - including those who work for him. It's not so much that he keeps his cards close to his chest. He does, quite a few: see, when you're engaged in the business of making a new style, having secrets, I'm guessing, is war chest material, even public ones, which - as seen in the case of Brimstone - help create useful auras. No, it's much more the fact that he's doing so much, so quickly, and that he's ultra-involved in this complex mathematical dance with the Texan warehouse, its soaring and varying temperatures, with an angel who, to be completely frank, ought to be locked up: two types of yeast, combined. A long, cool fermentation. The distillate cut super conservatively. No ex-Bourbon barrels. Fine grain yard cured wood - mostly American, some European. Small and large barrels. Second, third and even fourth fills. Several toast and char profiles. Mix it up, move it on. Work that wood. Marry. Make art. What next? I know. A honey and fig whisky. Or a rum. Let's try make rum. "People start talking about the art of what they do the moment they stop making art, the moment they stop playing, trying things." Follow that. Let's dance.

So, to finish - and I haven't even mentioned next year's plans for making half the ground floor of the recently acquired warehouse the new Balcones still house. Yes. The man's on fire. Demand's making a smashed plate of supply. Nine expressions in, dozens, doubtless, to come, he's flying. If he's craft whisky's new pin up, then I don't think he cares. Equally, if his plans for expansion have the purists tapping their feet, then listen: "You couldn't call a million barrels a year craft. But 100,000? Sure. What we're doing is cutting out the distractions, concentrating on what's essential - I'll have designed the stills. It's still our distillery." Tate may have a head for business, and the IQ of an astronaut, but really, when all's said and done (and backed, and travelled, and branded), he can't help himself. "Whisky is important. It's more than a commercial thing." He's never going to reach the "this is good enough" stage. He's too addicted: to the art of innovation, to experimenting, to making ideas live, to know the meaning of laurels. He's on a mission, pure and simple: to make Texas whisky.