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Texas whisky beats Scotland's finest in London blind tasting

Photo: Photo by Scott Andrews, License: N/A

Photo by Scott Andrews

Chip Tate and his hand built condenser.


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.

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