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Food & Drink

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.


Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, Tate spent five years in Germany during grade school — returning to Lynchburg with, he says, “an unclear notion of boundaries in English and German.” That “weirdness,” along with spending time with his engineer father, set Tate along the geek’s path. During high school he took up cooking (especially baking) and began home brewing “somewhere close to legal age.” Undergrad studies at William and Mary College, sponsored by a physics scholarship, started him on the way to becoming an engineer. But somewhere in the flux, Tate’s interests veered, and he graduated with a degree in philosophy. Paradoxically, it was leaving physics for liberal arts that landed him a tech job. His understanding of argument, blended with a sufficient grounding in science essentials, was the perfect background for a technical writer in the nuclear industry, the first of many varied jobs, including a small patch in commercial brewing, and an internship at a Scottish distillery. Prior to founding Balcones in 2008, Tate served as assistant dean of graduate studies at Baptist-run Baylor University. But he hadn’t moved to Waco to work at a university or make whisky. Tate wanted to start a brewery, but in the course of things, the project got delayed, and his marriage crashed. In the process, Tate realized he wasn’t a beer guy who liked whiskey — he was a whisky guy who liked beer. One day, he says, “I woke up and decided I had been putting off a lot of things, and decided ‘I want to start a Texas whisky tradition.’ And why not? What am I going to get, divorced? Become broke? Like, I’m good — worst case, I start right where I was.”

Known as “Jerusalem on the Brazos” as home to Baylor (and many churches), Waco seems an odd spot to set-up whisky making. “People have told me that the last thing they need in town is a distillery — next thing, porn shops will start opening,” Tate says. But Tate and Germer hope to make Balcones Distillery a point of civic pride; maybe even a tourist destination.

Though he’s been away from the nuclear field for some time, Tate hasn’t forgotten his science basics. “How does nuclear reactor design and sub-critical heat have anything to do with later in life? When I was studying philosophy, I didn’t know, but now I totally know. Heat transfer calculations, fluid dynamics, alloy construction, and designing all of those things — that’s a big part of what we do now,” says Tate. Mounted on a wall close to the running stills is proof. Cramped under short ceilings, and so missing the 12-and-a-half vertical feet needed for a standard condenser, Tate and crew fabricated a contraption of copper that would have made Rube Goldberg proud. With only 51 inches in height available, they resorted to building a condenser — the apparatus that allows alcohol to rise away from, then reflux back into the still — with a helical coil, hand wrapping the spiral of tube themselves. The usual distiller’s condenser is a column with, perhaps, several straight pipes. The ploy resulted in amazing control, leading Richard Forsyth, the fourth generation of the top still makers in Scotland to comment, “We’ve never built a condenser that efficient in our history.”

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