Wearing dusty green trousers, ruby red cowboy boots and braces over a blue jean shirt, Balcones founder and head distiller Chip Tate addresses a room of captivated listeners. The way he speaks – clearly, logically with power and perfect emphasis – one could mistake him for a pastor, if it weren’t for the outfit.
And, if the fates had been different, Chip could have ended up proselytising about God instead of whisky. Having done a post-grad in Divinity, it was once a possible path in his life.
The way things have gone, however, means he’s now spreading the good word of the dram, rather than that of the Bible. The fact he’s named one of his products Brimstone and another Resurrection may be of note.
Chip is one of those people you can speak with for hours. In fact, my interview with the maker of the only single malt whisky in Texas went so quickly I lost track of time and found myself blurting out a list of questions we’d not gotten to in our hour long chat.
During that time we discussed not only whisky but life, work and the fates, transitioning from one topic to the other as seamlessly as one sip of a good whisky goes down after the next.
But let’s rewind to the beginning of the bottle. As background, Chip started Balcones in 2008. Five years later, with seven products on the market, it’s becoming a bit of a cult whisky producer, with those who love what he’s doing and those who are slightly perplexed (ask people about Brimstone, for instance, and you’ll get a mixed response).
Chip had a varied life path. He studied physics and philosophy as an undergrad, then moved onto divinity in his post-grad. He’s worked in engineering, as an assistant dean for undergraduate enrolment and started a tech company. In between, he managed to study brewing and distilling, which first piqued his interest in this field.
While brewing was on the back of his mind since 2000, his life took him to these different roles. In the midst of his first marriage breaking up, he concluded he had to make a change.
“I realised it was fine working hard on something but that what I was working at wasn’t my first love. I realised it was time to press the reset button because in 20 years time I might wake up and wonder where the hell I was,” he said.
With the thought of brewing already in his mind, he decided to take things to the next step and look at building a distillery, plunging himself feet first into the project and constructing the set-up in Waco, Texas, from scratch on a rather, shall we say, limited budget.
“Looking back I was crazy. We had $100,000 to do everything, for building, for the equipment, for the land; I’d never even welded before. As much as I realised it was a gutsy move it’s like a lot of things in life: you look back and only then do you realise how gutsy it was,” he explained.
During the building, Chip not only learned to weld and constructed his final stills by hand, but began deeply studying the intricate ins and outs of whisky making. Part of that came during an internship at Bruichladdich under the tutelage of Jim McEwan, and part of it came from an insatiable desire to learn intricate details of everything, something he no doubt picked up from his nuclear engineer father and encouraging mother during his childhood in Virginia.
For instance, on the topic of why he loves baking (which helped him form a love of yeast and therefore brewing) he said: “My poor mother. It all started when she wanted to teach me to not be useless in the kitchen because my father was. I then became slightly obsessed with bread making. So I did a lot of baking before brewing because it’s all about technique, technique, technique.”
And while Chip said he recognises now how crazy his initial idea was, he said he didn’t want to take the bigger risk of not trying.
“I’ve never met someone who’s taken a shot at something and, even if they’ve failed, actually regretted at least trying,” he said.
But, he added that it has not been an easy route to success.
“There were times when we were down to $300 in the chequing account. It’s really fricken hard building an independent distillery,” said Chip. “But I don’t want to sound too surprised because I’m betting my family’s future on it.”
And while things are on the up (including, outside of the whisky distilling the fact he’s become a father in the past year as well), it doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing now he’s more established. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how he can have such a calm exterior when he speaks of it.
“We’re often chasing our tails trying to manage. There’s a little bit of a triage aspect to it all. We still hand carry 1000 pounds of grain to the mash and hand stir it with a two foot paddle. We’re currently at technology from about 1600; we’re not looking into technology from 1875.”
The distillery will be doubling capacity to boost the current output of six thousand litres annually but Chip will still stick to the methods that make it distinctly craft-like, such as using yard aged casks that cost ten times as much as normal ex-bourbon ones and making their whisky with corn.
As the fates would have it, Chip chose a good time to get involved in craft distilling, which has helped lead the company to win 47 international awards for the various products such as Balcones True Blue, Baby Blue, Brimstone and Resurrection.
“I was aware of what was going on in craft distilling and that I was surfing this wave, but I was fortunate that all the various fates brought me to the moment I launched, which was also a good moment for craft distilling,” he added.
And what the distilling fates will bring, Chip of course does not yet know. But in the meantime he will keep spreading the riveting word of what he does to all who will listen. And, of course, do a little bit of celebrating, which is currently being bottled in the form of Balcones 5th Anniversary edition.
“Part of it is a celebration of where we’ve come from and a celebration for surviving, but also a promise of what’s to come,” he concluded.
The Balcones 5th Anniversary edition will be available on an extremely limited basis. For more information about pricing and release date, contact Emily Harris on firstname.lastname@example.org or Amanda Ludlow at the Great Whisky Company on email@example.com.
For more information about Balcones, check out this post I wrote here or visit the website here.