A Drink With.. Chip Tate, Balcones

17th May, 2013 by Becky Paskin

On the eve of its fifth anniversary, Texan distillery Balcones is celebrating with some rather experimental limited releases. Founder Chip Tate explains to Becky Paskin how burnt corn could be the greatest mistake of his life.

Chip-Tate Balcones Drink With

Chip Tate has grand plans for Balcones distillery in the future

Happy birthday! How are you marking the occasion?
I thought a good way to celebrate is with some single casks that are completely different to what we usually produce: a Bourbon, a malt whiskey, and a corn whiskey made from nuclear-burned, blackened corn that actually works really well. There’s a lot going on in craft distilling right now, and we wanted to do something entirely authentic but different.

You must have been working on these for some time, they must be pretty important to you.
We have a 20% evaporation rate in Texas, so to have something in celebration of our fifth year is special whisky. They are a celebration of us still existing after five years, and also getting ready to expand. This is a remembrance of what we have done and where we’ve been, and a promise of what’s to come.

Sounds like a lot of big promises from Balcones for the future?
It’s a long term business making whiskey. As much as I’ve enjoyed everything we’ve ever done I want more toys. Two years ago we bought a 65,000sqft building for storage, but over the next year and a half we’ll be installing a new distillery there which will give us a lot more capacity to do the same and new things as well.

Are you worried about losing that notion of craft as you start expanding?
As we get bigger a lot of people might say we’re not craft, but they’re wrong. There are various definitions of craft but to me, fundamentally, craft whisky should be very authentic, with a big bunch of hairy guys with wort drills inside copper pots, like us, watching every single aspect of production as they grow and develop, handwriting on every bottle and hand placing wax on the bottle. As a craft distiller you should be adding something new to the tradition. As far as size goes, I would have a hard time picturing a craft distillery at 10 million cases a year. At 100,000 maybe, but even one million sounds like a lot too. It’s hard figuring out how that would work. Right now we’re producing 6,000 cases a year and we’re running at capacity.

What’s the most frustrating thing you find about the whiskey industry?
There’s a lot of nonsense that bothers me more than it should. There are a lot of brands out there that are intentionally creating misunderstandings. Take the difference between produced by, and distilled by. It’s confusing for consumers. Why wouldn’t you assume that they are the same thing? There are a lot of brands that source whisky, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I want to make it clear that the whisky that comes from Balcones is from Balcones. There’s a place for a craft whiskey that’s made by the craft distillery as opposed to being sourced. I’ve no issue with sourced whisky at all, but I’m an advocate of being forthright about what you do.

How did you come to be involved in whiskey production? Do you have much experience in the area?
Other than a short time in Islay I’ve had no training in a distillery. I had a mixed educational background that ended up preparing me when I was working this out. I did some brief work in engineering and nuclear-related physics, and was a big math and science nerd. I got my undergraduate in philosophy and my graduate degrees in divinity and education with a view to helping people. I didn’t realise one of the highest callings to help people is to make wonderful alcohol. I wanted some sort of training though and studied an Institute of Brewing diploma that had a new section about distilling. I got a lot of practical hands-on experience in Islay over the course of one month but the rest I had to put together myself and see if what I thought I might know, I did in fact know.

So it was a big gamble to start up Balcones Distillery?
When the moment of truth came, which was in the aftermath of my first marriage, I looked at the upside. Up until that point I was worried about starting the distillery because it could ruin my marriage – which was over – and I could lose my house – which was already a big worry – if it all goes to hell. It seemed as good a time as any to get going. I’ve had a lot of different experiences that in retrospect prepared me to build a business plan, fund it, to think about cash flow, build a staff, get the right insurance, a programme of how to do it, manage the people you’ve hired and implement training. I guess you could say I took a leap of faith but I felt pretty confident about it.

Where do you see yourself headed in five years’ time?
I just want to keep doing this; this is what I want to do when I grow up, if I ever choose to grow up. I have no plans other than to grow the distillery to a nice comfortable size. I’m very proud of every bottle we’ve ever produced. Every bottle is better than the ones before and I hope that’s true until the day I die. I want to keep developing the Balcones concept and keep making unique styles of whiskey and hopefully get better and better.

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