Updated: Jan 8, 2020
Balcones Tasting – July 16, 2019 – Heritage Wine & Spirits Longview
As you walk up to the Balcones Distillery, in the old Texas Fireproof Storage Building in the heart of Waco, Texas (on the “Silo District” trolley route), you feel like you are walking into a scene from ‘Gotham’. This 4-story warehouse, complete with massive roof-top water tower, can be overwhelming at first sight. The intimidation factor only grows as you make your way up the long entrance, which opens into the cold industrial façade of the bar. But the building anxiety is quickly dissipated in the warmth of the happy crowd of patrons and pleasant aromas of craft cocktails. This 2,400 square foot bar area, a very small section of the current grounds, matches the entire footprint of the original distillery from 10 years prior. Before we time-travel to that hopeful shack under the 17th street bridge, however, let’s spend some time with the man that made it happen – even if he is no longer with Balcones – Chip Tate.
Whiskey wasn’t always part of Chip Tate’s career plans. Hailing from Lynchburg, Virginia, home to Lynchburg Baptist College (renamed Liberty in 1985), he had early aspirations of becoming a minister. After receiving a philosophy degree from the College of William & Mary, Chip studied theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. In 2002, he followed his wife to Baylor University in Waco, where she became an assistant professor, and he took a job as an assistant dean and took a hobby brewing beer. Fast-forward 6 years, and Chip’s homebrewing hobby has grown into a business dream. Chip coerced a few of his homebrew club buddies, including Jared Himstedt, to join him in running down this dream. In 2008, with an initial investment from Stephen Germer, a local businessman, Chip started Balcones – named for a geological fault zone that runs from Del Rio to San Antonio, then straight up I-35 to Waco, about 450 miles total.
They soon began construction on the brewery. A year into the work, however, they realized most of the bottles they had been emptying contained scotch rather than beer. Apparently, after replacing the roof, knocking out walls, laying bricks, and cutting pipe, you need something stronger than Pearl Light! And following suit, their construction project transformed from brewery to distillery. Instead of buying stills from Kentucky or Scotland, which could easily have cost over $100,000 each, Chip designed and built his own. He sourced local blue corn instead of buying in bulk from a commodity grain supplier. He even made his own barrels. What is it they say about wanting something done right?
Chip’s whiskey, released in 10 states in 2010, was a hit practically from the moment it landed on shelves. His first release, a young whiskey called Baby Blue, won a Double Gold - the highest honor in its category - at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And although our buddy Dan Garrison holds the distinction of having distilled the first Texas Whiskey, Balcones actually beat him to the shelf with their product. Soon Tate’s stills were running almost nonstop, and he was adding employees every month. And in keeping with the ground-up craftsmanship theme, none of Balcones' employees have ever worked in any other distillery. Balcones is a company that really knows the meaning of on-the-job training.
We all know the brown water business isn’t going to produce a quick ROI, and Balcones found no surprises here. In late 2012, realizing his need to inject more capital, Chip brings in Michael Rockafellow of Lubbock as a second investor. This only pushed the needle so far, however, and in 2013 Balcones is courting investors to cover the expenses of growth. Here’s where Mr. Greg Allen enters the picture. After a few weeks of negotiations, Mr. Allen agreed to buy Germer’s and Rockafellow’s shares. He then goes in with Rockafellow $8.5 million deep, making him the majority owner with a 58% stake. Rockafellow receives a 15% stake, and Chip retained the remaining 27%.
From Chip’s perspective, Mr. Allen’s role was to be strictly financial. “They would provide the money, and I would run the distillery,” he said. “And we would meet once a year and have a drink, and that would be it.” But on paper, Mr. Allen and Chip weren’t equal partners. Along with being the majority shareholder, Mr. Allen could appoint three of the five board members (Chip and Mr. Rockafellow being the other two). Chip did, however, win the important concession of his presence at board meetings being required for a quorum. At first, all sides agree, and the arrangement works smoothly. Sales continued to rise, as did the medal count at spirits competitions. And plans continued for a new 65,000 square foot distillery nearby – a whopping 30 times the size of the old one. These first months of the new arrangement were great! Then (cue the scratch of the record as the music stops) the wheels fell off the wagon.
Chip has often been praised for his commitment to excellence. However, several of Chip’s former employees say his passion could be overwhelming, and he could be erratic, verbally abusive, and prone to lashing out. “I have seen him take an 18-inch monkey wrench and beat it against a large metal trash dumpster in fits of rage,” said Jared Himstedt, current Master Distiller who replaced Chip. This quote was taken from an affidavit in the restraining order filed against Chip in September 2014, after the board suspended him. In early December of 2014, Chip agreed to let the rest of the board buy him out. He was then fired and, through a non-compete agreement, forbidden to make whiskey until March 2016. It was then that he created Tate & Co., a still manufacturer. And when you manufacture stills, how do you suppose their proper functionality is tested? The one and only way to test them dovetailed perfectly into the business venture he started upon the lapse of his non-compete: the Tate Distillery, which received its federal distillers license in July 2017. But it seems we’ve now digressed - are we still talking about Balcones, or is this the Chip Tate show?
Back to Balcones! Balcones, the well-oiled machine, just celebrated its 10-year anniversary and has released 21 products to date! They have been showered with awards, including best craft whiskey in 2018 and 2nd place in the Texas Bourbon Shootout. Like most distilleries, Balcones has now also evolved into a tourist destination. Their proper bar with craft cocktails hosts Happy Hours 3 days a week, private events, and currently has a comedy night. That’s quite a bit of history packed into a decade! So, let’s look at what’s packed into some of these bottles.
The Baby Blue and True Blue whiskeys (or I should say whiskys, as Balcones spells them the Scotch way) were named after the blue corn utilized for the mash. This was allegedly the first Texas corn whiskey sold since prohibition. The blue corn utilized for this spirit is typically higher in fats and oils than traditional corn, giving it a greater capacity for carrying flavor across the palate. The Baby Blue was originally aged in 5 gallon barrels, and is still produced in copper pot stills, aged for 9-12 months, and sold at 92 proof. To contrast this, the True Blue is considered 100% blue corn BOURBON (rather than simply 100% blue corn WHISKY, which doesn’t have to be aged in new oak) and comes in either the 100 proof or cask strength. Here’s a quick label guide:
· Baby Blue – Light blue label, 92 proof whisky
· True Blue 100 – Dark blue label, 100 proof bourbon
· True Blue Cask – Black label, cask strength (in the 120 proof range) bourbon
While we didn’t taste the True Blue varieties, it is well known that you can definitely taste the differences between them. I personally have both a Baby Blue and a True Blue 100 at home, and there is an extra richness that complements Baby’s corn sweetness in the True. Balcones does everything at 100%, so it’s easier to remember their mash bills, but I can’t help wondering how even a touch of rye might spice up the fresh sweetness of the Baby Blue.
Texas Single Malt Whisky
This is considered the first Texas single malt whisky. As Kelly, our in-house Scotch expert, explained, however, single malt really only means it comes from one distillery. In the case of Balcones, everything they produce is 100% of something, and the word malt is typically associated with barley (see the ETBS Resources “malt” page for a deeper dive on that one). Single malt also doesn’t necessarily mean the barley was malted by the distillery – in fact, most distillers don’t malt their own barley. What we’re looking at here is basically a Scotch, but it can’t be called a Scotch because it wasn’t made in Scotland. And in case you’re wondering what kind of Scotch flavor to expect, this is 100% un-peated, so perhaps think something akin to the Highlands. Some describe this as having a bit of a funky flavor profile that perhaps could be attributed to what the copper pot still might impart upon a malted barley mash.
If we hadn’t tasted what came next, I would be tempted to gush about how great this one is. As it is, I’ll let Jim Murray do the honors. From the 2019 Whiskey Bible “Most of the micro distillers have a bit of a problem when it comes to producing a single malt; but not these boys! Superb.”
For the 10th Anniversary, Balcones put out a few one-time, cask-strength releases. This one, the Texas Single Malt Whisky finished in Olorosso sherry casks, is Spanish for “witchcraft”. Some described this as having a tangy nose to it, and I picked up a strong sulfur element. It has been noted in previous tastings that some sherry barrels are treated with burned sulfur sticks to prevent bacterial growth. It could be that these barrels had that treatment. Comparing the previous whisky to this one, there is a noticeably darker taste that most agreed improved upon the original.
Another 10th Anniversary variation of the Texas Single Malt Whisky, but this time finished in port casks. This one is Spanish for “sorcerers”. Gone is the sulfur quality in the nose, replaced by almost a maple syrup sweetness. A port is typically known for a fruity, plum aspect, and the fruity sweetness definitely comes through on this one. It was described in contrast to the last one as being “more like breakfast, whereas the Brujeria was a bit more like desert”. This one has a juicy, creamy character to it that sits nicely in the front of the palate. Once again, this was seen as an improvement over the Texas Single Malt Whisky by a majority of the group.
A curious release for a whisky flight, as this is technically rum (hence the name). This cannot actually be called rum, however, as it isn’t distilled from sugarcane alone. Rumble is made from fermented Texas wildflower, mission figs, and turbinado sugar. It is twice distilled in copper stills and aged in oak casks; so it’s produced exactly as whisky but with the composition of rum. The floral notes are unmistakable, and it has a very light taste and texture. If our minds were in rum mode rather than whiskey mode, I feel this would be a strong contender against some established Caribbean rums. In a relative context to the rest of the Balcones flight, however, it was received as a pleasant diversion.
And we finally come to possibly the most interesting Balcones bottle of the evening. The last of the three limited 10th Anniversary releases we tasted, this one was made from the blue corn whisky. Prior to barreling, Brimstone is smoked using a proprietary method involving “sun-baked” Texas scrub oak. This is a campfire in your mouth. The smoke flavor permeates the nose so thoroughly that it’s a bit hard to get past for the more subtle aspects of the blue corn juice. Not surprisingly, descriptors in the group took on a significantly bolder tone, including Chloraseptic, beef jerky, and Liquid Smoke. Perhaps given enough time with this one, it could be appreciated in a similar fashion to acquiring the taste for peaty Scotches, and there are many who really dig into this kind of experience. There are others, however, that cleansed their palates with a second dose of Hechiceros.
And that wraps up the July East Texas Bourbon Society flight. One of the things that makes this club wonderful is the ability to taste whiskeys that might normally be outside your individual price range or too expensive to commit to fully even though you’d still be interested in a glass. And with this flight, we truly took advantage of pooling our resources to have a taste of a wide range of distilled spirits – and we never left the one distiller this time!
This entry was mostly authored by Cole and Andrew, and I’m truly impressed with their depth of research. I played editor and extremely appreciative Hechiceros fan-boy this month, so if you have any Balcones-related questions other than “you want another pour of Hechiceros?”, definitely seek out Cole and Andrew 😊
Until next time, keep your bourbon warm, your cigar lit, your wit sharp, and your mind open.
Erik Dunham - ETBS