Whiskey starts as a recipe, is crafted into a beer, and is distilled into a spirit. Chip Tate began his career as a baker, evolved into a brewer, and distilled his day job into spirit making. Along the way he also participated in nuclear engineering, physics, philosophy, education, management, insurance, and fine dining. “I woke one morning and realized that what I really wanted to do was make whiskey,” he says. “In a way this was a further extension from bread to beer to distilling. All of those other jobs prepared me to do what was necessary to build a modern distillery.”
So that’s just what he did. Tate opened Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas in 2008. The distillery was the first to make whiskey in Texas since Prohibition, and they might still be the only distillery in the country making corn whiskey out of blue corn.
“We stay true to the Texas whiskey tradition. We try to create unique styles of whiskey that will be identified as Texas whiskey the way that Tennessee whiskey is different than bourbon whiskey that is different from Irish whiskey,” says Tate.
Beyond their blue corn whiskey, Tate says that Balcones products distinguish themselves with their culinary roots. “[Distilling] is my branch of cooking,” Tate says. “I bring a French cooking sensibility to whiskey making in terms of finding the very best ingredients and working hard to bring those flavors out.”
Tate personally smells and tastes every barrel of whiskey at Balcones about every two months. “A lot of people will say that’s excessive, but if you’re in Texas heat I can tell you it’s not. I really want to make sure that each barrel gets exactly what it needs…no barrel left behind.”
Between all of these “nosings” and tastings, Tate needs something other than whiskey to break it all up, so he also brews his own coffee in the back of the distillery. “It’s not very hard; it’s like making popcorn,” he jokes. Black coffee with the tiniest touch of cream is the perfect palate cleanser. Especially if it’s really fresh.”
Tate will soon be a member of the Texas Distiller’s Association, a new organization that will unite Balcones and the other distilleries in Texas with the many distilling projects in the works.
“There’s a very deep sense of place that comes into my whole sensibility about distilling,” says Tate, whose commitment to small-batch, handcrafted spirits hasn’t gone unnoticed. Though not his official work, he has become a sort of poster child for the authenticity of spirits distilled in Texas. He’s excited about the expanding distilling industry around him, one of the few in the state in which bigger isn’t necessarily better.