A quarter-mile from downtown Waco, Texas, in a neighbourhood of long abandoned storefronts, is a small, rusted-metal shed beneath the 17th Street Bridge. It sits between the overpass’ support pillars, next to a white trailer. It’s a safe bet none of the drivers know they’re speeding over the worldwide headquarters of Balcones Distilling, the maker of the finest new whiskey in America.
Founder Chip Tate stands inside across from two handmade copper stills. Tate dips a glass pipette into a vat and pours the liquid into tasting glasses. It is the unmatured form of his Texas Single Malt Whisky—the drink that put Balcones on the map.
Balcones’ arrival was first heralded by its distiller-of-the-year awards in 2012 and then by the single malt’s firstplace finish in the 2012 Best in Glass competition, a British contest that names the best whiskey released each year. Balcones was the first American distiller to capture the highest honour, defeating such venerable brands as Johnnie Walker, Macallan and Balvenie.
So how did a small distillery in Waco rise to the top of the whiskey world in only six years? In part Balcones’ success is the result of America’s love affair with all things artisanal. Only 68 craft distillers existed a decade ago. Today there are 623, at least one in every state.
It’s a crowded space, but Balcones has been able to stand out. Partly it is due to Tate’s story as a Texas pioneer. He has long been fascinated by mixing different ingredients. As a child in rural Virginia he made explosives: Bottle rockets and tennis ball cannons. After college, he brewed beer or baked: “I was basically a monk.”
In 2007 Tate was a Baylor enrollment administrator dreaming of leaving the ivory tower for the copper still. With a wink and a nudge he will admit some initial experiments—presumably moonshine made at his Waco home—led him to believe he could make it as a legitimate distiller. A rudimentary handbook called Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing became his bible; instruction at the Bruichladdich Distillery on whiskeymaking fundamentals, one meant for prospective brand ambassadors, was new-found gospel.
To launch Balcones—named after the fault that bisects Texas and provides the area with drinking water—Tate raised $100,000 in startup capital, and a real estate buddy found him the shack under the bridge.
For Balcones’ first release, Tate drew inspiration from a dessert sauce of raw sugar, honey and figs he had served at a party. And that’s what he fermented to create Rumble. Early customers appreciated its rum-and brandy-like qualities. Rumble was released along with Baby Blue, an unusual whiskey made with heirloom blue corn that tastes of apricot, sweet tea, smoked chilis and, most oddly, cotton candy. Balcones has developed another blue-corn-based whiskey called Brimstone made with Texas scrub oak to add smoke the way Islay whiskys use peat.
Tate had always been a Scotch man, though, and longed to bring a single malt to market. For what would become Balcones’ signature whiskey, Tate selected a main ingredient with a fortuitous-sounding name: Golden Promise, a Scotch-malted barley that hadn’t been used regularly in four decades. His single malt ages in custom American and French barrels. The end result has hints of vanilla, plum and pear.