I have never had a better reason to spend 8 and a half hours on a train, than I did the other day. For a two hour meeting, and a lovely lunch, that is a long time, but it was worth every moment listening to people talk about One Direction, every child screaming, every part of it, just to meet Chip Tate from Balcones (check out my previous articles on Balcones here and here). If I hadn’t had my appraisal at work the next day, I would have made a quick call to work and begged the next day off, so I could continue bending Chip’s ear about whisky. We met at Forsyth’s Coppersmiths in Rothes, and I will talk about the reason we met there soon. But first, a bit about Chip.
Chip & Balcones
Where to begin… Chip began his movement towards making Texan whisky, through a fascination with baking and cooking when he was a teenager. Creating recipes. He even experimented a bit with fermentation then. A mind that was interested in process, a heart that was creative.
At one point in his life, he worked for his father, who was in engineering (so he got a grounding in heat, flows, and other engineering knowledge). When he was at university, his first degree was in astrophysics, which he got a fair way through, before changing to philosophy and religion. During that time, he began brewing, and after a good deal of work, and many, many years of brewing, working in breweries, and planning his own, he took training and an exam in Brewing & Distilling, which he passed. Now the funny thing about that was, the distilling part he really didn’t know, but his knowledge of brewing, baking, engineering and physics, meant that he in many ways knew a lot about distilling. From this, he was inspired to make his own still, and see if he could, as he said, hit the sweet spot, and create good spirit. And he did. In some ways, becoming a brewer, then distiller was the culmination of years and years of work, of being creative and methodical. Obsessing about process.
And an obsession when it comes to flavour. I think one of the things you can look at, when it comes to the Balcones range, is that there is a chef like obsession with flavour. From the types of corn used (the excellent Blue Corn just now, but they are working on cultivating specific, new corn strains to make even more interesting stuff), to slow, cooler fermentation and slow distillation, direct fired stills (for a punchier spirit), Chip Tate made pot stills (that sounded really, really difficult), to very bespoke casks, occasional use of new wood, occasional use of European oak (that is still very new, so shows the flavours of the oak without sherry influence). They are all elements that Chip plays with, to create each whisky. This really isn’t about age, or size of barrels. This is about using all the elements at his disposal, to create great tasting, full flavoured whisky. It’s about making the best, heavily flavoured Bourbons, the most explosive single casks, and the craziest experiments (but with flavour being the reason for the experiment).
The whisky that wowed me, when I first tried Balcones, was Brimstone. It is just fantastic. I genuinely think it was one of the most unusual, most outstanding whiskies I have ever tried. Smoked using Texan Scrub oak (Chip’s local BBQ wood) for 40 days, when it is spirit. So cold smoked if you will. This smoking allows more of the smoke to come through on the distillate. If you get it right, it won’t overpower, but will be powerful.
Rumble, is an example of Chip’s cooking. Creating a dessert for some friends, when he tried it, he wondered why he couldn’t distil it.
Both of these experiments, show a want to experiment as a chef does. It’s not for marketing purposes, it’s for flavour. About creating the most interesting spirit you can, using local ingredients. To create the best that Texas can offer.
But don’t just concentrate on the experiments, they are fascinating, but the single casks, and the standard range, are some of the most full flavoured American whiskies you will try.
Chip and I had talked for so long, that in some ways we had to rush the tasting. Now, bearing in mind the scarcity of Balcones, particularly in Single Cask form, you will have to forgive me if the stuff I am about to write about is impossible to get on the market. Take heart, it was all very good, so hopefully it will be indicative of the house style going forward.
Balcones Texas Straight Bourbon Whisky
Fifth Anniversary Single Barrel 2nd Edition
Nose: Honeyed notes, herbal notes. Rich, molasses, woody, dark fruit.
Palate: Big toffee and syrup note. Real charred oakiness, a bit of dark chocolate. Intense flavours.
With this, and many of Chip’s other editions, there is an intensity, and variety of flavours you only tend to see in American Whiskey above the £40 mark. It had elements of Stagg, and that isn’t cheap.
Balcones Texas Bourbon
Beta (Chip is still working on this one)
A mixture of corn mashes, malt mashes until the recipe is correct
Overall Notes: Marzipan, barley sugar, brown sugar, molasses, raisins. Sherry notes, amontillado and oloroso notes. Complexity, full flavour.
It’s quite funny, that many distillers talk about one recipe for their mash bill, and are so rigid about their recipe. It was refreshing to hear Chip talking about mixing different casks, different mash bills in one batch, new oak, fresh European oak, different cask sizes, different charring levels.
Basically, like a complicated recipe, with lots of different herbs and spices, Chip uses the different barrels he has to create each batch.
I’ll stop at this point. Next article I’ll take a look at Rumble, Balcones Rum plus a few other interesting bits and bobs.