The Best Whiskey You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Waco-based Balcones Distillery is producing a portfolio of top-rate, award-winning whiskeys.
In one of those strange yet wonderful Texas ironies, Waco, home to the world’s largest Baptist university, also produces some of the nation’s best whiskey: Balcones Distilling’s Single Malt.
In less than five years, Balcones Distilling’s portfolio of whiskeys–which are mashed, fermented and distilled onsite, a practice that depressingly isn’t as common as you might expect–has garnered an impressive library of awards: they received a nod from Whisky magazine’s Icons of Whisky America as Craft Whisky Distillery of the Year and from the U.K’s Wizards of Whisky International Competition as US Craft Distillery of the Year as well as the heralded Global Distillery of the Year. This flurry of international recognition has prompted industry experts like Jim Murray of the Whisky Bible to proclaim that “Balcones are unquestionably the masters of big whisky in the USA outside of Kentucky and Tennessee.”
Then in December 2012, Balcones was invited to enter its single malt in a London blind tasting competition of world class single malts. It bested nine other whiskeys for “Best In Glass,” the first American whiskey to nab the award. Other competitors included top brand names from Scotland, America, and Japan, including Balvenie, Glenmorangie, and Teelings. Many are calling the win “The Judgement of London,” reminiscent of the 1976 “Judgement of Paris,” when the first-ever California Cabernet Sauvignon (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) and Chardonnay (Chateau Montelena) took first place over a range of French red and white wines. (The movie Bottle Shock documented the story.)
Winning the award was an especially impressive feat when you consider that Texas is a relative newcomer to the distilling scene. It was illegal to have a distillery in the state until 1997 when Tito Beveridge helped push through legislation that allowed him to open Texas’s first distillery since the twenties. Today Texas has some fourteen vodka producers; three gin producers; and five rum producers. In the whiskey category there are nearly ten, a few of which are crafting some great spirits, including Garrison Brothers and Ranger Creek.
The award was a nice five-year birthday present for Balcones and its owner, Chip Tate. Originally from Lynchburg, Virginia, he followed a meandering career path from student of nuclear physics, to technical writer, to commercial beer brewer. He later interned at a Scottish distillery. He moved to Texas to take a job at Baylor University as dean of graduate studies, but he still wanted to open his own brewery. He’d been brewing beer as a hobby since he was sixteen, or, as he likes to say, “I’ve been fermenting things since I was a kid.” In 2008 he quit his job at Baylor and started his boot-strap distilling operation in an old welding shop under a bridge in Waco (not down by a river).
The stacks of whiskey boxes in the warehouse is a physical indication of how busy things have been for Balcones. Their spirits are now sold in 20 U.S. states, the U.K., Australia, Sweden, Norway and Japan. Such success in international markets has its perks—it allows Tate to cover payroll and overhead—but it also has its challenges. Tate is currently staring down a list of orders that are 3 to 4 times more than the volume he can fill due to an overwhelming increase in demand.
“Now, it’s just out of control,” says Tate. “I have people calling me daily who have ordered things months ago that I just can’t get to them. For the first few years it was like struggling to get a campfire started to survive. Now, we’ve got a forest fire that we can’t control.”
The good news is, Tate recently purchased a 65,000 square-foot warehouse near his original location that he is swiftly converting to a full-scale facility to house up to eight new stills, plenty of barrel storage space, offices and a new tasting room.
“We’re doubling our production in our current facility and quickly finishing out our new space, which will be like a Willie Wonka factory of the whiskey world,” says Tate. “But there’s an aging time frame. We can expand in size, but it changes nothing as far as what we can produce in the next year. You just can’t rush this kind of product.”
Unlike clear spirits that are not aged and can be bottled immediately after distilling, brown spirits, i.e. whiskey, usually has to be aged for a while in oak barrels. (Anywhere from 6 to 18 months is common, though anything labeled “straight” whiskey has to be aged a total of two years.) According to Tate, his current facility allows for production of spirit six times a month. The average large-production American facility can run spirit twice a day. And you still have to tack the barrel aging onto that. But for Tate, it’s well worth the wait.
“This is something I care very much about,” says Tate. “I want craft spirits to be everything the can be. I want them to be excellent. I want them to be authentic.
So, what can you find on retail shelves now? You’ll do well to try find a few of his whiskies at most premium liquor stores throughout the state. But good luck stumbling across the award-winning single malt. It’s limited production combined with its extremely high demand has made this rich and complex little number almost impossible to find.
You’ll also be hard pressed to find a bottle from the distillery’s five-year anniversary series of special whiskies including a first ever straight bourbon. It’s a spirit that has already won a double gold medal from the San Francisco World Wine & Spirits Competition and a gold medal in the 2012 Spirit of the Americas Competition before it’s official release.
“It seemed fitting that Balcones release a truely artisan, craft bourbon to celebrate Balcones’ five years in craft distilling,” says Tate. “Authenticity is at the heart of any great craft and this is our attempt to further make that point through our whiskey.”
The series of special releases will only be available in limited quantities and while it they may not be something the general public will yet be able to acquire, it’s certainly a sign of great things to come from a distillery hellbent on defining a Texas whiskey tradition.
“Just about everything we do is based in tradition. But the particular combination of our process is usually always untraditional,” Tate. “For example we smoke whiskey using wood instead of peat. We’re not trying to make Scotch in Texas. The Scot’s are doing a fine job of that. We’re trying to make something that is uniquely Texan.”