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March 14, 2013
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Why distiller Chip Tate is Best in Glass

SNOWMASS VILLAGE - Of all the pieces of his background that Chip Tate has drawn on in his career as a distiller - baking, statistical analysis, beer-brewing, philosophy, the tech company he once owned - the one that might have been most crucial was his graduate studies in divinity. How else, other than the hand of the Almighty, to explain the wondrous occurrence late last year, when the Texas Single Malt whiskey, from Tate's Balcones Distilling, won the Best in Glass invitational competition in London, beating out such legendary names in Scotch as the Macallan Gold and Johnnie Walker Platinum.Many news reports likened the event to 1976's Judgment of Paris, when two California wines were ranked ahead of their French competitors in a blind-tasting in Paris, profoundly altering the way people looked at American wines. But the Best in Glass result was probably even more miraculous: Balcones, launched just five years ago, is not located in the whiskey-soaked states of Tennessee or Kentucky, but in Waco, Texas, a region with no recent history of producing any whiskey at all. At least, not legally. It would comparable to the Judgment of Paris being won by wines from New Jersey.Tate has said that he is not interested so much in making whiskey in Texas; he wants to create a Texas whiskey. That is, he is starting from scratch, and using the local realities that would seem to be insurmountable disadvantages for whiskey distilling - namely, high heat, low humidity and a nonexistent pool of local distilling talent - and seeing how they can be addressed."Let's start with the fact that I'm a big nerd," the 38-year-old said from near Cancun, where he was vacationing with his family. "I look at what we've got in Waco - the heat, the spring water - and go, I'm not going to fix that. I'm going to take what we have and use it to our best advantage, like Scotland has. I'm engineering whiskey from the ground up, seeing what I want to keep, what I want to change."Most other distillers would start with a standard still, do as those before them did. That's a good way to go. But that's not what we're doing. What is our unique contribution going to be? That's a little riskier. You're drawing outside the lines."Local sippers will have the opportunity to taste Balcones' addition to the whiskey world. Two of the company's bottles - the Best in Glass-winning Texas Single Malt, and Brimstone, a corn whiskey smoked with Texas scrub oak - will be poured at the inaugural Aprs-Ski Cocktail Classic, being held Friday through Sunday. Balcones' whiskies will be served in the Private Reserve Tasting Room, in operation 3-6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, in the Snowmass Conference Center. Alongside the Private Reserve room will be the Grand Tasting Village, the central attraction of the Classic, featuring more than 70 brands of spirits.• • • •Tate's first whiskey influence was an early one; his father was a Scotch drinker. From there, though, it has been a long and winding path to distilling his own spirits. In his preteen years, he discovered a love of baking. At the College of William & Mary, in his native Virginia, Tate started out studying theoretical physics before moving into philosophy. He earned graduate degrees, at the Union Seminary in Virginia, in divinity and education. His working life has been similarly varied: statistical analyst, property and casualty insurance, assistant dean of Baylor University in Waco, owner of a tech company. Tate's interests run at least as far as geology; he can explain in detail the Balcones Fault that runs through West Texas and gave his company its name.For almost all of this time, among Tate's serious hobbies was brewing beer. He began in his junior year in college ("I was almost legal," he noted), when a friend introduced him."As soon as I found brewing, that was my new passion. I learned everything about production, styles," Tate, who will not be in attendance at the Cocktail Classic, said. "I think what I liked was the progression: you follow these simple steps and it becomes an increasingly complex product. I compare it to sculpting, which is just chipping away pieces of clay. How you do these small steps determines whether you come out with something great or something sad."Tate did very little professional brewing. On occasion, he would find himself in a town with a tiny brewpub that would let him create a batch of beer. Around 2000, while living in Indiana, where his wife at the time was doing graduate studies, Tate studied for the Institute of Brewing exam. A few months before the test, he was notified that the institute had merged with a distilling organization, and the exam would include a section on spirits."Initially that was very disconcerting. Because I didn't know anything about distilling," he said. "But they sent me a syllabus, and I looked at it and said, 'Oh, I guess I do know quite a bit about distilling.'"Tate moved to Waco some 12 years ago, and while there he discovered his interest shifting from beer to malt whiskey. "Given my interest in baking and brewing, it was a perfectly logical evolution," he said. "I still kind of make beer. But then I distill it and age it. It's the evolution of grain, I guess." To create a distinctive Texas whiskey from the ground up, Tate has had to built his distillery from scratch. For Balcones' first set of stills, he purchased some old stills, knowing they would need some adjustments. "Five years later, you realize you rebuilt just about everything," he said. For the second set, Tate made his own stills, beginning with 10-by-4-foot metal sheets.Learning to make whiskey was also mostly self-taught. "You read up on the practical stuff - but there are very few manuals. Only one, really, and it came out after I started. So it's the usual procedure of any craftsman: you seek out other people, and figure out how much they actually know," Tate said. "And then you just start."Balcones was founded on less than $100,000, a figure which includes the purchase of the building that houses the operation. "Insane. I knew it was crazy, but I didn't know how insane it was," Tate said of the minimal funding. "We couldn't do experiments - an experiment meaning something that you couldn't sell. You can't be wrong, because if you're wrong, you're going to be wiped out."Far from being wiped out, Balcones finds itself swimming in awards. Last month, at the Spirits of the Americas competition, the company won double gold and bronze. whiskey magazine named Balcones Craft whiskey Distillery of the Year. The Best in Glass honor seems to have elevated the company to another level."It was great to have a UK panel, looking at very malt-heavy whiskies, pick us as their best," Tate said. "A lot of the whiskies we beat, I'd love to have in my cabinet."stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Mar 15, 2013 06:51AM Published Mar 14, 2013 05:21PM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.