June 11, 2013

"The Fine Line Between Heat and Personal Injury" - An Interview with Chip Tate of Balcones Distilling

A Break for Brilliance
We're taking a quick diversion from our birthday-month 1975 vintage bonanza to bring you Part Two of our piece on Balcones Brimstone - an interview with the head distiller of Balcones Distilling - Chip Tate.  We've been craving Brimstone so hard since our original review, that a chance to speak with the brains behind the smoke was something we couldn't pass up.  

Chip at Home (Balcones)
The Caviar of Whiskey

SmokyBeast:    Chip, Brimstone was just an awesome experience!  Thanks for taking some time to talk with SmokyBeast.

Chip Tate:    "Thanks for your support."

SB    So clearly you appreciate a good beast.  We read that you spent some time in Islay.  Was that the inspiration for Brimstone or how did you come up with the concept?

CT    "Yeah well I’ve always liked peated whiskey and there were times when I’d considered doing a peated malt, which I thought would be fun. We moved away from that just because as cool as it is, that’s really a Scottish thing.  The true story about Brimstone is that I was in the backyard by myself for about five hours without kids or anybody, which is kind of a weird thing, so I was just by myself and I started playing with oak and fire and whiskey and the concept was born. Then I figured I’d try the same thing on a bigger scale, in my licensed distillery rather than in the backyard, so I guess you could say that it accidentally became our iconic Texas whiskey."

SB    So you just had some oak sitting around in the yard?

CT    "Yeah I always have some well-cured oak and pecan and different woods because I like to cook a lot. And hence the entry of smoking whiskey, which is dangerous, but I liked what I got and never looked back.  The way I would describe the flavor is kind of like caviar. It’s the finest quality of smoke, only in high quantity. So it’s actually very subtle whiskey I think even though it’s also very powerful. Sometimes you think of those things are mutually exclusive, but I don’t think they are."

The Line Between Enjoyable and Personal Injury 

SB    So we saw beer go through the crazy hop phase with Hop Devil, Hoptical Illusion, Hop Stoopid, and on and on.  Then we saw the peat wars happening in malts with Octomore, Supernova, and Smokehead, etc.  Do you think you're about to set off a contest for the smokiest American whiskey?

CT    "I was a craft brewer for a while and was an out of control home brewer for even longer than that, and one thing I learned is to never let novelty and power be an excuse for a lack of balance. Don’t just see how many hops you can get in a beer because that’s very adolescent. Do it once and get over it and then figure out if you’re going to make a really hoppy beer, how do you make it balanced? Pilsner Urquell is a very hoppy beer, but it doesn’t run over the malt." 

SB    We talk about that balance all the time.  It's why malts like Lagavulin, while not the smokiest, are our favorites.  We noticed it right away in Brimstone.  It's wildly smoky, but very well-balanced.

CT    "Yeah, it’s intriguing to play with something like Brimstone, because it’s in danger of becoming out of balance at every moment.  It’s almost like Indian Curry, the line between enjoyable heat and physical injury is carefully walked on a regular basis. But that just adds more intrigue as long as you don’t actually cross it.  That’s what we’re trying to do: have the smoke, as big a player as it is, be one of several other major players to create that counterpoint and that balance."

Is That Grain You're Smoking?

SB    So how does one smoke a liquid?

CT    "Very carefully.  Smoke is kind of a funny thing. Because we’re smoking the whiskey, there are some aspects of smoke that fade in time and some aspects that get deeper. We’re getting more aspects of the smoke into the whiskey than can be done by smoking grain.  If you’re smoking grain, then it’s whatever dissolves into the mash, comes through the mash into the wash, and then into the spirit. Whereas if you’re actually smoking spirit, it’s a whole different animal."

SB   Let’s talk a little about color.  Brimstone is such a beautiful color and we’ve seen so many older whiskeys that don’t get that gorgeous dark caramel hue.

CT    “Thanks.  So that’s the wood. And it’s because we use only fully yard-aged wood. Most people say ‘oh yeah we yard-age our wood,' and they mean like three, four, or up to six months. They’d be fools not to yard-age it that long because it dries out so quickly. But from that point they kiln it off, dry it out, and make barrels out of it. Now, there’s nothing wrong with using a kiln, it’s just that there are certain things a kiln doesn’t do. When you let wood sit outside, you basically have a controlled rot process going on. The rain is washing off the harsher tannins and really breaking down the structure of the wood." 

A General Dislike of Half-Ass

SB    We're getting the picture that you're very serious about your barrels.

CT    "I’m always pounding the podium about using fully yard-aged wood, fine grain wood, all the things that we do at Balcones. The downside of course is that a new barrel for us costs around $500 versus $75. But to me that’s so important. You have to understand why you’re using a barrel. It’s not just for getting wood color, it’s not just to evaporate the whiskey, it’s not just to put whiskey in contact with charcoal, there’s other ways to do all those things. It’s the oxidation effect. The chemical breathing that happens in and out of the wood. We have a general dislike of half-ass at Balcones. Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing right. If you’re going to take a risk (and whiskey is a risky business), go all in. 

Yeast Are Living Creatures with Rights

SB   That seems to be a common theme across everything you're doing.

CT    "It is.  We use a very nice heirloom blue corn. And it’s expensive, but it’s got a really nice flavor. Most distilleries are fermenting for 48-72 hours. We ferment for a week. The simplest way to put it is ‘yeast are living creatures and when you work them to death they make stinky smells', and we like pretty smells. Most distilleries are doing a very fast fermentation which stresses the yeast and then you have a lot of nasties to deal with."  

SB    So is that the secret of getting the whiskey so smooth without such a long aging process?

CT    "Well let's put it this way, when they do this, they have a choice to make: you can either take a lot of those nasties out in the still, and end up with a much more neutral whiskey; or you can make a rich whiskey and include a lot of those less desirable by-products, and then let them age out. And that’ll work, but to get that smoothness it’ll take 15 or 20 plus years, especially in a cold place like Scotland. And then you lose other possibilities too, since you’re losing some of the malty characteristics as it gets older. And I’m not saying I don’t like scotch whisky. I love Scotch whisky. I guess what I’m saying is I want to have my cake and eat it too. I want a whiskey the doesn’t need to be aged that long but can be aged that long. 

Inside Scoop: Brimstone Resurrection 

SB    So, speaking of aging, can we hope to see a vintage bottling of Brimstone?

CT    "Well we have four casks that we’re going to release this year in celebration of our fifth anniversary. We have a Brimstone in that release which is slightly older. It’s nice and it’s really intense. It’s going to be called Brimstone Resurrection. It’ll be full cask strength, like 64%.

SB   That's awesome, we can't wait to try it.  Hey Chip thanks for your time and thanks for the whiskey!

CT    "You're welcome."


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Please stop with the spam comments whoever you are.