October 9, 2013

The Birth of a Beast - An Evolutionary Journey

Descended from a Dog

If you've ever tasted "white dog" (aka designer, watered-down moonshine) then you know that what comes out of a still is a far different animal than what goes into a bottle (at least a bottle that you'd want to drink!).  How does whiskey evolve from undrinkable clear swill to delicious brown hooch?

We got an amazing opportunity to see (to drink!) this whole process of barrel aging, vatting, and bottling with Chip Tate from Balcones Distillery.  If you're a regular reader, you know that we are huge fans of Balcones - Brimstone is a smoky beast of the highest calibre.  The Brimstone Resurrection took beastliness to an entirely new level.  And Chip himself is something of a mad scientist genius, as we discovered in our interview titled "The Fine Line Between Heat and Personal Injury".  When Chip was in The Big Apple, we jumped at the chance to join his tasting at Brooklyn Wine Exchange where he promised to demystify the entire process.

BWE is a nice joint.  Hand-picked wine & spirits line a cozy and well-staffed shop, and in the back is a private room with communal tasting tables.  Glancing at the lineup, we were immediately intrigued.  We saw, going from right to left, Balcones transforming in front of our eyes from a clear liquid to a deep dark beautiful brown whiskey!  Chip had laid out a progression of the different stages of barrel aging from new make spirit, through several different individual barrels, to a cuvee of multiple barrels, and finally to a finished bottle of Balcones Texas Single Malt Whiskey.

The Line-Up!

Drinking Our Way to Glory

Chip explained the progression.  It starts with new make - aka white dog, basically the distillate that comes right out of the still.  The next pour was a second fill, in other words this was the second time that particular barrel was used to age whiskey.  The third pour was a first fill, aged in a new charred oak barrel (Chip yard-ages his own premium wood and makes his own barrels, to which he attributes some of the unique flavors and color of his whiskey).  The fourth pour was a "cuvee" - a mixture of different barrels that are then re-barreled and continue to age together.  And finally the finished product, in this case Barrel # 2696 of Balcones Texas Single Malt.

Chip Breaks Down the Science
What was immediately apparent was that Chip puts great care into each step in the process.  His new make is leagues better than any white dog we've tasted.  As he poured the different iterations of the whiskey, you could taste how he would bring out different desired flavors and then combine them into the balance that he ultimately wanted.  It was an amazing learning experience.  We were neck-deep in whiskey nerd-ery for sure, but amazed nonetheless.  Here are tasting notes for each pour broken down...

Tasting Notes

Pour #1 - New Make Spirit:  Ok it's definitely still hot and raw, but it has a dramatic buttered popcorn, bubblegum, candy flavor to it.  Kind of like eating a bunch of different flavors of jelly beans at once.  Rich, thick, sweet, hot, and a little chewy.

Pour #2 - 2nd Fill Cask:  The second fill added only a slight golden hue to the whiskey, but a totally different group of flavors came out.  There was a lemongrass scent on the nose, some fresh white house paint, rubber, and dry oak.  The body was still quite hot but now had bursts of dry white wine and tree bark / tree oil.

Pour #3 - 1st Fill Cask:  Wow what a difference.  First of all the color
The crowd lingers to finish their tastes and discuss the evening
has gone way darker (maybe due to the use of the freshly charred barrel?).  The nose is full of vanilla and cocoa, and some dark fruits like plums and raisins.  Getting into the palate we taste our first burst of intense spices: black pepper, chives, green onions / scallions, some chiles, intense woodiness, and more of the vanilla.

Pour #4 - Cuvee:  So again, the cuvee is where they've taken multiple early barrels and re-barreled them so that they can age together.  The complexity comes through immediately.  (reading our notes: "we'd buy this as-is!!").  It opens up with some of the nice leather oil that we always look for in our favorite whiskies.  Shortly behind it come fruit cake and cinnamon.  Chip noses the glass and says "It smells tight."  It does smell tight, though we can't exactly explain what that means.  This is the first one that is a tiny bit smoky.  On the finish we get honey, earl grey tea, and some meaty farm fresh butter.

Pour #5 - Balcones Texas Single Malt:  Well now that we've had the perspective of all the ingredients and iterations, we can see how it all comes together in the finished product.  We've got the big cocoa / vanilla on the nose.  The body is spicy and woody and just a tiny bit smoky with the pepper, lemongrass, and grapes.  The fruits/honey/cake on the finish linger on your tongue balancing out the spirit warmth.


Balcones Single Malt drinks like a much older whiskey (maybe even like a whisky!).  And that's obviously due to the care taken in how it's produced and aged.  Being able to taste the entire process was enlightening.  Chip would say that you can produce a spirit with flaws and then age them out, or you can put tremendous care into the early stages of a product so that it reaches that level in a much shorter time.  That's certainly the art of a craft distiller who doesn't have 15-20 years to wait while his product sits in a barrel.  Necessity breeds innovation, that's for sure.  If you get the chance to attend one of Chip's tasting, and if you're curious about the vast amount of work and science that goes into whiskey-making when it's done right, don't miss it.  And in the meantime pick up some of his wares - we still love Brimstone the best, but Single Malt is a safe bet for a wide range of whiskey drinkers.  We also picked up a bottle of his True Blue cask strength corn whiskey at the event, so look out for a review coming up!

We hope to see many of you at the Whisky Jewbilee this week.  Ask for the beast!  :)  Cheers!


  1. wonderful, love the bottle of Texas Single Malt I have in my whisk(e)y closet (though of course it can't compare to its beastly devilish cousin - what could?). I also appreciate that Balcones does not claim to have a "magic aging" process, but rather claims their skill in everything that happens before barrel aging. Truly unique stuff

    1. Agreed! The Brimstone is our favorite as well, but the whole line is very unique. Chip actually passed around some of the charred blue corn they use to make True Blue that night. It was very interesting. We have a bottle of True Blue that's pending a review so stay tuned. Thanks for reading!