Building Balcones

Pass by Forsyth’s engineering yard in Rothes and you’ll often hear clanging, hammering sounds.

It’s a noise to gladden the heart of every whisky drinker as it means that experienced workers at the long-established firm are hard at work, handcrafting another still or pot for a distillery.

But – and you may want to whisper this – on this occasion, these stills being created aren’t destined for the hills and glens of Scotland but for humid, subtropical Waco in Texas.

On hand overseeing and helping with the building of the stills is Chip Tate, founder and head distiller of Balcones Distillery, Texas.

His whisky, Balcones, pronounced Bal-cone-ees, has been named Whisky Magazine’s Craft Distillery of the Year 2014.

Whisky lovers across the world are taking notice of this special dram which comes with a remarkable back story.

It has been created by Chip, 39, who initially built his own distillery from scratch with his bare hands, using copper and metal sheeting from eBay.

“My parents are both American and I was born in America although we moved to Germany when I was two,” said Chip who is a father of five.

“When living in Europe my parents would encourage me to taste different foods and wines although I didn’t get to taste whisky until I was 20.

“From a young age I’ve always been a person who loved to experiment and build things.

“My father worked in the nuclear business and was a genius who could turn matter into energy but at home he couldn’t boil water.

“My mother was determined I wasn’t going to be like that so when I was 11 she started teaching me to cook.

“I took to it straight away – I don’t think she got her kitchen back for about seven years.”

Chip then became interested in brewing just before his 21st birthday.

“I loved the idea of the alchemy involved in baking and brewing and the science behind both, because it is a simple process, yet so complex,” said Chip.

After years of curiosity and a natural affiliation with physics and technical machinery, Chip trained as a brewer and became a member of the Institute and Guild of Brewing and Distilling (IGBD) achieving the Diploma in 2002.

“That was a bit of a co-incidence too as at first the course was initially only to be on brewing.

“When I found it involved whisky I was concerned as I didn’t know anything about distilling but then it turned out I did, as I’d worked in my dad’s company for a while and had some background knowledge in engineering, heat transfer and so on.”

Chip worked as both a professional brewer and brewing consultant around the US, before moving into distilling spirits.

“I became more and more fascinated with whisky, so when the time came to make a decision as to what to do with my life I decided to create a Texas whisky.

“I had no reason to think I could make it, but somehow knew that I could. People who knew what I was doing thought it was interesting and crazy.

“It was either going to be a great success or a massive failure.”

Chip then travelled to Isla to train as a distiller under Bruichladdich’s Jim McEwan before returning home to build from scratch, the distillery, which took around a year.

The birthplace of his soon-to-be award-winning whisky is unusual to say the least.

It’s housed in a somewhat rusty-looking metal building, formerly a welding ship, tucked under the 17th Street Bridge, and around a quarter of a mile from downtown Waco.

“I make a malt whisky using Golden Promise, a Scotch-malted barley which I import from Scotland and which hasn’t been used regularly since the 1960s and 70s.

“The single malt is aged in bespoke barrels made using American, French and Eastern European oak.

“It takes a lot of work not to ruin whisky and like Scotland, the weather has a role to play here as in the summer it can be 50C at the top of the warehouse and minus five in the winter.”

The success of the whisky has been remarkable.

In 2012, Balcones was the first distillery to have been awarded Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky – Craft Whisky Distillery of the Year; as well as Wizards of Whisky’s Global Distillery of the Year and US Craft Distillery of the Year.

This year, it’s picked up more than a dozen awards globally, including Distiller of the Year Award while Balcones Brimstone Resurrection was named the best US Whisky in the World by Whisky Magazine.

Success equals expansion of the distillery in Waco which is what brought Chip to Rothes.

New and larger stills are currently under construction, being made by highly respected and acclaimed still maker Richard Forsyth at Forsyth’s in Rothes.

While discussing the progress of his still, Chip is also keeping his hand in by doing a spot of welding on site.

“I’ve been sort of shocked by the awards, especially as some have come from the UK,” said Chip.

“I think the further you get along the line in appreciating whisky the less threatened you become by a new whisky.

“Nobody is asking whisky drinkers to stop drinking Macallan for example – we’re just asking if this one is also good.

“There’s a place for all good malts. Think of whisky like a good book.

“You’d want to have as many good authors in your library as you can afford to read.”