Chip Tate, founder, president and head distiller of Balcones Distillery, doesn’t merely defend the creation of craft spirits as a plausible innovation, in an effort to clear a space on the market for his damn good whisky. Rather, he completely dissolves the issue of whether or not his product is relevant, by undermining the seeming contradiction between tradition and innovation altogether. “The tradition is a lie,” he says and not without traces of spite. “The creation of new styles has never been new.”
Chip is a revolutionary Dada whisky artist. Do not tell him the proper amount of time to age moonshine.
The fact is that the supposedly conservative history of whisky distillation, when seen through, is actually a bubbling history of innovation, new way after new way to hatch fresh styles out of old methods. Chip again,
“The craft whisky movement is only the most recent of the numerous innovations that have created the traditions we’ve inherited.”
So what needs to happen before we get to Texas blue corn whisky? Let’s start from the beginning.
An essential innovation in the history of whisky is the emergence of the distillation process itself, first occurring (maybe) in the second millennium BC in Mesopotamia. They were—get this—“making perfume.” However, the evidence is inconclusive, probably due to nice smelling, unreliable drunk sources.
The next major innovation occurred with the first reports of distilled alcohol in thirteenth century Italy. Back then, heavy alcohol use occurred in medieval monasteries for “medicinal purposes” for ailments like colic, palsy and sobriety.
People then got drunk for a very long time.
The first actual written report referring to whisky as such comes from Ireland in 1405. It references a chieftain who died of alcohol poisoning on Christmas. In spite of this whisky flourished, so 1405 also marks the birth of denial.
The first reports of whisky production occurred in Scotland in 1494. The king ordered 500 bottles. It occurred to Friar John Cor that there is perhaps a bit of money to be made in the alcohol trade.
People then got rich off people getting drunk for a very long time.
The next big revolution in the history of whisky distillation occurred when the use of steam replaced the use of direct fire. Beginning to fall out of favor in the late nineteenth century, the use of direct fire is now a relic in the past of whisky production. The switch from fire to steam affects caramelization and flavor in addition to reducing the risk of lighting one’s self on fire and exploding things, a huge development in whisky safety. It’s major shifts in production like this that undermine the myth of whisky’s conservative history.
The creation of whisky again underwent a transformation in the early twentieth century when the process of aging whisky in European barrels filled with port and sherry changed to using primarily bourbon barrels made of American oak. Hey, I’m like you. A barrel is a barrel is a barrel, no? When I’m getting drunk, the last thing I’m worried about is what kind of wood the stuff was aged in. However, in spite of my ignorant palette, the change in barrels had a large impact on whisky’s color, texture and taste. Another blow to the purist notion of whisky’s enduring continuity.
Still another notable change in how whisky is made in the United States was the evolution of the bourbon style. Bourbon is made primarily from corn, uses acetic fermentation in the process, and is aged in new oak casks—all major departures from European traditions. This seems to me an expression of America’s lust for independence. We blow off England, shoot fireworks all over the place, and make whisky out of corn because why not? Corn is delicious. Bourbon is relatively new, only around in great quantity for about 100 years. However, in spite of being members of a fledgling whisky tradition, bourbon producers and drinkers are often the most zealous traditionalists when it comes to how whisky ought to be made.
But as we’ve just seen, how whisky is made has simply never stopped changing. It’s from within this long tradition of innovation that Chip Tate and Balcones Distillery emerge as game changers, using local wood to add local flavor and using indigenous grains to create new styles of whiskey. Now, beyond merely the barrel’s impact, location enters our bottled spirits. Intoxication is made of places.
Ignoring conservative rules regarding age, color and where American whisky is supposed to be made, Balcones offers its innovations to the instability of whisky’s traditional history. All of its well-decorated, award-winning whiskys are aged less than two years, while traditionalists insist that whisky must be at least five years old to be considered good and well-aged. Whisky doesn’t need a lot of time to get you good and drunk and to taste good too. Long aging requirements are myths perpetuated by people with a lot of money and time to let whisky sit around in barrels for years. Stop it, rich whisky distillers. Just stop it. We want our whisky quicker. Neigh, we want our whisky now.
Balcones adds no color to its whiskys. The whisky’s color comes from the barrel. Different types and ages of barrels all yield varying degrees of color, and Chip refuses to associate more color with higher quality. Color comes from barrels. Period.
If you want to emphasize color, take an oil painting class and go paint landscapes and beaches. If you want a good shot of whisky, drink Balcones.
Lastly, not located in either Kentucky or Tennessee, Balcones distills whisky in unlikely Waco, Texas. Balcones Baby Blue was the first Texas whisky on the market since Prohibition and the only blue corn whisky made anywhere. Seen as anomalies by some and not “proper” whisky producers, Chip Tate and Balcones Distillery, pioneers of the craft whisky movement, are merely pushing the boundaries of inherited tradition in the same way those traditions erupted from the traditions before them.
As Chip and Balcones continue to imprint their unique stamps on whisky production in terms of age, color and location, they no doubt secure their place in whisky history by creating new avenues by which we can all get drunk for a very long time.