Balcones Distilling is tucked under the far end of the 17th Street bridge in Waco. Its windows are obscured by rusty metal bars, a callback to its former life as a welding shop, and it sits among two rows of massive cement pillars that support the bridge, so cars constantly roll overhead with a rhythmic ka-thunk ka-thunk. The name "Balcones" refers to a fault line that stretches across the state and near Waco, a vast underground geological structure formed millions of years ago, producing springs throughout Central Texas and luring settlers with perpetual fresh water.
Six score and a few hangovers later, Chip Tate's little distillery offers a new kind of allure. Tate spent this summer working on a new copper still that includes a slender column that stands about 3 feet tall. It resembles a witch's hat and tilts slightly to the right. During a recent tour, the piece was perched alone in a corner of the main office, patiently waiting to be welded to the rest of the still. Each time Tate walked past he'd pause to admire his work.
At an early age, Tate was fascinated with baking. In high school, between studying and track workouts, he labored over loaves of bread, compelled by the idea that different bakers could take the same basic ingredients and create completely different end products. It led to long encyclopedia-reading sessions on the science of yeast. After graduation, Tate wanted to attend culinary school, but his parents scoffed at the idea. Instead, he turned to engineering and headed off to college on a physics scholarship. But in the classroom, that nagging question — "Why?" — kept getting in the way of the hows and whats of science, and delivered him instead to the philosophy department. Later he studied divinity and dabbled in craft beer, which some might argue belong in the same college. Now, it's whiskey.
In the summer of 2009, Balcones released Texas' first state-made whiskey since Prohibition. Baby Blue, made with a roasted blue corn meal, won five medals, including double gold, at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. This October, the little distillery under the bridge won five double gold medals at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, plus two golds for single malt and Texas rum, as well as the sweepstakes Best in Show for all brown spirits. Balcones was also named Whiskey Magazine's Icons of Whisky Craft Distiller of the Year for 2012 and 2014.
Until now, though, even Texas' biggest booze nerds could be forgiven for never having sampled Tate's products. A bottle of Balcones can be hard to come by because of low production capacity and high demand. That's why Balcones recently acquired a 65,000-square-foot building, a storage space built in 1923 that survived a 1953 tornado, five blocks away from the current 2,600-square-foot facility. It's got good bones, and it will allow Tate to sate the many thirsty palates that've long sought his particular style of liquid art.
Tate's timing couldn't be better. Along with the general rise of locavorism, there's an amber wave of resurgence in craft distilling across the country. In 2005 there were just 50 craft distilleries across the United States. That number has increased to more than 350. Texas, which had just 20 distilleries two years ago, now has 50. And new state laws have made distilling even more attractive: Starting this year, distillers can sell bottles of their liquor for off-site consumption and glasses of it on-site, opening new revenue streams for craft liquor producers.
So what are those distillers so mad about?
Kentucky, of course, has long been rightfully known as America's whiskey mecca, owing largely to the limestone aquifers lying beneath the Bluegrass Region. But it's not the only state sitting on limestone aquifers. Texas has them, too, big ones even, and they act as a natural filter and add calcium to water, which later in the distilling process mingles well with yeast.
Like old leather boots, smoke and grit, there are other fundamental characteristics of Texas that make it a beautiful place to distill whiskey — namely the menacing sun that rises long and high in the big Texas sky each summer. The wider the gap between hot and cold temperatures, the better the conditions for barrel-aging whiskey. Through the seasons, at night and during the day, wood inhales and exhales whiskey in long, deep breaths. During summers, as temperatures soar, pressure builds in barrels and alcohol pushes its way into the capillaries of the wood. Then, as temperatures fall, the whiskey is sucked back out of the wood, with additional flavor complexities in tow. Dramatic differences in temperatures intensify this process, which is why Texas whiskey matures more quickly than whiskey made in cooler environments.
The other essential variable to whiskey is grain, of which Texas has plenty, particularly in the Panhandle. Along with a bit of science savvy, deep pockets and fortitude, the state has all of the essentials for a fine bottle of whiskey.