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Balcones Distilling celebrates 5 years with international acclaim and limited special releases

Traditional anniversary gifts range anywhere from paper for the first year to diamonds for the 60th. A five-year anniversary usually calls for something made of wood. But in the case of Balcones Distilling, they’re going straight for gold. No matter that the desirable metal is something saved for a 50-year milestone, these guys have accomplished about that much in the short five years they’ve been around. Besides, the lovely spirit they produce in their line of hand-crafted whiskies is as good as liquid gold.

But don’t take my word for it. Instead, you can take a look at the growing collection of medals for the distillery's portfolio of seven whiskies. All in all, they have more than 30, more than half of which are gold or double gold from internationally renowned competitions.

Perhaps no recognition has been quite as impressive as a recent win in London. In December 2012, Balcones Single Malt Whisky bested nine other single malt whiskies in a blind tasting as Best In Glass, a judging of new international whisky releases. Balcones topped storied Scottish brands Macallen, Balvenie and Glenmorangie as well as a few Japanese contenders.

Many call the win the “Judgment of London,” reminiscent of the 1976 "Judgment of Paris,” in which the first ever California Cabernet Sauvignon (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) and Chardonnay (Chateau Montelena) to take first place over a range of French red and white wines. (See the movie Bottle Shock for a complete story.)

This, amid a veritable boom in Texas distilleries with quality whiskies from Garrison Brothers distillery and Ranger Creek distillery, not to mention a whole host of other spirits, including vodka, rum and gin. But with its surprising elevation of international esteem and a fast growing distribution in the U.K., Australia and Japan, it’s clear that Balcones is the front runner for setting a Texas spirit standard.

We recently caught up with President and Master Distiller Chip Tate to see just how momentous this fifth birthday really is.

CultureMap: Five years ago, could you have imagined, you’d be at this level of international acclaim?

Chip Tate: Five years ago, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to pay our electric bill, much less envision all of this. There was really no way to predict this. And there’s honestly no way to predict what the next five years will look like, but I’m pretty happy with the direction it’s taking.

CM: In 2012, you received some pretty big accolades from your international compatriots. What was that like?

CT: Well, all of the recognition we’ve received is a big deal to us. But the things that I think are of note in terms of being unexpected include winning Best in Show in the New York Wine and Spirits Competition for our Single Malt.

And more recently, winning both Best Craft Distillery in the U.S. and Best Global Distillery from the Wizards of Whisky by the Craft Distillers Alliance, which is based out of London. That put us above companies like Suntory and Irish Distillers, which owns Jameson Irish Whiskey, RedBreast, Paddy’s and more. But what really blew us away was winning the blind tasting Best in Glass competition. The British were holding a competition on a traditionally British style of drink and a non-Brit won. A Texas one at that!

CM: How has all of this attention affected your production?

CT: To be honest, we can’t keep up. We are oversold by as little as 3-to-1 and as much as 6-to-1 in everything we make. There are people who are getting extremely mad about specific labels like the Single Malt and Brimstone. But we can only get so much out there at a time because there’s an aging time frame to consider.

CM: You’re currently working in a 2,200 square-foot warehouse. Do you have plans to expand?

CT: We’ve already bought a 65,000 square-foot warehouse; I’m moving forward with renovating that new space, getting some more stills and barrels, but that changes nothing as far as what we can produce in the next year. It’s impossible to rush it.

CM: How long do you typically age your whiskies?

CT: We typically don’t age whiskies for more than two years, and we use a variety of barrels from American, French and European. But being counter-cultural people, we are about to release some straight whiskies.

CM: Okay, for those who need context on that, here’s a basic definition: Whisky is any distilled alcohol made from fermented grain mash that could be barley, rye, wheat or corn. It’s typically aged in wooden casks (barrels), but doesn’t have to be aged for any specific amount of time. To have a “straight whisky,” on the label, it must be aged for a minimum of two years.

CT: Right. There’s a little more to it — particularly if you start talking about bourbon — but that’s generally correct. We’re going to have some special 5th Anniversary releases.

They will all be cask-strength, meaning it won’t be diluted before bottling. They will all be single-barrel releases, which means there will only be about 100-150 bottles of each. Some of them will be things that you know that we make, and some will be things you didn’t think we will make. It may be hard for some people to get ahold of these things, but we will have it out there in limited distribution. The first out will be our first and only barrel ever produced of straight bourbon. 

CM: And they will all be amazing?

CT: Yes.

CM: So, considering the general population won’t have much of an opportunity to find some of these special anniversary releases, can you talk about why you made them? Will you make them again?

CT: We love playing with tradition and we’re very traditional in lots of ways, but we also refuse to be constrained by tradition. We use brandy methods on whisky. We smoke whisky, but we don’t use peat. We’re not smoking grain, we’re smoking spirit. So you could say, that’s something totally different. Kind of yes, and kind of no. Making whisky from corn is not something we came up with. We just tweak the ways people have been doing it for centuries.

With our new facility, I’ll have a chance to play with a lot of the ideas I have that will hopefully allow us to make more whiskies like these special releases.

CM: What advice do you have to other distilleries out there who are watching you and Balcones carve new paths in the world of craft distilling?

Tate: This is something I care very much about. I want craft spirits to be everything they can be. I want them to be excellent. I want them to be authentic. And I’m excited about anyone who’s in support of that.

There’s a lot of debate over what authenticity is in the whisky world, but that’s for another story. For now I just want to make good whisky, and I’ll support anyone out there who wants to do the same.

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Listen to Jessica Dupuy's feature about local spirits and Balcones Distilling on KUT.

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