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nia, I A LONE STAR LIFE Not Everything Is Bigger in Texas ARE THESE GUYS MAKING THE BEST CORN WHISKEY IN AMERICA? by Anthony Head / photo by Kirk Weddle know this is the middle of the genteel holiday season, but this story takes place just before Halloween, when the desire for true Texas whiskey brought me to Waco. Notwithstanding some unfortunate local historical events (and the mostly inaccurate mythology that surrounds them), this central Texas city is pleasant enough to visit, and I felt hopeful, but lost. I’d been advised to look for the 40-foot blue storage container as a suitable landmark, but it came as something of a shock to find it sitting under an old train bridge and nearly dwarfing the world headquar- ters of Balcones Distilling. Inside the diminutive building, my first thoughts were for the Chilean coalminers, who were, at that time, still trapped deep inside the planet in a 500-square-foot enclo- sure. Balcones isn’t that small, but it’s dark and it feels just as tight because the space is dominated by a pair of 235-gallon, hand-hammered copper pot stills. The rest of the floorspace is also at a premium, crammed with welding tanks, various distilling equipment, an old dumbbell set (for some reason), boxes of labels and bottles, and count- less five-gallon barrels. There were also several bearded men milling about. This is the world of micro-distilling, where “artisan“ doesn’t always mean artsy. When Balcones founder, President and Head Distiller Chip Tate introduced himself (bearded and looking tired), he said he was quite fond of the cozy building because he and his bearded crew pounded out and welded the copper stills and did most of the other construction needed to transform a former welding supply shop into a distillery. He also admitted the 2600-square-foot interior felt “really freaking small.” “We desperately need more space. That’s what I’m work- ing on now,” he told me, while leading the way through the dungeon to a small (naturally) dark lab to taste the rea- son for my trip: Baby Blue. Balcones’s signature product, which took Double Gold at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and was awarded 95 points from THE TASTING PANEL, is a premium whiskey that’s significant in several ways: It’s Texas’s first legally distilled whiskey to be sold since Prohibition; and not only is it a 100 percent corn whiskey, but it’s likely the only one in the world made from Hopi blue corn. “I wanted some corn with guts and really nice flavor,” Chip told me. “We tasted many variet- ies, but the Hopi blue corn had depth and elegance. We needed that to create something that would truly express a corn flavor.” They nailed it. Baby Blue’s buttery masa foundation is enriched with notes of mocha and rich nuttiness. It’s an exciting spirit of frontier mentality with 21st-century sophistication. And it’s what result from hand-crafting a spirit inside a hand-crafted distillery, because being intimately knowledgeable about the heat exchangers and condensers powering the stills obviously means more control and confidence when the day’s work turns to fermenting, mashing and distilling. Whatever you do, however, don’t call Baby Blue a bourbon. “It is corn and it is aged, but it is not bourbon,” Chip insisted. “We’re trying to do something with a lot of character. It’s a different and unique style of aged corn whiskey that is sort of an analogue to malt whiskey.” Simply put, it’s corn whiskey that actually smells and tastes like corn. And it was Chip’s vision, but he couldn’t do it all himself. Balcones includes co-founder Stephen Germer, Production Manager and Distiller Jared Himstedt and a very small but dedicated contingent of bearded crew members, many of whom came to whiskey through a love of home brewing (same as Chip). Himstedt finds the micro-distilling movement reminiscent of the early days of craft-brewing. “There are many similarities to that initial freedom of coloring outside the lines. The coming explosion of craft spirits will mean a lot more people breaking the rules. And that means, eventually, the creation of spirits categories that don’t exist yet.” Over the next hour or so, we tasted through younger stuff, older stuff, young stuff that tasted mature and mature stuff that tasted lively. There was also some stuff yet to be named (yet to even be identified, really), because Chip’s fondness for experimentation means there are always barrels of something waiting for release, or refine- ment, or just enjoying. “I’m trying desperately to shift production from cases to pallets, but I just want to play,” Chip said. “The more whiskey I make, the more I want to experiment. That’s the problem with being so small. All I want for Christmas is better problems.” His wish-list also includes some mana- gerial/office assistance and a lot more guys . . . beards not mandatory. december 2010 / the tasting panel / 109

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