Head Distiller, welder, father of five and really cool guy!
Could you tell us a little more about yourself please?
I had somewhat of an eclectic background before founding Balcones (@BalconesWhisky). I started off studying physics but ended up with my undergraduate in philosophy and going on to a Masters of Divinity–strange, but true. However, from an early age, I became intensely interested in cooking and baking and, later, brewing. My love of cooking and background in brewing played a big part in making me and Balcones what they are.
I was interested to learn you have always had an interest in food and flavours, starting back in High School. How much has this shaped your decision to produce whisky?
From a young age, my mother taught me how to bake. This flourished into an early passion for food and drink, playing around with different types of yeasts. This progressed into my passion for brewing and eventually distilling. The same compositional approach that I have always taken with cooking, brewing and, now, distilling is a thread throughout. I really try to start with deeply interesting ingredients and let the process try to bring out the best in them.
I love the fact that you literately built the distillery from scratch, this must have been time consuming and stressful, what prompted you to make this decision as oppose to just simply buying in products?
Frankly, first and foremost money! Seriously though, we started the distillery on a shoe string and many of the decisions to build rather than buy equipment were born of necessity. In retrospect, however, I am deeply grateful that we were forced to build our own gear.
Not only was it a tremendous learning process, but it has shaped the whisky we make in very important ways. Many aspects of our equipment, especially our stills and condensers, are different in important ways from conventional gear. It’s also true that we wanted to create a truly crafted spirit and tradition from the bottom up, starting with the distillery. I taught myself how to weld and within a few months had a working still, functioning as a wash and spirit still. Within nine months we had created and bottled our first spirit. Balcones is about authenticity and true craft – making our own spirits from grain to bottle.
You have four labels of whisky which you make from corn, this differs from the norm, why corn, and more specifically blue corn? (I’m by no means a corn expert, as much as this may surprise you) but I am very intrigued by this.
Most of what we make is malt whisky although It’s true that there are four labels of corn whisky sold around the world versus only one of our single malt, but even that decision has had something to do with not wanting to make the current label of malt even more scarce by splitting it in to several labels at this point. Even so, one might argue we are at least as well known for our blue corn whiskies as anything, which is fair enough.
The entire concept of the blue corn whisky was about creating something that, conceptually, sat on the opposite end of the spectrum to the conventional styles of bourbon for which the US is so well known. Rather than make a spirit whose character is so definitely and primarily shaped by the barrel, as is the case with Bourbon, we wanted to focus on a corn whisky whose character and raison d’etre is all about the corn. In keeping with that concept, we sought out the most interesting and flavourful corn we could find, which turned out to be the roasted Hopi blue corn that we now use. I recognised blue corn’s rich oiliness and flavour, whilst making it very difficult to work with (and highly flammable!) could create fantastic flavour profiles and a depth of flavour that you wouldn’t find in other corn whiskies.
Baby Blue was the first whisky you produced, what were you specifically looking to achieve with this whisky?
Baby Blue was our very first whisky released- and was the very first Texas whisky on the market since prohibition. With this we wanted to get away from any preconceived ideas about what American whisky is about. Baby Blue celebrates the unique profile of the blue corn rather than playing on the usual characteristics of Bourbon that people might expect from an American or Texan whisky. The Balcones No.1 Texas Single Malt was the whisky I intended to make from the beginning in the distillery and will always hold a special place in our history for that reason. The other spirits were ideas I had along the way.
Was it always your ambition to create a whole new style of whisky?
In large part, definitely. That is, while we intentionally learn from and borrow methods from those who came before us, we certainly set out to add to that tradition by creating new whisky styles of our own. We often say that we don’t just make whisky in Texas, we make Texas whisky. For me that is a huge part of what founding Balcones has been about.
Have you found it hard to convince whisky stalwarts to try your product and to accept it?
We do what we do – we are passionate about the detail and craft that goes into it. We always want to spread the word of Balcones and tell our story, however people have the right to think what they want about what we are doing. We are making whisky out of our passion and drive for something new and innovative, with a twist on traditional whisky processes. Some people love that about us, some don’t. I would say to those who don’t know much about us, hear our story, taste our whiskies and then decide for yourselves. Keep an open mind to the all the exciting progressions that are taking place in world whisky at the moment and embrace the diversity and evolution.
Have you found many differences in the way Balcones has been received worldwide? Are particular expressions suited or preferred by particular countries?
Yes and no. First, I have been surprised at how universal the reception has been to what we make around the world. For instance, one wonders if those spirits most similar to or most different from the local drams will be embraced. In general, I would say it’s the spirits that stand out as most different that seem to gain the most favour in foreign markets. For instance, I think the Baby Blue and Brimstone are both liked so well in the UK and Japan because they are most different from the other options on the shelf
The Balcones range has an impressive amount of awards to its name (too numerous to mention here), which of all your whisky achievements is the most special to you?
We are so humbled to have been awarded so many prestigious, world class awards over the past few years. Each award means so much to us for different reasons, whether it is the recent win at the Wizards of Whisky 2014 awards for the World Whisky of the Year, or the BiG Award 2012 whereby our Single Malt won against some world class renowned whiskies, or the Spirits Business Grand Master of World Whisky Award. Certainly, being awarded two Icons Award from Whisky Magazine has been pivotal for us. We just appreciate all of the support we receive from such highly regarded and recognised judges.
Where do you take your inspiration from?
A love of food and cooking, definitely. All of the concepts and principals behind our whiskies are part of the culinary science of raising up a whisky.
Tell us something that people would be surprised to know about you?
Well, that’s hard, I guess. Some are surprised to know that I have 5 kids, which is a lot to balance with life at the distillery (Five kids!). I was once an assistant dean for a time, which is another story, but surprising to some.
My favourite expression so far is Brimstone, what’s yours and why?
I love all my children equally, of course, as I do my whisky creations. Seriously though, I enjoy our different spirits depending on the occasion, who I am with, what the mood is, etc. I always say you could never pick out your favourite book of all time as you have different favourites depending on several factors….. so I am afraid in a similar way it would be impossible for me to name just one whisky. I do tend to be sipping most often on whatever I’m working on blending or creating in my mind. For instance, we’ve just created a new style of bourbon you can look out for in future.
What was your first ever whisky?
I’m not sure I could remember my very first whisky, but Islay whiskies were certainly an early and formative part of my whisky past. My dad often had a bottle of Laphroaig 10 in the cabinet for special occasions that I remember well.
If you could only pick one whisky (other than anything from the Balcones range) which one would it be and why?
Ok, that’s truly impossible. But I have tried a few Sherry casks of Glenfiddich from the 1950’s recently that I could happily drown in.
For people that are still to try your range or haven’t heard of Balcones yet, which expression would you suggest to them and why?
That’s hard to answer in the abstract since my usual approach would be to find out more about what they like and dislike. There’s probably no wrong answer, unless someone doesn’t like wood smoke flavours. Brimstone might not be the place to start in that case.
What’s been your funniest whisky moment?
I do remember a rather amusing accident at a show a few years ago. There was a tremendous turnout for the show and the rather small room was getting increasingly packed and noisy. That meant the whisky was flying out of the bottles quickly as well. Well, to make a long story short, I had brought a bottle of the spring water we use to dilute the whisky as well as a bottle of new make corn spirit to the show in our usual whisky bottles. I had marked both bottles with a Sharpie marker as to which was which, but I did think to put clear tape over the markings, as I do now, to keep the writing from being rubbed off with hands and whisky. So . . . when a friend of mine came over to the table declaring that he was dying of thirst and begging for a gulp of cold water, I poured him what I THOUGHT was cold water. In fact, I had accidentally poured him a Glencairn glass full to the lip with 142 proof white corn spirit! I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone’s eyes so bright as after he downed the glass in a single gulp. And, yes, he and his liver both survived to this day.
What’s next for Balcones?
This year is all about the behind the scenes work on our new distillery – we are going from our existing 2,000sq foot space to a 65,000 sq foot four story fireproof storage building in downtown Waco, aiming to have completed our expansion by mid-2015. It is hugely exciting and helps to put Waco and Texas on the world whisky map even more. And the best part about it is that we will be able make more whisky!
Great Interview Chip, thanks so much, we are really looking forward to seeing you, along with Emily (@emilymayfox) and the Whisky Discovery Team (@WhiskyDiscovery & @WhiskyDiscovKat) at Whisky Live London!
If you’ve not tried any of the Balcones range yet, go out and give it a go, having been fortunate enough to sample many of the expressions via a Whisky Wire (@TheWhiskyWire) Tweet Tasting, we can highly recommend the range and to find out more about Balcones and their range here and keep your eyes peeled for details of an amazing, money can’t buy Balcones competition.
Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)