By Andrea Bearce
Photography by Dustin Meyer
"Do you want to try some of this stuff?” asks Chip Tate, president and head distiller of Balcones Distillery in Waco. Without waiting for an answer, Tate leads me to the tasting room in the corner of his small but mighty distillery, where he lines up several bottles and explains the nuances of each as I taste. He tells me to breathe in the aromas slowly—pointing out the distinct scents in his award-winning whiskey, Baby Blue.
“There’s a lot of buttered popcorn,” he says as he swirls the glass. “There’s definitely masa, and a light bit of citrus. There’s actually—buried way, way down—a lightly smoked pepper aroma.”
Released in 2009, Baby Blue has enjoyed a quick rocket ride to local fame, successfully reshaping the moonshine image often associated with corn whiskey. “Most of the stuff that’s marketed as corn whiskey on the shelf is junk,” Tate says. “It’s stuff that isn’t going to redefine your aesthetic sense of beauty, it’s going to kick
your ass and make you feel good. We’re not just trying to make whiskey in Texas; we’re trying to make Texas whiskey. We are trying to create a tradition.”
To elevate Baby Blue above other tipples, Tate imports Hopi blue corn from New Mexico. While he could purchase generic corn for 15¢ a pound, Tate insists the blue corn is worth its whopping $1.60 price tag. “I just wanted the best corn,” he says. “It’s a question of flavor.”
Tate accentuates the unique character and flavor profile of the blue corn by barrel aging the whiskey. He’s able to speed up the maturation process by using much smaller barrels than other distilleries use. “Our stuff is typically about four months old,” he notes, “which is about the equivalent of five to seven years in a larger barrel.”
Balcones Distillery lacks a climate-controlled cask room, which means the barrels are affected by the regular rise and fall of room temperature created by running the stills. “The thermal cycles are important because when the barrel gets warm, it pushes that liquid deep into the wood,” says Tate. “And then when it cools back down, it draws it back out of the wood and brings in air. Oxidation is a really important part of maturation.”
While bigger distilleries may go through one or two thermal cycles per year, Tate says that Balcones can experience two to three cycles per week. “That’s probably the biggest factor that helps the whiskey mature more quickly . . . the cycles happen so much faster,” he says.
Tate’s method appears to be working; demand for Baby Blue currently spans from California to London. And having just won a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the whiskey is positioned for orders to grow exponentially. In Austin, Baby Blue, as well as Rumble (their cask-aged fruit brandy) have become staples for local bartenders like Tipsy Texan’s David Alan, who says that Baby Blue’s unique flavors make it fun and challenging to work with.
Lara Nixon, also a member of the Tipsy Texan team, agrees. “The blue corn is delicate and complicated,” she says. “I like bright flavors and products that build on, and enhance, the blue corn properties. For example, lemon, cherries, oranges and blueberries . . . those are bright, fresh flavors that open up the blue-corn taste.” Nixon won the 2009 Drink Local Cocktail Contest with her Baby Blue-infused entry, We’re in It for the Corn (click to see the recipe).
As the first whiskey distillery in Texas since prohibition, and the first to distill an all blue-corn whiskey anywhere, Balcones Distillery continues to turn heads. And Tate is taking Baby Blue one step further with the eagerly anticipated True Blue—an undiluted, cask-strength version of its predecessor, soon to hit store shelves.
“We’re trying to do something that’s novel,” he says. “More importantly, we’re trying
to do something that’s authentic.”