The distiller's view

The distiller's view

Mark Gillespie looks at why the craft movement is important
Mark Gillespie

28 October 2011

Publication: Issue 99

Waco, Texas is in the middle of what’s known as the “Bible Belt” in the United States. It is home to Baylor University, a Baptist-affiliated college that maintains a “dry” campus with zero tolerance for alcohol. A few blocks away from campus lies the Balcones Distilling Company, where former Baylor employee Chip Tate makes Balcones Baby Blue Whiskey.

“We didn’t just want to make whiskey in Texas… but make Texas styles of whiskey”, Tate says. Tate came up with the recipe for Balcones Baby Blue using blue corn, which is native to the American Southwest.

It’s used to make tortillas, corn chips, and cornbread mixes, and is known for softer starches and higher protein levels than so-called “white corn” used in Bourbon production. “Being of the French school of cooking and the Scottish school of distilling, one criticism you can make of Bourbon is that it’s got to be at least 51 per cent corn, but it doesn’t taste like corn at all,” Tate says. “The concept of what we’re trying to do is create a Texas corn whiskey style that is just as aged and elegant and refined, if not more so, than a Bourbon. It’s not moonshine, but it tastes like corn.”

Balcones Distilling is part of an explosion in “craft distilling” in the United States. According to the American Distilling Institute, a trade organisation for craft distillers, there were 69 licensed craft distilleries in the U.S. in 2003.

Today, the ADI has 240 licensed members nationally. Most are brewers or winemakers who have added the ability to produce vodkas, liqueurs, and other spirits in addition to unaged “white whiskey” that can be produced and sold quickly while waiting for aged whiskey to mature.

Tate is taking a slower approach. So slow, in fact, that he didn’t even start distilling until he had fabricated his own stills, condensers, and other equipment by hand.

“There’s no better way to get a direct feel for how equipment affects the whiskey that comes off the stills”, Tate says. “I’m the one who built it, I’m the one who’s tweaked it and repaired it…”

Balcones Baby Blue is by nature limited in quantity, but is available in Texas, New York, and Glasgow.

Not Glasgow, Kentucky…the OTHER Glasgow. It’s on the shelf next to some of the world’s best-selling American whiskies at the Good Spirits Company on Bath Street in Glasgow, Scotland.

“Our ethos is all about stocking the products you can’t find in other stores,” said co-owner Mark Connelly.

“We have a supplier that specialises in many small batch/producer products. It was simply a case of seeing it on their pricelist…and it was recommended.”

It’s nearly 900 miles from Waco to Chicago, but Chip Tate and Robert Bernicker might as well be next-door neighbours. Bernicker is the distiller at Koval Distillery on Chicago’s North Side, and with his wife makes 100 per cent organic Kosher single-barrel whiskies using wheat, rye, and more esoteric grains like oats, spelt and millet.

“My grandfather has been a distiller for over 40 years in Austria,” Bernicker says. “We had our regular careers…but distilling is something we know how to do, so we started a distillery.”

Their “Lion’s Pride” whiskies are named after their son, Lion, and the Bernickers produce both aged and unaged versions as well as liqueurs.

Of course, craft distilling is an old tradition in Europe, where Bernicker’s family continues to distill fruit-based spirits. However, the worldwide growth in whisky sales has encouraged more craft distillers to produce whisky as well.

Frédéric Revol, and Jérémy Bricka teamed up to form Domaine des Hautes Glaces in the town of Saint Jean d’Hérans, located in the French Alps. Together, they are working with local organic farmers to malt and distill their own organic single malt whisky using renewable energy sources. Revol and Bricka have already started to bottle their new organic spirit, and are offering connoisseurs a unique opportunity: buy an empty bottle now, and it comes with the right to visit the distillery at any point in the future and fill it with vintage whisky from the original production run.

That, of course, assumes the Domaine will be around 10, 20 or many more years in the future. Just as with any small business, the obstacles to long term survival for craft distillers are formidable, especially given the amount of time required for whisky to age.

One thing to keep in mind, though…today’s craft distillers have much in common with the distillers of the past. George Smith of The Glenlivet, Jack Daniels, the Beam family, and countless other distillers all started out the same way.

Their caves and barns may be today’s garages and warehouses, but the dream remains the same.

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