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Chip Tate Talks Craft Whiskey, Texas And Mixing Art With Business

Charles “Chip” Tate has been a lot of things since founding Balcones Distilling in 2008: award winning distiller, craft whiskey artisan, non-conformist and the face of one of the most exciting distilleries of the past six years. Unfortunately, the last six months have been defined mostly by disagreements between Tate and majority shareholders of his now former distillery.

The details of this falling out are well documented at this point – Tate was ultimately bought out by the other investors and has started down a path towards new goals under a new company. I recently took some time to talk with Tate about whiskey, the state of craft distilling and what is in the future for a master craftsman.

Putting Art in a Bottle

There is a reason so many people stood behind Tate when things went sour at Balcones. The craft whiskey market has exploded over the past few years and with it consumers have become far more invested in what they are drinking. When you have an informed customer you have to think beyond the basics of selling your product and Tate has taken pride in his approach to making whiskey.

The one, the only Chip Tate (image via Chip Tate)
The one, the only Chip Tate (image via Chip Tate)

Also, when you take part in a trade that has been practiced for centuries, getting the details right becomes exponentially more important. Tate seems to understand the old way of thinking may not hold as much sway as it once did.

“It’s kind of a weird thing because I think people sort of try to put a split between the business aspects and the artistic aspects, but the way you get a business advantage is by doing well on the art.” – Chip Tate

And do it well he has – under Tate’s watchful eye Balcones Distilling won dozens of awards and cultivated a huge following. Those followers are the same people that stood behind Tate six months ago and the same followers he hopes will join him on his next venture.

Still, I believe that people look at the craft distillery business and associate it with the charm of a small business, perhaps forgetting how competitive it actually is. Since I have a tendency to reflect my own concerns onto the people I am speaking with, I asked Tate how you can approach being noticed when everywhere you look another distiller is trying just as hard to stand out.

“It’s not that its easy, they are all part and parcel, but the best way to beat your competition is not always to think about your competition, think about your race. Don’t think about how fast you need to run to beat the guy next to you, think about how fast you can run.” – Chip Tate

This strategy has seen great success in the past for Tate and one can only assume the same will be said for his next business. He similarly compares this notion to an actual artist. You don’t paint a piece with the notion that you are going to beat the other artists at the gallery. You present your best effort in a bottle and you trust that the people that appreciate your art will be there to pick it up.

Crafting Locally

As much as Tate made his name in the industry at large, what I really wanted was to get the perspective of local craft distilling from someone that has experienced it from the ground up. Throughout the history of alcohol the flavors have often been defined by the area in which they are manufactured and until the last hundred years or so that was more of a necessity than a trend.

However, in an age when you can get ingredients from halfway across the world at your door overnight it’s reasonable to assume that we may be losing the image of locally inspired drinks. For Tate, and other distillers like him, the option to source locally is a choice they are happy to make. In Waco, Texas it’s not always realistic to get every ingredient from within 100 miles of the distillery, but wherever you are there will be options you can’t find anywhere else.

It becomes a matter of experimenting with local ingredients, flavors, people and, ultimately, being a part of the place that you are working out of. This is a philosophy that works well in the heart of Texas, but is applicable also to any distillery in the world. When asked what his personal experience is with sourcing locally:

 “By doing that you directly and indirectly create the style of the whiskey. Sometimes you know exactly what that is going to be and sometimes you find out what that’s going to be after the fact.” – Chip Tate

This was part of a larger conversation about experimenting with local flavors – a process that has become of signature of craft distillers. Those that operate on the cutting edge are by that very nature closest to the danger of that same blade which in many ways is what makes local whiskey so endearing. When your product routinely sells out, which his did, you do not have the luxury of failed experiments because each batch is destined for a shelf.

Despite this risk, Tate has demonstrated a keen eye for finding those extra touches that elevate his product from a cult following to mainstream success. These methods will likely translate for the future of craft distilling in general and more specifically for Tate’s future company.

Starting Something New

At this point I’ve discussed Balcones Distilling at length and Chip Tate’s illustrious contributions there, but as I stated at the beginning I did not feel the need to elaborate on Tate’s split from the company he founded. A big reason for that is because within minutes of speaking with Tate it became clear that he was extremely focused. At first I assumed, like most successful people, that this was just a reflection of his personality. However, by the end of our conversation it was clear that this is the natural effect of a man working towards yet another huge milestone in his life.

The new home for Chip Tate's next distillery (image via Chip Tate)
The new home for Chip Tate’s next distillery (image via Chip Tate)

Tate & Co. Distillery is the next step in an already stellar career from a master distiller and really it’s what I find most interesting coming out of the breakup at Balcones. The initial focus will be on crafting a local brandy tradition – something Tate has expressed interest in exploring before. He was quick to reference all that we had discussed up to this point regarding locally sourced and experimentation of flavors as an exciting function of the brandy he will be producing.

This will all build into 2016 when Tate & Co. Distillery will be jumping back into doing similar styles of corn whiskey, malt whiskey and a few other things to look forward to. One thing that will became abundantly clear in the years to come: you can throw a lot of adversity at Chip Tate, but you can’t keep the man from doing what he does best.

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