September 6, 2014 by Bourbon Empire
There is clearly something in the water supply of Waco, Texas, inspiring dramatic standoffs that end in fire and brimstone. Preliminary reports are scattered and incomplete, but the majority shareholders in Waco’s Balcones Distilling have suspended and placed a restraining order against wunderkind master distiller Chip Tate after he allegedly threatened to burn down the distillery and shoot one of the investors in the chest over an unspecified dispute about the future of the business.
Whiskey geeks are rightly concerned that the move will destroy an outfit that has arguably become the brightest star of the nascent craft whiskey movement. Tate is the creative impresario behind the entire enterprise and the imagination behind the distillery’s novel whiskey styles, and his fate is ultimately the fate of Balcones. I, like most, have eagerly cheered on Balcones’ efforts to introduce more variety back into America’s whiskey landscape, and hope this present impasse doesn’t go the way of the Alamo.
But at this point, with the restraining order preventing Tate from telling his side of the story, it’s impossible to know what’s really happening, although many seem to have already formed opinions. The incident has given whiskey geeks reason to grow out their dreds and litter Twitter with #freechiptate hash tags. But is this a case of heartless money men suffocating the artistry of a talented craftsman? Perhaps. Or is this a case of reining in a prima donna who let the gushing praise of foodie cheerleaders go to his head before, and let’s be truly honest about this, his whiskey was as good as it could be?
I have no idea, nor do most people who have started commenting on it, no doubt inspired by their understandable desire to support a distiller doing some very cool things.
But that support also needs to consider another reality of whiskey: it’s an art, but it’s also a business–always has been, always will be. And when you’re a majority investor in something, you’re not buying silence or zero influence (unless you’re some kind of modern-day Medici). What’s most fascinating to me about America’s burgeoning whiskey renaissance is how it will navigate the coupling between art and commerce, a relationship that isn’t as mutually exclusive as most of us want to believe. I suspect our current notions of “craft” skew our understanding of how much capital is involved for these endeavors to succeed, but the future of craft whiskey is going to rely on relationships between money men and talent.
If one thing is for sure here, both sides of the Balcones debate stand to lose. Tate apparently needs the capital, but capital never comes carte blanche (and let’s be really honest and unromantic here: that’s not always a bad thing). Of course, if the investors lose Tate, the outfit is toast. The guy clearly has an inspired vision for whiskey.
So far, the best commentary on the matter has come from Clay Risen and Simon Seaton, two writers who hold the rare but much-needed ability to judge whiskey based solely on what’s in the glass, rather than by the peripheral associations of who made it. Risen puts it nicely: “Tate is one of the best whiskey men in the country, but I don’t think Balcones is one of the best whiskeys.” And here’s what Seaton says: “[Tate] produced some rather interesting, sometimes great, often weird and occasionally (in my opinion) average whisky…However the whisky media and bloggers went “super ape shit crazy” (technical term) for his stuff, some with good reason and some for reasons I can’t begin to fathom.”
Both of these opinions remind me of a conversation I had with a well-known spirits writer earlier this year. We were discussing how exciting it is to try Balcones’ spirits, but then he stopped me short and said, “But let’s be honest, most of the stuff just isn’t that good yet.”
All of these comments point to what I think is the really story here: Balcones’ incredible potential. We’ve had glimpses of some brilliant stuff and some incredible teasers, but it still only spells potential, albeit a kind of potential I expect will be fully realized some day. When will that be? The Balcones juice I’m most excited about is the stuff we’ll hopefully get by the mid-2020s (the Balcones I’ve had recently was startling better than the stuff from a couple of years ago). The timeline seems frustratingly long, but it’s probably realistic, considering the kind of time it requires to truly make, and learn how to make, great whiskey.
And that kind of time is going to require a ton of outside capital that most talented emerging distillers probably don’t have. This in mind, hopefully Tate will now put down his gun, his financial overlords will take a deep breath, and everyone will return to their respective roles. The rest of us our getting thirsty.