Chip Tate Phone Conversation, The Conclusion: The Lawsuit, Baby Blue and the Undiscovered Country

If you didn’t read part 1 of my conversation with Chip Tate, please catch up on my blog:

I felt I could not have a call with Chip Tate without asking about the lawsuit.  At this point in the conversation I had determined that he wasn’t the Wild West character he often is portrayed to be, and was thoroughly confident that my safety was not in jeopardy if the question was posed tactfully.  It turns out my knowledge was incomplete based on the New York Times article.  Ultimately, significant bad blood remains between some of the former investors and Chip, but Chip made clear that he is moving past this and on to bigger and better things.  Balcones was his baby, and it is not easy to let that go, but sometimes business decisions trump emotional ones.  Chip is trying to embody the old adage that the best revenge is living well as opposed to the old Klingon proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold.  His revenge?  Well, having stills that are much bigger than the last time, production that will dwarf the old capacity and producing a better product through using the institutional knowledge gained from Balcones.

I also wanted to know about Baby Blue.  Those who read my blog a couple weeks ago know my disappointment from my purchase, so I inquired what was different between now and before.  I additionally asked for his opinion to whether it was new Balcones that screwed it up so much after his departure.  (To be fair, I have never tried the Baby Blue from years past so if anyone reading this has an old sample they are willing to share, please DM me.)  Chip compared Baby Blue to a 16 year old on an Olympic team… Paraphrased: “there aren’t many 16 year olds on teams like this, most are 26yrs old, and it’s certainly not any 16yr old that makes the team… the person has to be very special.  Most great athletes at 16, wouldn’t make the cut, even if they do by the age of 26.”  This long metaphor is how he sees Baby Blue, finally crystalizing the point that “not all great whiskeys are great at a young age.”  He claimed that when he was bottling at Balcones, he would taste every barrel and find the ones that were, and he admitted this was an oxymoron, “young mature whiskeys.”  Only the exceptional ones would make the final product.  Chip said that out of 300 barrels, only 20-30 would be considered for Baby Blue.  I asked him if he thought that instead of only pulling 1 out of 10 to make the final product if Balcones was now using the entire production.  He replied that he does not know what they are doing now, but reading between the lines, I get the feeling that he believes they are, and that’s why the final product has suffered.

Our conversation touched on how he views investors, as some articles have intimated long standing battles between him and former investors.  He wanted to make sure that everyone understood that he 100% believes that investors should profit from any investment in his ventures, as it’s a business and if you invest, you should make money.  Going forward he plans increased discretion and enhanced due diligence on potential investors in addition to modified investment structures.  He clarified for the new venture, he’s going to be running the business and that no one should invest if they don’t have full faith in him to do it.  “Don’t bet on the horse if you don’t think he can finish the race.”  Whether it’s 16 year old Olympians, horses, Wyatt Earp or the physics of cell phone reception, Chip always has something interesting to say in a colorful fashion.
Chip expects to be up and running by the Fall, with young whiskeys and other spirits following soon afterwards.  What does not kill you makes you stronger is a cliche that appears to fit with the Chip Tate story.   A deeply thoughtful man, passionate about his work but without pretension; Chip is one of the few people in the industry that has the attention to detail from the very basic fundamental level all the way to the top with the ability and desire to roll up his sleeves to get into the mix as well.  It was a pleasure to speak with him and I look forward to trying the new product once Tate & Co is fully operational.

Forged Oak: Orphan Barrel Series Continued: More Focus on Marketing, Less on Distilling/Blending…

As promised the continuation of the Orphan Barrel Series tastings: Forged Oak.

Forged Oak, the youngest of the Orphan Barrel Series clocks in at a 90.5 proof level and 15 years of age in the barrel.  It is also the least expensive of the bunch, costing me a mere $60, although some retailers have decided to charge upwards of $100.  I found it in Cape Cod over July 4th weekend, and everywhere in NYC has priced it higher.  Too bad shipping across state lines has been severely curtailed–call your Congressman!

I repeat my earlier thoughts on Old Blowhard for Forged Oak: the bottle looks really cool, and it looks great on my shelf.  All five together look great, and it is a testament to the marketing folks at Diageo for coming up with some spectacular label designs, although it seems they spent more effort on the label and the PR work than with the whiskey itself.  The label is silver with a huge stag on the front, perhaps an allusion to Mr. Stagg?  Who knows… but they do drop the S-W Bomb on the side label, claiming to have “found” this bottle “while foraging through the racks of barrels in the historic Stitzel-Weller rickhouse.”  OK, who doesn’t get excited by S-W, but from what I can tell online, this was distilled at New Bernheim (now owned by Heaven Hill) and stored at the S-W rickhouse.  The mash bill is 86% corn, 8% barley and 6% rye.  This is “hand bottled” with pride in Tullahoma and is number 11,596.

The color is dark butterscotch, very reminiscent of a 18 year old Scotch.

My initial prejudice was to get a ton of wood on the nose, however, that was not my initial impression.  I got apple pie, butterscotch, baking spices, and only on the second time did I get the wood notes.  Old Blowhard had gotten me all ramped up about over-oaking, but this bottle does not suffer from the same neglect.  It also hits you like you are going to get a bunch of heat, but teases you because the heat on the back of your throat never kicks in.

The sweetness on the nose is confirmed on the palate, with medium heat.  The finish is more heat than flavor though as it does not linger as long as I hoped it would.  The wood comes though on the tongue, but the tannins are just fine.  It’s unfortunate that this was bottled at only 90.5 proof as it seems to be lacking a backbone that it could have had if it was cask strength.

I added some water to see what would happen and the nose changed.  This time it was more fruit forward, apples, bananas: sweeter and lighter.  However, when I tasted it, everything just fell apart.  The water removed whatever flavor there was and just left me with wet disappointment personified.  Warning: DO NOT ADD WATER.  This reinforced my previous notion that had Forged Oak been bottled at 115-130 proof it might have been an impressive whiskey.

Overall, this was an enjoyable Bourbon. It’s not amazing, and it’s probably not as limited release as people think it is either.  If you can find a bottle for $60, it’s probably worth buying because it looks nice on the shelf, and your friends might want to try it, but there are many better buys for the same price or less out there.  If your local store has it for $100, the decision not to buy it becomes far easier.  I’m rating this one higher than Old Blowhard because it’s cheaper and the overall experience was more enjoyable–I even went for seconds.  86/100


Phone Conversation with Chip Tate: Wyatt Earp or Dr Egon?

I had the pleasure of speaking with Chip Tate on the phone this weekend, discussing his new venture, his old venture, trends in the marketplace and life in general.  If you have read previous articles about him, keep reading, because you may see a different side of Chip compared to how he has typically been portrayed.  When I started this blog a couple weeks ago I never expected to be invited to chat on the phone with Chip Tate, especially after I completed bashed Balcones; I just wanted to blog about bourbon.  But life is a journey and I’m just following the road…

My general impression of Chip prior to my conversation was a man with a similar demeanor to a Wyatt Earp gun slinging Texan intertwined with knack for distilling; but very quickly into our hour long conversation, I realized that the reality is very different.  He is thoughtful, reasonable, entertaining and scientific.  He is far from the portraits painted online, but if there was going to be a fight at the O.K. Corral, I’d still rather be on his side than facing him…

When I phoned, cell reception was poor and he inquired if I lived in a steel framed house (I don’t, I just happen to live a couple miles north of the nearest cell tower in CT).  This morphed into a four minute explanation of electricity, cell phone signals and their reactive properties with steel frames.  Extremely thoughtful, but not pretentious, Chip’s attention to detail for his work starts right at the beginning of the story of his new distillery.

Post-physics lesson, I asked Chip what he has been up to and he said he has been building stills for Tate & Co Distillery, his new company.  Most distillers purchase their stills, but not Chip, he’s been welding them for a while–an admitted repeat still builder.  The new stills are going to be between 8-12x larger than the previous ones at Balcones and the total distilling capacity is going to be upwards of 30x, or 150,000 cases of annual production at full capacity.  While not expecting to run at capacity, their flexibility will allow Tate & Co to do one off seasonal specials like small batch brandies when certain fruits are ripe.  Their size will also allow them to engage in collaborative projects with other distilleries which promises to be exciting.  Not apply to stills, Yoda’s wisdom does…

Any conversation with Chip would not be complete without discussing “craft.”  The whiskey word of the year injects fear in the heart of many producers, forcing many to drop it from their labels (in addition to handmade, hand crafted, small batch, etc.).  Chip asserted that “[craft producers] need to add a lot of equity to the craft brand.”  After so much dilution from other so-called craft distilleries, the term craft needs to be re-established.

Chip joked that some of the largest producers have launched into the craft game by assembling myriad random barrels, slapping on fun looking labels and with full fanfare and backing by their monstrous marketing teams, announcing to the world a new craft brand.  While on the other hand, some other producers just lie about their product (you can guess which one he was talking about).  One of them recently “got their asses kicked for good reasons, as their sins are egregious.”  Chip claims there are a lot of NDPs out there that he really enjoys , but voiced his issues with the ones which spew falsehoods.  It’s one thing to omit the truth, but publishing lies is pretty low for anyone, and the consumer deserves better.  Like Chip’s previous projects, his future projects embody craft.  I mean, who builds their own stills?

I will post Part 2 of my conversation with Chip later in the weekend.

Canadian Rye Head to Head: Whistle Pig 10 vs Alberta Rye Dark Batch

Whistle Pig Straight Rye Whiskey 100% Rye 100 Proof vs Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch Canadian Blended Rye Whisky 90 Proof

Ok… I think if you are reading this blog you probably know by now that Whistle Pig is a sourced Rye from Canada, and almost certainly from Alberta Distillers Ltd.  Whistle Pig wins award after award, and their product is quite good, but the whole folksy Vermont thing is just a sham.  I’ve never cared about whether you make it yourself or just blend/finish and bottle it: I just judge the smell, taste and how it makes me feel.  I was also curious about the fairly new product from Canada, the Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch.  Their mashbill starts with two rye whiskies making up 91% blended with 8% bourbon (Old Grand-Dad) and 1% sherry wine.  Instead of doing two different tastings, I thought I would put these two brothers head to head in a classic Biblical style battle.

The colors… Whistle Pig has a light amber while the Alberta Dark Rye has a medium/dark amber color.

On the nose… Whistle Pig has the classic rye nose with some hints of vanilla, light butterscotch.  Alberta Dark Batch is not just rye, but caramel and incredibly sweet notes of a penny candy shop.  Maple syrup candy and molasses pop out on the second whiff.

Whistle Pig has a light and brisk palate, quick up front and finishes smoothly  The vanilla and butterscotch are confirmed on the palate, with a touch of anise.  It’s a clean and enjoyable, with a heat that warms like a cashmere blanket.  Dark Batch conversely has a heavy, weighty palate, soaks the mouth completely, envelops everything and the finish is goes on and on.  Massively different palates, yet both bring a smile to my face.

Although from the same home, these are massively different whiskeys, completely different nose, flavor and weight.  Not twins, not even brothers, you can’t even call these distant cousins.  But they both are very good in their own way.  I enjoy Whistle Pig slightly more and as a Straight Rye, it’s very solid.  The Vermont thing aside, they sell a very impressive product.  The ADL Dark Batch is also very good, and what it has on it’s side is it costs 1/3 the price.  Value can not be ignored.  You can’t go wrong with either one.  I was secretly hoping that they would taste identical and that I would have discovered a 1/3 priced Whistle Pig, but what I found instead was something completely different and yet extremely enjoyable.

Just tying in my piece from last night, it goes to show you how important the blending function is at a distillery.  Here are two whiskeys from the same distillery, same mash bill (before the blending), although different aging.  Because of the decisions and skills of the blender, they both end up as very good whiskeys but with completely different profiles reflecting their vision.

Alberta Rye Whiskey Dark Batch: 90/100

Whistle Pig Straight Rye Whiskey 10 Years: 91/100

PS… if anyone has a suggestion on where to find ADL aged rye without any neutral grain spirit added, please let me know.  Thanks!


Balcones & Chip Tate Continued… The Magic of the Blend, Do Not Underestimate It.

For those who also follow me on Twitter, you probably already saw part of this exchange today, but for those of you who didn’t, Chip Tate, the former Master Distiller of Balcones replied to my tweet on a the Balcones Rumble.  He wanted to make sure that I, and all of you, knew that he had nothing to do with any of the Balcones production since August 5th, 2014.  We also exchanged several direct messages that you didn’t see and it is very clear that he is very proud of what is has accomplished, and is looking forward to his next project and leaving this all behind him.

For those of you who are not familiar with the history, the New York Times wrote an article providing the background (  Essentially it’s a classic story of once a company gets to a certain size, the investors are no long happy with the founder and after continued disagreements, run him out of town.  These types of growing pains are unfortunately a recurring theme throughout the history of corporations (anyone remember Steve Jobs and Apple, the first time around?).  Restraining orders were exchanged, nasty words thrown back and forth, and as a result Chip Tate was no longer part of Balcones and the investors had the distillery, the brand, and the whiskey to do with what they pleased.

Chip made a very good point to me via twitter: “None of those bttls were blended by me. Good blending is extremely important, especially for young spirits.”  What I have noticed from reading other blogs, is that there appears to be too much emphasis on the origination of the distillation.  Certain blogs freak out about NDP (non-distiller producers), whether it’s Templeton’s, Whiskey Pig, or myriad other brands out there.  The negative connotations that bloggers put out about Indiana’s MGP kinda of makes me laugh–did they even try the product, or did they assume because it came from Indiana it must be bad?  On the flip side,  take some of the Orphan Barrel bottles (I owe you all reviews on them, I promise to get them out soon), or the post-Chip Tate Balcones… you could have the best master distiller, from the best distillery aged in the most historic rickhouse in the world… but if you don’t have a good blender, it’s all for naught.  So much of the magic that goes into the bottle is through finishing the whiskey, blending the right barrels together adding the correct amount of distilled water, and so much more.  Just because it was made at Stitzel-Weller doesn’t guarantee that it will taste like liquid gold… if it wasn’t aged enough, or too long (cough cough Old Blowhard), it will take one helluva blender to take the patient from code blue to resuscitated–or maybe a strong enough person is needed to tell the investors that they need to put it back in the barrel for another couple years??  A combination of both lesser blending and rushing product to market is what I think Balcones has been suffering from for the past 11 months, and it’s clear to me from tasting it.

Ultimately, a brand is only as good as it’s current product, and if the talented people who build the brand are gone and the replacements aren’t of the same caliber, the cache will erode and eventually fade away into history’s abyss.

Like I’ve always said, I judge a whiskey but it’s smell, taste and how it makes me feel.  The new Balcones product make me feel like I want my money back.

I haven’t tried the old stuff, and if anyone is willing to send me a sample, please direct message me on twitter as I’d love to try it and do another review.

Balcones ready to Rumble: Three Strikes and they are Out!

Ok…. so two bad Balcones reviews and you must be asking why on Earth did try again?  Well, I decided not to buy the bottle this time.  I was traveling this week to DC to visit clients and at the bar before dinner I checked the whiskey menu.  The usual suspects were on it, but they also had Balcones Rumble, so I thought it was worth trying… the company was paying for it anyway, so the downside was limited.

Here are the details from the website:  Crafted from fermented Texas wildflower honey, Mission figs and turbinado sugar, it is twice distilled in traditional copper pots then artfully matured in premium oak casks. The result is an elegant and distinctive spirit we have come to love dearly over the years. Rumble epitomizes the independent spirit of Balcones and continues to inspire us. Join us in embracing this one-of-a-kind Texas creation.

So it’s not really a whiskey, it it is made from sugar, it’s more like a rum, right?  Well, it was on the whiskey menu, it’s aged like a whiskey and seems to be in the whiskey category, so I’ll treat it like one for the sake of this review.  The color is light amber, doesn’t look like it was aged for that long, or more of a function of aged in used barrels.

The nose was all heat, white dog smell again, nail polish remover and salty sea water.  Even though I’m getting weird looks from the clients, I go again and deeper and get a little salt water taffy on the nose now.  The second smell is better than the first, but the bar wasn’t terribly high…

On the plus side, Ramble has the least unpleasant palate of the three I have tasted. It’s hot but not terribly obnoxious like the others. On the other hand, my resistance to the heat may be the fact that I’ve had 5 drinks before I get to the Balcones, but I do get the salt water taffy on the palate.
It’s not good. But it’s not bad. It’s still overpriced.  Strike Three Balcones…. 79/100.

Orphan Barrel: Old Blowhard… nice to add to collection, not worth the price

Over July 4th I was in Cape Cod and went into a couple liquor stores and felt lucky to find a few of the Orphan Barrel whiskeys from Diageo, still at normal prices.  I picked up one of each and over the next couple weeks I will be reviewing each of them.

You can still find Forged Oak (15yrs) at a reasonable price, and most places have Barterhouse (20yrs) and Rhetoric (20 and 21yrs) too, but Lost Prophet (22yrs) and Old Blowhard (26yrs) are basically impossible to find these days unless you want to pay up online.  I probably should have started with Forged Oak, but I’m not the kind of person who has a lot of patience, so I started with the oldest.

First a bit about the Orphan Barrel Whisky Distilling Co.  It’s one of Diageo’s newer brands, and it’s from “orphan” barrels from old distilleries.  Perhaps from distilleries they purchased along the way, or barrels they purchased from others.  The truth is unclear, and depending on which blogs you believe it could be Stitzel-Weller (very unlikely), Old (or new?) Bernheim, or who knows.  Ultimately, I pretty much only care about how it smells, tastes and makes me feel.  All of their production is bottled in Tullahoma, TN.  They have a very cool rectangular shape to them, and look nice on your shelf.

Old Blowhard is the oldest offerings of the Orphan Barrel series and was retired last year.  I have bottle number 4,179.  It’s bottled at 90.7 proof, which is too bad in my opinion–something like this should have garnered a barrel proof.  Some people have blogged that given the age it had to have come from Old Bernheim and aged at Stitzel-Weller, but I guess only Diageo and those who dumped the barrels know for sure.

The color is really cool, nice dark amber, richly colored and looks great in the bottle against the blue labeling with the whale right in the middle.

On the nose I get burnt orange, toasted walnuts, a bit of old stale baguette… on a deeper smell I’m getting candied orange peel but now a lot of wood, like a woody log cabin smell with a wood burning stove.  Overall it is hard to really handicap this one because it’s the oldest Bourbon I’ve ever tasted, but I’m not sure it’s that good.

The taste is unfortunately extremely woody, oily, and overwhelmed by wood tannins… The palate isn’t too complex, because all the other aromas that I was getting hints of on the nose are trumped by the extended exposure to wood. On the positive side, the finish is long and enjoyable.  I haven’t really mentioned a burn here, and that’s because it’s very mellow, which I rather appreciated, but given that the proof is on the low side compared to what I generally drink, I’m not giving it a ton of credit.
I let it sit out for a while and tried it again, and like a very tannic wine, a little air improved the smell and taste… although that could also be because I was drinking more and the last drink of the night always tastes the best?
I’m confused here.  I did enjoy it, and it’s certainly unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted before; but in my opinion it isn’t worth anything remotely close to what it retails for and more so to where it trades on the secondary market. To make a comparison to the wine world, this is a “trading whiskey” not a drinking whiskey.  I’m happy to have it on my shelf along with my other Bourbons, but it will probably stay there for a very long time as I don’t see myself reaching for it on a regular basis.
The rating here is a tough one, because it was enjoyable, and a unique experience for the age, but not worth the money.  85/100.