Parts of a Good Life

By Robert Darden

Q&A with Jared Himstedt of Balcones Distilling

For a moment Jared Himstedt stands staring upward, his eyes following the line of massive copper pot stills that extend to what would be the third floor of the old Texas Fireproof Storage building on 11th Street. Himstedt is lean and sinewy, with an impressive Jeremiah Johnson-styled beard and the dark tan of a man who spends too much time outdoors. He has just returned from a long camping trip with his family. His stare is that of someone who both admires the richly burnished still and wonders how he got to be here.

Then the moment is gone. Himstedt, 39, shakes his head and motions to the small break room shared by his 15 employees. He’s more comfortable growing his own food, making his own furniture and building his own distilling equipment than he is being interviewed. But it’s the price of fame, and he smiles through the beard and pours himself another cup of strong, fresh-brewed ground coffee.

Himstedt is the head distiller and distillery manager of Balcones Distilling, one of the most awarded, fastest-growing distilleries in the world, housed in a 65,000-square-foot warehouse that is part science workshop, part manufacturing plant and part alchemy lab. Balcones currently produces 6,000, 12-bottle cases of spirits a year, ramping up to 8,000 cases in 2016. These are spectacular amber-hued whiskys, rums, bourbons and other distilled spirits. The cavernous main room with the tanks smells faintly sweet, like fresh bread.

(At different times in the conversation, Himstedt was joined by Distiller/Production Manager Zack Pilgrim and Brewhouse Manager Thomas Mote. But titles and responsibilities appear to be fairly fluid at Balcones. During our time there we saw various people do any number of tasks, including Himstedt. And he brews a mean pot of coffee.)

WACOAN: Jared, you’re a legendary DIY guy. Does this have anything to do with growing up the son of Southern Baptist missionary parents in Brazil?

Himstedt: I don’t know if some people are just predisposed that way, but I think growing up in Brazil, life is a little bit simpler. We didn’t have any canned food, which my mother did not love anyway. Everything was made from scratch. We’d go walk outside and pick bananas for breakfast right off the tree. It wasn’t a very technological, complicated time or place. The simplicity might have something to do with it. I’ve always had a fondness too for low-tech, even homesteading-related ways of doing things.

WACOAN: I’ve heard that you even make your own rope, which is about the most difficult DIY thing I’ve ever heard of.

Himstedt: ‘Corded’ is the term they use in those circles. We did a little bit of camping this past week, and it’s really fun to sit around the campfire and talk, passing the guitar and cording. If you can make rope, you can make anything. It’s a fun kind of meditation — just sit and make rope.

WACOAN: After graduating from Baylor, you got interested in making beer at home?

Himstedt: A good friend of mine bought me a homebrew kit for a wedding gift in 1999. I probably did three or four batches a year for a while, but it wasn’t until I found other people doing it that the momentum caught me. Another musician friend of mine, John Perkins, was into homebrewing, and the next thing you know we made a homebrew club, meeting once a month. Everyone would bring stuff they made. At its peak there were a good 18 or 20 people getting together at someone’s house.

Anybody who has ever been in a homebrew club knows that you spend most of that time trying to figure out how to say what you really think of someone else’s beer and make it the least offensive as possible. Sometimes they make that really hard.

The nice thing about it is that everyone went into it for different reasons. I knew guys that were always messing with their setup. They liked to tinker, and they never made fantastic beer, but they loved figuring out how to insulate better or what kind of burner or circulator worked best or whatever. Then there were guys who were attracted because of the science of it. They’ve even got microscopes. There is something about brewing beer at home that attracts a whole variety of people.

The science was always pragmatic for me. If something is not working, I would learn as much as I needed to know to fix the problems. I was never going to be the person who thinks, ‘I’m going to read everything there is to know about beer-making’ and then have it all stored away and maybe use 10 percent of it. I know guys like that. But you do it long enough, even if you’re not being super intentional about it, you pick up a little bit more of it by osmosis. I did that for a long time.

WACOAN: If it wasn’t the science and it wasn’t the tinkering, what drew you so intently to making beer?

Himstedt: For me, it was more just the flavor. My approach to it was more like cooking than chemistry or engineering.

Plus it was a really fun time. For anybody who likes non-macro beer, anybody who isn’t content with the Big Three brewing houses and the fill in the blank light beers available in the ‘90s in Texas, these were tough times. All of a sudden the whole world is like, ‘There is so much more possible when it comes to beer!’ But at the time there was so little we could actually buy. There was no sour beer in Texas. Sierra Nevada was the hoppiest thing around. By making your own, I liked the way we could do things. We could make things we couldn’t buy.

WACOAN: After graduation you also went to work for Mission Waco and spent nearly eight years there.

Himstedt: I was ready to do something else, and I wasn’t really sure what. Another member of our homebrew club, Paxton Dove, asked me to lunch. He had the idea of a brewpub, not just a bar, and said, ‘Do you want to leave Mission Waco and come brew beer for me?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely.’

That became the Dancing Bear Pub. I was general manager. I hoped I was going to be a brewer. But the space was small; we hadn’t planned it super well. Plus this was so early that we weren’t really sure if Waco was even ready to support a craft beer bar. We spent a lot of time trying to do events that would bring people in. We’d offer affordably good food and try to curate, exposing them to the world of beer — whether it be a beer from a specific brewery or 10 different styles of stout, whatever it was. We knew at a gut level that if we didn’t do some education, if we just expected people to walk in the door and buy what we were selling, it was not going to happen.

There were lean times at the first, but in general we were pleasantly surprised how ready people were for a broader experience. We had a staff that was informed and could help people walk through their exposure, hopefully without making them feel bad about ordering Miller Lite just to find out we didn’t have it.

It feels like a lot longer, but I think I was only at the Dancing Bear for a year and a half. I wanted to do something else. Ironically, once beer was super available to me, once I had all these taps and was ordering anything I wanted, and I started to get the feeling that we were getting it, I started taking the beer a little for granted. A lot of my beer friends would always say, ‘You’ve got to like whisky if you like beer.’ But I never really did.

About this time a friend of mine and I were at Hemingway’s [Watering Hole], and he said, ‘I’m going to make you try this.’ So he ordered me a peated scotch. I’d had blended scotch and bourbon but not this. That was my aha moment. I thought, ‘Oh wow! What else do they have here?’ I don’t think we tried everything. They only have 10 or 15 different scotches on the wall. We tried as many as we could that night, and from then on if I had extra money, I tried as many different kinds of scotch as I could. I’m pretty sure I made it through everything you could get in Waco back then.

WACOAN: What was it about whisky that became your obsession?

Himstedt: Obsession and passion, [but] I think obsession and passion feels a little bit heavy-handed. Those feel like pretty extreme words, but it all feels like one big thing that’s really hard to articulate.

What is it? It is good food, it is good company, it is good music and it is even fermentation. I guess I don’t really see them all as that separate. If there was something I could use to fill in the blank that would fit all of those characteristics, well, I don’t think I’ve found the right word. I don’t think it’s just aesthetics. I don’t think it’s just hedonism. I’m not sure what the right words are.

Definitely, at first it was the novelty. Anybody who is familiar with peated scotch, if you’ve never had that, that’s not a flavor and a combination that exists in anything else. We don’t have beverages that are even remotely like that. Peated scotch neat is about as far from a cheap uninformed experience as you can get. I think I was probably predisposed to the pungent kind of somewhat stinky funk that comes with peat.

WACOAN: You’re right. I’m not sure ‘stinky funk’ quite gets it either.

So when you get a really good whisky and you close your eyes, what do you feel, taste and smell?

Himstedt: These days, ironically, we spend so much time at work trying to dissect the things we smell and taste. After all these years I know what is really good when I don’t immediately feel like picking it apart. If it’s such a complete, solid, positive experience that I am not thinking about all the technical things I could be thinking about, then that’s a special drink.

It’s also how I know I’m not enjoying a whisky so much from the first smell, the first drink. If I immediately think, ‘They are out of balance,’ I’m guessing something about how the distiller made it.

When it is good, the tasting begins with the initial front palate, then from start to finish and even a minute or two later, we’re still experiencing everything. We’re thinking, ‘Yes, it’s got a spiciness — but does it come at the right spot? Is there enough sweetness leftover for the middle to linger with that spice where it feels balanced like a dish would, or is the spice all by itself?’

Even then sometimes maybe that’s still a puzzle. Sometimes there are objective faults that have to do with how it rates to all your previous experience. It fits in there somewhere, and that can either be a positive or a negative thing depending on what’s come before.

At Balcones, we don’t all necessarily agree all the time, even with really good whisky. A lot of that has to do with, by definition, that new experience of something that gets inserted into the entire context of somebody’s life.

WACOAN: With that in mind, back to the chronology. You joined with another member of your homebrew club, Chip Tate, and a couple of investors and began to dream of putting a distillery together.

Himstedt: I woke up one day and realized I was drinking more whisky than beer. Chip and I spent a few years enamored with as much scotch as we could get. That turned into talking [about it] and transitioned into securing funding. From there we started working on all the permits, and we saw that this was going to happen. As much as I liked being at Dancing Bear, transitioning had a lot to do with being ready to finally make something.

We spent about 10 months building equipment at the tiny 213 South 17th [Street] location. Some of that was dictated by money — stills can be quite expensive, but it didn’t hurt that we liked making things. We bought our first old-school modern stills from a guy of Portuguese descent who lives in Spain. They were good, but pretty much everything else we made. So we made condensers. We repurposed a bunch of dairy tanks and made the fermenters.

During my undergrad experience doing ceramics at Baylor, I had helped build a kiln or two, and I knew just enough about burners and gas supply and insulating with brick. So I was in charge of a large chunk of that. A lot of stills are steam, but at the time we were doing it with direct fire, gas. I worked with Baylor ceramics professor Paul McCoy and talked with a lot of ceramic suppliers, contacts I had had in a previous life. We got burners in, laid down some paths and bricked them in. The copper work took forever; I hadn’t had any experience with that. A lot of times we built things and quickly realized how poor the design was and started over.

It took longer than it needed to, but at the end there are so many vials and pipes running all kinds of places that the unforeseen benefit of that was that there were three of us. So if you did 30 percent of the soldering of the joints, you at least had a pretty good idea where all that stuff went, and it wasn’t quite as confusing. It made troubleshooting easier. It was really exciting waiting to see what kind of whisky equipment we built. We couldn’t wait to find out, ‘What kind of whisky does it make?’

WACOAN: What was that first batch like?

Himstedt: The very first distill was Rumble, which is one of our weirder recipes — sugar and honey and fig inspired by a dessert sauce. The goal the whole time was to make malt, but somehow we got sidetracked more than once. So the Rumble idea came up, and we started working on that partly because we didn’t have a mash tun, which is a pretty essential part of the equipment you need to do malt whisky. [The tun is] the container that separates the grain from the liquid, taking the sugar out. We didn’t have that, so we went with the Rumble, which just dissolves sugar and honey and some hot water, add yeast and let it go.

WACOAN: The Rumble has done pretty well for you. I read that it had 76 barrels poured that first year or so.

Himstedt: It goes into this catch-all category for anything, called Distilled Spirit Specialty. That was the category if you make something that doesn’t fit, you throw it over here.

In the meantime, corn whisky came on our radar. Corn whisky is pretty bombshell stuff, usually. We had a bottle of corn whisky from another draft facility in New York, Old Grist Mill, though they don’t make it anymore. It had a lot of nuance to it, and it reminded me of a silver unaged corn whisky. It reminded me a lot of the things I liked.

Corn whisky is not inherently bad; it’s just never really treated with the same delicacy and intentionality of bourbons and scotches. So the next part of that process was to figure out how to not use yellow feed corn, which is pretty common for bourbon or whisky. We actually chose blue corn as an ingredient because that made it a little more interesting. Blue corn is always connected to beer and to cooking and food. It wasn’t specifically a Texas-grown ingredient but very widely used in the South and Southwest.

WACOAN: Is blue corn easy to find?

Himstedt: We started getting samples of all the blue corn we could find, and there was a pretty clear winner. We started buying directly from the Hopi. But the way the Hopi people do agriculture is they grow as much blue corn as they want to use, and if there is extra, they sell it. So we went through about three or four months before the broker that we were dealing with said, ‘That’s pretty much the surplus for the year.’

Well, that’s not going to work, so we got some seed stock from them, and I’ve since had it grown in the Midwest and other areas, just because they can supply what we need. But as of just a few months ago, we started getting it from New Mexico again.
WACOAN: That’s got to feel good for a back-to-earth guy like yourself to buy directly the Hopi people.

Himstedt: Yes, it was nice. Since then we’ve talked to farmers in McLennan County who would love to figure out a way to grow that for us. Obviously, that would be amazing. But it’s a difficult grain to grow. We had some test acres that didn’t go very well. Sometime in the next three or four years we’re hoping we can get it figured out.

WACOAN: So Balcones is soon making Baby Blue, True Blue and Brimstone, all made with 100 percent blue corn. From there, I’m guessing, you set your sights on the single malt whisky.

Himstedt: A single malt had been the original drive behind the whole thing. The first batch we did we distilled in 2010, but we didn’t bottle anything until 2011. That’s what we always wanted to do. I think other than the corn products, this is what most people know us for. The Texas Single Malt definitely changed just how much people are aware that we are here. It isn’t a very flashy name, but we started winning awards and started getting national and international attention.

WACOAN: And it is about this time that there is a very messy, very public split at Balcones.

Himstedt: I was never an equity owner, so a lot of what went on was poor communication and difficulties among the owners. A lot of us, unfortunately, were stuck in the middle of what was going on and still trying to keep the wheels on and do our jobs daily. I guess everybody involved could look back and could see a bunch of ways they could have done things differently and de-escalated instead of escalated. But at the end of the day I don’t think the parties involved were ever going to get along. I don’t think they were going to ever work well, and I think they all know that now.

So on behalf of the rest of us, it turned out great. We have a pretty solid crew of people. They’re all proud of what they do, even if what they do is as menial as getting the forklift and barrels out of the warehouse. Everybody is hands-on. I think most of the people we have here are put together in that way, which leads to intentionality and care no matter what the task is you’re charged with, no matter what part of the process you’re involved with.

WACOAN: So despite all that chaos, 2015 was a great year?

Himstedt: It was a great year, lots of awards. We had a lot of fun. For a while it probably seemed like we were always releasing new things, but we definitely have settled into a routine now.

The shake-up allowed us to, in my mind, get back to some of our roots, which was always attempting to perfect what we did but also innovate and play in areas we hadn’t explored yet. We probably laid down barrels of at least five or so new styles of whisky we had never done before. These past months have meant a lot of barrel experiments, a lot of really intentional different ways of working the stills to try and see if things we had made for years could be improved. We’re continuing to look at ways of getting more nuances out of them by doing them different ways.

We’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about playing with rum, and we really keep tweaking that [product]. I don’t know if that’s going to turn into multiple rums instead of just one. I’ve been pretty enamored with some of the idiosyncrasies of historical rum-making that are very different from how whisky is made, so these past months have been getting back to the joys of the exploration part.

WACOAN: A question for Zack and Thomas: What is special about this process? You could be working a lot of places. What keeps you here?

Zack Pilgrim: It’s making something other people get to appreciate as well. It’s kind of a justification. I have a curiosity related to fermentation, and I think one of the reasons I like whisky is because it’s the next outgrowth of the beer-making process. Take what you think you know about beer, and then think, ‘Well, what if you did it a little bit differently and distilled it and put it in a barrel for years and years? What would that be like?’ I want to know how that works. I could be learning that for decades to come.

Thomas Mote: For me, it was never the technical aspect in terms of the gear you were using — it was the scientific aspect of it. [Jared] mentioned using a microscope, and that is something I really enjoy, taking a sample and diluting it down. You can count yeast cells, or you can count all sorts of things on a hemocytometer [an instrument that counts cells in a fluid]. That’s interesting to me because it gives me a lot of quantifiable hard data that I can play with. You can replicate it or try something different on the next batch. For me, more information is always more helpful. The more I can quantify, the more I can get on paper, the more I can get into a spreadsheet, the more I feel like I’ve wrapped my head around what I’m doing.

So in scaling up from the batch side of the previous building to the batch side we have here, a lot of what made me more comfortable with that is having hard data from the other building, whether it’s pH or the gravity samples taken every day over the course of fermentation, things like that. Having those hard numbers to work with when we moved over here made the transition (for me, at least) a lot smoother and made a lot more sense. I knew what to keep an eye out for and what was OK and what were allowable tolerances for different parameters.

All of that helps me to have it more quantifiable. I like that blend of being able to play with flavor and be able to play with hard data. It’s a fun matchup for me.

Himstedt: What’s fun about the new place is we really have two related but different tasks ahead of us. One is to use new equipment to make things we’ve been making forever, but we’ve got some work ahead of us to try and nail those profiles. Then the other side of it is, ‘What else can we do with the same equipment?’ Not just to replicate our previous process, but what new things are we going to find out as we play and explore everything from cooking parameters to fermentation parameters? All the way to how we’re going to do stills or which barrels we’re going to use. The exploration of the play is a good part of having equipment that has more controls than what we previously had.

It’s a little bit like a kid in a candy store or the chocolate factory. It is exciting to think I’ll be 40 soon, and I could easily imagine getting close to retirement age and still just starting to see some of the fruits of things we’re playing with now really finalized.

We find a new recipe, say the rye that we started last year. We tried four different recipes, and we had other recipes based on what we were smelling and tasting. Say we do figure out the recipe, and that takes three or four years, and then we [search for] the best way to run the still for that recipe. Then it takes another three years to wait for it to age before you know how that affected what you made. We probably have 15 different kinds of barrels. What is the perfect one? What if it’s a mix of them? There are so many things, and just that one process could easily keep us fascinated for the next 10-plus years, not to mention what new ideas will come out of that process.

Pilgrim: The thing we joke about here is that just as you have it all figured out and feel like it all makes sense, you can retire, and the next guy can change it!

WACOAN: Last question. The Scots in particular talk about whisky in religious ways. They talk about it being the water of life. Is there a spiritual element to this distilling thing you do?

Pilgrim: I think ‘element’ is a good word. I think it’s what is so fascinating about the process. Water is one of the largest components of what we use, then the fire for the cooking stage and the charring of the barrels, which we get from the wood — perhaps a dead tree that’s been aging for years. Finally, you get the base grains. We’re trying to get the flavors of that grain out into the whisky. In the end these are things from the ground: the grain, the water, the tree that’s been growing for years, the harvesting, the creating of something that is going to be around on the earth for a long time.

Mote: It’s easier for people to consume beer, to consume 12 beers and not really think about what they’re drinking, and then they are inebriated and they didn’t think about what they were tasting at all. You could do it with our stuff too, if you really wanted to, but with whisky specifically, I feel like the potency and the strength of what you’re drinking, in addition to the amount of age and the amount of time that’s come to it, it commands a certain level of respect. There is a level of strength in what you’re drinking that makes you not want to rush through it. You want to think about what you taste even if you are going to drink two, three or four over the course of an evening. It still is something you’re likely thinking about. I think it commands a little more time. You want to think about it, talk about it. You want to break it apart.

Himstedt: It usually lends itself to a thoughtfulness. There are plenty of things you can experience, engage in or actively engage with in whisky.

WACOAN: So what does it mean to you?

Himstedt: It’s enjoying good food, good drink, good company and good art. It’s just different parts of a good life. You know enough about a great experience and pleasure that you can mix one or more of those together and it’s exponential. Say you’re at a campfire, talking with a good friend. Doing that with a good drink in your hand, it can get epic pretty quick, more than it would be without a good drink.

I think there is also a historical significance to what we’re doing. Distilling was originally a way of preserving calories and nutrition from grain that was otherwise going to rot. Obviously, we’re not doing that anymore. Just like we don’t make sauerkraut with the cabbage that is about to go bad. We eat the fresh cabbage, and the rest gets fermented. That’s not what we’re doing at Balcones, but that idea of it — the preservation and not being wasteful — is an important part of what we’re doing today. That is where it comes from. That is appealing to me.

What also appeals to me is that you don’t even have to make fermentation. It just happens. Anthropologists have figured out that some animals, birds and monkeys, intentionally grab fermented fruit and get a little buzz off it. This is so primal, so essential.

Historically you can imagine pre-Louis Pasteur, we had no idea there were microbes in this. The fruit is dead; it’s no longer on the tree. The grain is no longer on the stalk. And suddenly it comes alive and starts doing stuff! It’s not surprising that people thought that was magical, even though we know now that bacteria and fungi are doing that. It doesn’t minimize the magic of it. This is an essential process.

It’s a really nice connection. Even very low-tech religious societies participated in something that is extremely old and extremely significant with fermentation. Almost every culture does it. You don’t necessarily have to have an advanced technology to know when the blue corn is ready, but I don’t think that decreases the significance for us or for the people we finish the conversation with, the people who go home, the people who get with their friends and go to a bar.

We don’t spend much time thinking or talking at Balcones about market issues or what the American palate likes or new trends or what is selling or not. We definitely feel like we’re finished with a product or a blend when we love it. Nothing more.

WACOAN: And in the end?

Himstedt: And in the end, when that conversation finally gets finished and comes full circle, it does the same thing in our lives. We want to create something that enhances and adds beauty, joy and pleasure. That our whisky does that for other people is a pretty great way to finish the story.