Before becoming one of the world's most lauded distillers, Chip Tate studied theoretical physics, philosophy and theology, and worked in statistical analysis and as an assistant dean at Baylor University.

"Calling it a career path is probably giving it too much credit," Tate said.

While distilling might not be quite the natural progression, it turned out to be a fast fit for Tate, 38.

He had been considering opening a brewery but realized he was becoming "a whiskey drinker who liked beer, rather than a beer drinker who liked whiskey."

His Balcones Distilling, in Waco, Texas, has been honored at an unprecedented clip since launching in 2008, including being named Whisky Magazine's craft whiskey distillery of the year in 2012.

His whiskeys feel bold, clean and distinctly American — distinctly of the American Southwest, even — while also surprising.

"I remember standing watching some established Scottish whisky industry figures tasting (Balcones) at the awards dinner at the 2012 World Whiskies Awards," said Pierre Thiebaut, of whiskey website connosr.com, by email. "They were giving each other sideways looks as if to say 'How is he doing this in such a short space of time?'" Tate can only sort of explain it.

"There's not a simple answer," he said. "It's a cost-intensive, ingredient-intensive and time-intensive process, and that combined with good technique and good fortune has resulted in whiskey that some people thought couldn't be created."

It's true that many of his acolytes cite Tate's boldness. The first two Balcones releases, for instance, were head scratchers of a sort: Baby Blue, a soft, earthy and floral blue corn whiskey that won a prestigious double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition months after its release, and Rumble, a sweeter whiskey distilled from wildflower honey, mission figs and turbinado sugar that's reminiscent of rum while staying true to its muscular whiskey roots.

"We wanted whiskey that was approachable, but people would be surprised by," Tate said.

Other bold experiments have followed, like Brimstone, a brash corn whiskey smoked with oak that more than one person has compared to drinking a campfire (and which would likely appeal to fans of the peatiest Scotch whiskies).

Balcones has attracted the most attention, however, for its most conventional whiskey: a complexly nutty single malt that has bested Scottish and Japanese single malts in competition.

Even when discussing such successes, Tate still sometimes sounds like that seminary student who has traveled a long road to an unexpected destination.

"I don't know what I was expecting to happen, but it has happened faster than I expected," he said. "It's hard to un-knit the fabric of fate."

jbnoel@tribune.com