Whisky rebellion: the art and craft of distilling

  • Tom Potter from the New York Distilling Company checks his still. His spirits begin as a sugary soup that undergoes intermolecular disruption and violent reconstitution on a long, hard journey to the bottle.
  • Gin botanicals. Image credit: Cameron Krone
  • How distilling works.
  • Watery reflux rains on a stack of copper plates in the NYDC still’s column. The purest ethanol vapour escapes the column (right) to enter the condenser (left), then emerges as moonshine. A toast – to fractional distillation! Image credit: Cameron Krone
  • Artisan distilling. Image credit: Cameron Krone
  • Artisan distilling. Image credit: Cameron Krone
  • Six craft distillers show the diverse tastes and techniques of a thriving spirit subculture. See Mash masters. Image credit: Cameron Krone
Date:1 March 2012 Tags:, , ,

The pioneers of craft distilling use old methods and new machines to revive local spirits.

By William Gurstelle
Pictures by Cameron Krone

At 12:32 pm on a warm November day in Brooklyn, New York, the first drops of clear alcohol drizzle from America’s newest still. Nick Haase, a slender technician from the still manufacturer Christian Carl Distilleries, kneels to collect the drippings in a plastic jug set on the concrete floor. Above him looms a copper kettle studded with gauges, bolts and portholes; a pretzel of iron pipes; a steel catwalk; and the corrugated-metal peaked roof of a cavernous 450-square-metre barn in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Haase keeps rubbing the liquid between his fingertips and smelling his hands, waiting for the sweet odour signalling that the distillate has passed from its oily, aldehyde-heavy first phase into the usable fruits of the labour, known in distiller jargon as hearts. At 12:48, it happens.

“I will be so bold as to taste it,” Haase says. Although it’s the first hooch ever to emerge from this still, Haase has the confidence that grows from having set up more than 60 similar machines. He cuts the hearts with tap water, sips it and pronounces it hot, meaning, it’s heavy on the ethanol. He passes the cup around to the still’s proprietors. “Call me nuts,” contractor Rob Herschenfeld says, “but that tastes a lot like alcohol.”

The maiden booze run at the New York Distilling Company (NYDC) uses 21st-century technology to complete a chemical reaction that has changed very little in hundreds of years. At roughly the same time man devised the longbow, people began distilling alcohol from grains and fruits. The taste, the smell, the feeling after imbibing a wee dram – it’s basically the same thing a kiltclad Scots Highlander would have experienced while riding with Robert the Bruce.

But alcohol today typically emerges from gigantic, antiseptic, computer-controlled megafactories. In response, out ts like the NYDC satisfy a growing appreciation for things made by hand. Limited-run, small-batch manufacturing, using carefully selected and often local ingredients, is gaining traction among consumers in search of authenticity and character. One manifestation of that trend is the craft distillery, a raw work space  lled with alembics, coils, vats and the smell of cereal and fermentation. Twenty years ago, about 60 legal US microdistilleries – those producing less than 250 000 litres a year – existed; today there are 300-plus, with dozens more emerging each year, according to Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute. Such artisans are among the most hardcore do-it-yourselfers on the planet, constantly  guring out ways to reclaim the skills and methods nearly lost to mass production.  ey work in hope that their ingredients and talents lead to something distinctive – something that allows them to grab a toehold against fierce competition from established industry titans. A partner in the NYDC, Tom Potter, got his start as a small-batch manufacturer when he co-founded the Brooklyn Brewery in 1987. At the time, small breweries were popping up all over the country. Craft beers, such as Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, and his own Brooklyn Lager, were just beginning their sales boom. Now Potter and partner Allen Katz see this story playing out again, but with spirits replacing ales and lagers. Beginning with Perry’s Tot, a stout 57 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) Navy-strength gin, and a mellow, hibiscusinfused 44 per cent ABV gin called Dorothy Parker American Gin, Potter plans to establish the NYDC as the hub of a distilling operation that teams up with a distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, as well as with his old pals at the Brooklyn Brewery. “We’re going to do a little bit of everything here,” Potter says.  e open-to-the-public distillery will span the process from mash tuns to cocktails in an adjacent barroom.

Because they have the ability to work slowly and in small quantities, Owens says, independent distillers can control details as particular as the provenance of botanicals and grains. While a tinkerer like Potter experiments with his equipment and ingredients, he can modify the £ avours of a given batch by including di¤ erent cuts, or percentages, of the early and late parts in a distilling run.

Known in distillery lingo as heads and tails, these parts of the distillate bookend the hearts part of the run. A distiller bottles the product in each of the three phases, then blends all of them together.  e heads and tails contain some undrinkable compounds – some distillers use heads to sanitise equipment. But they make up a critical fraction of a spirit’s overall pro le, adding in characteristic £ avours, rough edges and heat. Adjusting ratios of each cut allows the artisan to make unique, rich-£ avoured batches of booze.

But so much of the outcome depends on making these minute adjustments to perfect the procedure. Opening a steam valve another quarter-turn to alter the heat in the gurgling pot, fussing with the water-£ ow rate to compensate for temperatures on tap at di¤ erent times of the year – all of these techniques factor in. Even master distillers tweak the machines to keep the quality up to par. For rookies like Potter and Katz at the NYDC, experimentation is a way of life.

Later in the hearts run in the NYDC’s premier batch, something goes wrong.  e neutral grain spirits are £ owing at 20 litres an hour. But somewhere along the way, as a few grimacing testers discover, the drink picked up a plastic overtone. Bill Potter, Tom’s son and a junior partner in the still, takes a test tipple and spits the mouthful onto the concrete  oor. Haase, the technician, suspects that the culprit could be a 400-litre plastic storage barrel. The crew discusses switching to all-metal bins. Tom Potter picks up the test cup, smells its contents, and takes a sip. He frowns, bulges his cheeks, and looks wide-eyed around the open room for a suitable spot to expectorate. “I just put it right there, Dad,” Bill says, pointing to the splatter on the  oor. Tom dispatches his mouthful with a pained groan.

The crew will keep tinkering with the formula until they balance the recipe, ingredients and nuances of operating the new machines. They realise that, as for many craftsmen, one of their most important production methods may just be patience.

The main ingredients
Two spirits dominate American craft stills: gin, which can be perfected quickly, and bourbon. “Every distiller wants a bourbon,” Potter says.

Gin
London dry gin typically originates with a fermented mash of barley and/or corn, water, and a mix of botanicals. Brooklyn Gin uses the six types seen in the jars shown alongside. First, the product is placed in steel-column stills for one or two distillations. The ethanol produced is then redistilled with the ­ avouring agents, which can include dried juniper berries, anise, angelica root, cinnamon, orange peel, coriander, and cassia bark. Last, water dilutes the liquor to between 37 and 57 per cent ABV.

Bourbon
Bourbon is a pure grain alcohol derived from a fermented mash of at least 51 per cent corn, combined with barley malt, rye, and wheat. The mash is distilled two or three times to produce clear alcohol between 50 and 57,5 per cent ABV. The liquid is aged for at least two years in charred, white oak barrels. As seasons change, the alcohol seeps in and out of the oak’s pores, gaining ­ avour from the wood.

How distilling works
Operating an unlicensed DIY still is illegal. But the process always obeys the laws of fractional distillation – a diff erence in boiling points is the secret to separating ethanol from water.

1 The fermenter
The distiller mixes yeast, water and sugar (or a sugar-containing grain) in a fermenter, aka a mash tun. After three to seven days of voracious fermenting, the yeast has consumed most of the sugar, turning the mash into a wash (10 or 12 per cent alcohol by volume). A pump moves the wash into the pot of the still.

2 The pot
A boiler pumps steam into a jacket, or two-walled metal sleeve, that surrounds the bottom of the pot. The heat builds for a half-hour or so to raise the wash to its boiling points – plural. Ethanol boils at 78 degrees; water at 100.

3 The distillation fermenter
As blended alcohol and water vapour rises from the pot, it enters a cool copper column. Most of the vapour condenses and falls back into the pot as reflux. Flat copper condensing plates can span the column, controlling the pace of the process (and the taste of the product). The vapour with the highest alcohol content, and thus the lowest boiling point, continues to the outlet at the top of the column.

4 The Lyne arm
Concentrated alcohol vapour enters a horizontal pipe called a lyne arm. Precise heat is vital. Too hot and the vapour contains excess water; too cool and not enough vapour enters the arm.

5 The condenser
Vapour in the lyne arm  ows into a vertical chamber, where a pipe of cool water surrounds a pipe of alcohol vapour. As vapour cools, it condenses into liquid ethanol, which drips from the condenser into a collection vessel.

6 The distillate
The first 5 per cent of the run, aka the foreshots or heads, contains large amounts of cogeners, or volatile chemical compounds such as acetone, aldehydes, esters and fusel oils. Next comes the hearts, the high-proof alcohol base. Distillers mix the hearts with small quantities of heads, and the blend is diluted and aged to make spirits. With too high a percentage of cogeners, the drink tastes rough; with too little, it’s bland. The last bit, the tails, is a lowproof mix often set aside and redistilled later.

7 Ageing barrels
The clear liquid emerging from the still is called moonshine, white dog or white lightning. It is colourless and harsh. But after a few years in oak barrels, it takes on colour, richness and complexity of  avour. Bourbon whiskey is aged in new but charred oak barrels. Scotch whisky resides in old bourbon barrels, and Irish whiskey ages in used sherry casks. Gin, ideal for impatient distillers, takes on its character once the white dog is redistilled with a botanical blend stirred into the pot.

Tickling South African palates
Artisan distilling is on the way back in South Africa after a catastrophic legislation-induced decline in the 1960s. Even today, this country’s regulations governing brandy are among the most stringent in the world, says the general manager of the Brandy Foundation, Ilanda Koen.

Although South Africa has a wealth of distilling history, many of the skills that developed over time vanished – or went underground – when the law concentrated distilling in the hands of a few big industry players.

Since deregulation in 1994, artisan distillers have slowly accumulated. (We’re talking, of course, about licensed operators.) At the same time as individuals are spreading their distilling wings, consumers hankering after something di? erent are beginning to seek out the artisan products.

In this country, a micro-distiller is regarded as anybody who distils less than 1 000 bottles a year, explains Koen. Let’s put that in perspective: South Africa produces 44 million litres of brandy a year. Potstill brandy takes up about 20 per cent of the total, and artisan distillers are a tiny data point in the potstill subset.

Koen trots out a list of some of the more notable names, most of them connected with familiar upmarket wine estates. “One of these producers has one specific block of Chenin Blanc grapes set aside for their 10-year-old brandy,” she says. “ at shows the passion these people have for what they are creating.”

One of the many Cape-based distillers, Helmut Wilderer, began his distilling career producing schnapps for his top-ranked restaurant in Germany. He studied further in Austria and Germany and in 1994 took advantage of the South African industry’s deregulation to take out a licence to produce grappa and schnapps. His Franschhoek distillery has picked up several international awards, most recently a Double Gold at Germany’s Selection magazine tasting of 100 spirits from around the world in 2011 for its Pinotage Red Grappa year.

Wilderer uses a still designed and installed by top supplier Ulrich Kothe. The discontinuous copper pot still has a capacity of 700 litres and a column with three metal plates, allowing for a triple distillation in one step.

Flying in the face of the brandy tradition, Moritz Kallmeyer (below) is taking on the Scots at their own game: whisky. While still a schoolboy, Kallmeyer learned to brew traditional African fermented drinks such as mealie beer from a farmworker on the family’s smallholding. He graduated to fruit wines and, by the time he’d ? nished university, eventually confronted a fork in the career path: biokinetics… or beer? He chose the latter, and today calls himself the only artisan whisky maker in Africa. At Drayman’s Brewery and Distillery, near Pretoria, Kallmeyer has added Highveld single malt whisky to his product line-up. But business isn’t exactly booming and despite some interest from the public, they aren’t easily convinced to change. “We haven’t reached the magic tipping point yet,” Kallmeyer says. “I am sitting on a stockpile of whisky.”

Still, he adds, it’s early days. “I am a sort of a pioneer.”

That description could equality apply to Roger Jorgensen, who clearly has realised that quality and distinctiveness are only a part of getting the word out there.  The Jorgensen approach incorporates innovative marketing (including social media) and a wide product range. Jorgensen’s micro-distillery in Wellington in the Western Cape started out in potstill brandy, and has branched out into vodka, absinthe, gin and limoncello. He has even hinted at using our local Pinotage grape to produce vodka.

And watch out, Moritz Kallmeyer, your status as lone artisan whisky distiller is under threat: Jorgensen promises that, in addition to a rum and an agave spirit, Saxon Single Malt and Sassenach Spelt Whisky are in the pipeline…

Mash masters
Six craft distillers show the diverse tastes and techniques of a thriving spirits subculture.

Drayman’s Distillery
Drayman’s Single Malt Whisky is matured in “regenerated” 225-litre American oak red wine barrels that are scoured and toasted, then seasoned with ale, which is then  ltered and packed as a special cask matured Strong Ale.

Jorgensens Distillery
Roger Jorgensen describes his gin as a wacky blend of zesty Macedonian Juniper and peppery Grains of Paradise from West Africa. Other offbeat products include absinthe and limoncello.

Prichard’s Distillery
Most rum is made from blackstrap molasses – the sludge left after sugar is re ned. Prichard’s makes its rums from table-grade molasses sweet enough to sop up with a biscuit.

Maine  Distilleries
The fresh water used to make this still’s Cold River Vodka flows past potato  elds and  lters through miles of underground granite, then arrives pure at the local aquifer.

Peach Street Distillers
After years of trial and error, distiller Davy Lindig perfected his torpedo, a charcoal-packed pipe he uses in a 48-hour process to  lter Olathe-cornbased Goat Artisan Vodka.

Clear Creek Distillery
Steve McCarthy’s distillery, one of more than 40 in Oregon, is also a pioneer. For 26 years, it has used local fruit and classic European methods to make brandy, eaux de vie and grappa.