Heads, Heart, and Tails: Crafting Spirits

When I talk to people about working in a distillery they all seem to have the same response, “I have always wanted to know how it works.”  After spending some quality time crafting bourbon batches, I can now confidently give you a run down on what it takes to make a batch of booze.  So here is some insight into the not overly complex process which I have been spending day and night working on.

I first learned the process physically, simply recreating what my co-worker showed me, but as I ran through the process over and over again I was also diving into a couple of books about the what was happening on a molecular level.  From fermentation to distillation there is a lot of science involved, and yet since I am at the helm you know this process must be pretty forgiving.  Fostering the ideal conditions for small molecular changes is obviously a challenge, but the more I deal with our large scale lab experiments the more I realize it is an art.  There happens to be room for a lot of artistic interpretation, and most of these seemingly precise reaction are actually extremely forgiving.  That being said, don’t try this at home.

To sum everything up: we are making porridge, fermenting it with yeast, and then boiling it over and over to capture the steam, which we bottle and sell.

In a few more words: We use organic corn which has been flaked, and we cook it into a porridge.  When it thickens and cools to the right temperature we then unravel all of the starches from the corn by adding barley (shipped over from Scotland) which contains an enzyme that turns starch into sugar.  After it cools a little more we dump in some yeast and let it go to town doing what yeast does best: eating and being gassy.  As the yeast uses the sugars as fuel it produces waste of alcohol and CO2.  So we let the yeast sit there and create a fermented mash of corn and barley for 6-7 days.  After that we strain out all of the solids, take the liquids, and boil them in our stills.  Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature then water we can remove it from the liquid before anything else and condense in jugs.  We repeat the boiling process again with the already removed alcohol for better purity and higher alcoholic content.  This comes out at 80% alcohol, which we dilute and put into casks to be brought out down the road.

What this means for me: a lot of lifting!  Carrying around jugs of fermented corn and barley.  Stirring very large vats of boiling and sticky porridge.  Carting around large wooden barrels filled with water.  It is all very glamorous.

The interesting part for me so far has been three fold: first, the process is fascinating.  You can actually see each chemical reaction and change happen in front of your eyes.  I take 15 gallons of corn mash (porridge) when it is thick and oatmealy and dump in 1/2 gallon of barley and within 1 minutes the enzymes from the barley have completely liquefied the entire mess, it transforms in front of your eyes from oatmeal to water.  Second, the physical labor and crafting something tangible is extremely satisfying.  There is something about working hard for 8 hours, being exhausted, but holding in your hand the fruit of your labors.  There are few things more satisfying then creating from scratch.  Third, I am alone at the warehouse in the deeps of Brooklyn by myself through the entire process.  It has been interesting spending time on my own just working away, playing music and hauling around buckets.  If you think I make a lot of noise when I am wandering around the house while everyone is home, try sticking me in a warehouse by myself for 8 hours.

So that is it for now!  I will continue this process day and night for quite some time.  Soon enough the first round of bourbon and whiskey will be done aging in their casks and we will begin to fine tune their flavors, which is something I am very much looking forward to.

Here a few limited pictures from the distillery:

 

 

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