From our Distiller...Cleaning...
Ah, the glamorous job that is distilling-- tweaking the still and tasting the results to make the best tasting spirits possible. Running the still does have a high coolness factor, and is certainly a very important part of making spirits. I’ve previously written about the often underestimated importance of the fermentation process, but perhaps a task that is more overlooked, and is quite possibly the most important, is CLEANING. Yes, cleaning. This actually occupies much of my time at the distillery. The cooker needs cleaning, as do the fermenters, the still, the collection and blending tanks, and last but not least, the hoses. Lots of hoses. Each spirit we produce has their own unique characters, and we like to keep it that way. We don’t want the flavors of the corn whiskey sneaking into our rum and vice versa. I am very particular about this.
Before any vessel or hose is used for a different product, it has to be cleaned to remove any traces of what was in it before. If you look into the production area, you will see a variety of hoses. These are not randomly placed. Their location tells me what was in that hose last and that way I know depending on what I need to pump whether the hose needs to be cleaned first or not. If it was last used to pump wheat whiskey and I want to pump wheat whiskey again, then it does not need cleaning. Fully cleaned hoses are kept on a wall rack.
Now that you are convinced of the importance of cleaning, how do we actually do it? It is fairly straight forward. First, I hit the vessel with an alkaline cleaner, rinse it, and then follow up with an acid rinse, and a final water rinse. The alkaline cleaner breaks down proteins and other organic material and then the acid helps to finally loosen any of said material so it rinses off. The acid also helps keep the stainless steel stainless. This is all done via what is called CIP or clean-in-place. I usually do not have to climb in and clean by hand (except on rare occasions). Typically, all of the vessels have a spray ball strategically located in them so that when the cleaning solutions are pumped into them, the ball forcibly sprays every surface. Did I mention we have a large pump for this?
The vessel that gets the most cleaning attention is the still. Yeast produce some undesirable sulfur compounds during fermentation that fortunately bind to the copper of the still, turning it black. Of course this means that these must eventually be removed, which requires a little extra alkaline cleaner to remove any oils first; then the acid solution is pumped through, which strips away the black build-up making it nice and pink and shiny again. If the oils are not cleaned off first, then the acid cannot get in and do its job.
The cooker has its own cleaning issues – particularly after rye. Rye leaves a gooey residue that sticks to the inside of the cooker. After the alkaline treatment, it must be power washed off--the acid alone is not enough to get it to release. The film eventually comes off in sheets like some bizarre kind of vegetable leather.
So there you have it--the exciting job of the distiller is, in reality, that of a cleaner...with good taste buds, of course.