From our Distiller...Enzymes and Distilling

You may have heard that we just threw ourselves a party to celebrate our gold level LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Well, to go along with having a green building, we want to be as local as possible in everything we do, including the sourcing of grains for our whiskeys. Historically though, in this country, a portion (5-30%) of the grain bill would be malted barley, to provide the enzymes needed to convert the starch in the grains to sugars (yeast can’t digest starch directly). The rest of the grain bill would be other grains, such as rye (like in PA) or corn (like in KY). The problem with this approach is, that it would require shipping in malt from the upper Midwest, Canada, or Europe - not very local. Yes, there are a few start-up malt houses in PA, but they are having a hard time keeping up with the demand from breweries. So what options does that leave us? Well, there is another more “modern” technique that can also be used, often called the Takamine process after the Japanese scientist who discovered it in the 1890’s. He found that rather than using malt, or growing a fungus on rice, like is done for sake production, he could grow a special fungus in grain waste and then make an extract of the fungus which when added to ground grains would convert the starches to sugars as quick or quicker than the enzymes from malted barley. No malt needed! He was employed for a while by a large whiskey company based in Chicago to make malt-less whiskey. This worked well, but unfortunately it ended when a suspicious fire destroyed the distillery where they were doing this. Back then most breweries and distilleries made their own malt so there were a few unhappy malt men around.

Fast forward to today, and there are a number of companies that produce enzymes from a variety of microbes for the brewing and distilling industry that are very efficient at breaking down starch. This is our method of choice for doing the starch conversion as this then lets us use 100% locally sourced grains. It also allows us to make whiskeys that are 100% one grain, be it corn, rye or wheat (I’m working on tracking down some locally grown unmalted barley). “Starch” is in fact made up of a variety of different polysaccharides, and of course the make-up changes from grain to grain. Corn is the easiest to convert to sugars as its starches are less complex. Wheat and rye, are a little more tricky as they have some unique starches, and require some extra enzymes to break down these starches more completely. We recently switched up our enzymes as we found some that do a better job of completely breaking down the starches in rye and wheat which has improved our yield (and made clean-up easier!). You probably use similar enzymes yourself and aren’t even aware of it. Many laundry detergents contain enzymes that are very good at helping to break down stains so they can be removed. We don’t recommend though that you use laundry detergent as a source of enzymes for making homemade hooch!

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