From the Distiller...Three Years In

I’ve now been at this job of distilling for just over three years and I thought I’d reflect a bit on what I’ve learned and what was the most eye-opening.  I had pretty well-estimated the workload.  Working for many years in a lab doing experiments, you don’t go home until the experiment is finished.  If the experiment progresses slowly, well, you stay late.  Distilling is the same way.  There is flexibility as to when I start my day, but then I don’t get to go home until the still is done, so if I get in late, I go home late. 

I had a pretty good background in fermentation, and was well-schooled in separation science (fancy distillation), so that part of the work was easy to adjust to.  What took some figuring out was how to take the most advantage of all the energy efficiency systems that went into making Big Spring Spirits –a Gold-level LEED certified distillery (the 1st in PA and 2nd in the nation).  Hot totes of waste get taken outside in the summer and left inside in the winter to increase the ambient heat of the production area instead of having to use the HVAC system.  We learned that the heating for the production area was tied to our running of the still.  We have a heat capture system that recovers heat from our chilling water and is put it in a hot water tank.  If we are not running the still (and therefore not chilling water) we are not generating any hot water to heat the production area.  It was a couple of 55 degree days in the production area before we figured that one out, and now we watch the outside weather and adjust our production schedule if needed when the weather is particularly cold.

Other facts learned or reinforced: 

  • Water matters.   I knew that from home brewing beer, but I hadn’t realized it was equally, if not more important for distilled spirits.  Depending on the product and final proof, 35% - 65% of what is in the bottle is water that has been added after distillation.
  • Barrel aging was new to me, so it has been a real learning experience to see that process in action, as I realized just how important the barrel is.  EVERY barrel of whiskey tastes different!  Even if I put the same batch of distillate into 4 barrels made of the same oak with the same char, each resultant spirit has its own similar, but unique taste. 
  • Proof – holy cow!  This has been a real eye-opener.  When we did the first batch of our American whiskey it went into the blending tank at around 125 proof, and was slowly brought down over several weeks.  Every day I would add just enough water to bring the proof down by just 0.5 (0.25%).  Of course I had to taste it every day as well.  Wow, every day it was different.  Flavors were highlighted or diminished as the proof slowly dropped.  When we finally got to a proof where I liked how things were tasting I would make two samples that were approximately 2.0 and 4.0 proof lower that what was in the blending tank.  These were then used to make cocktails.  Even with just these minor changes, all of the staff could taste the differences and had preferences, which for the most part everyone agreed on which proof they liked the best.

  • Rye is potent stuff!  Again with the American whiskey, when we had picked a proof, I made up some samples that had 1.0 and 2.0 percent rye (versus the 0,75% in the blending tank).  Everyone could easily tell the difference between 0.75 and 1.0 percent just by smell alone.  In the end, with more cocktail tasting, 0.75% won out.

There is no doubt there is much more that I will learn, and I’m sure a few surprises in there as well.  Here’s to the lifelong journey of learning!


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