Thursday, May 10, 2012

Photo Journal of a Still in Motion

This is how you build a still...

1. Unpack er

2. Stand er up

3. Set er down

4. Proper position now

5. Find a man with a bad-ass stache to move some pieces around for you

6. Start stacking

7. Get higher

8...and higher

9...and higher

10. It's just so damn cool!

11. The Sun shine special!

12. Now she's got towers!

13. High towers!

14. Then you unwrap

15. Head up top and take a look down

16. Take a look from behind (Baby's got back!)


18. She looked a bit naked, so add 1.1 tons of stainless piping

 19. Like the coolest erector set ever

And there you have it. She's close to done...needs some valves, steam, water, a drain, some fermented stuff and she'll be roaring! Come see her in all her glory.

We think the best time is mid-afternoon when the sun shines into the cupola from above and the whole room has the coppery reflection off her surface like a medieval time dial.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

How I taste spirits

I just did a short workshop at New Belgium Brewing Co, (which was an awesome time at a really impressive smallish largish company) on how to taste spirits. I have had this post on the back burner for a month or two and I guess it's time to let er rip.

A couple of years ago I was at a wine judging where the judges had agreed to evaluate some locally produced artisan spirits. They were unhappy that the glasses we provided were wrong, and I proceeded to watch them use the perfectly shaped chimneyed spirits glasses to delicately sip a variety of spirits and spit them out. Their evaluations were fair but their technique was not. There are some major differences in the way a spirit is tasted from the way wine is.

1. How to smell.
The proper glass for spirits will have a wider bottom that fits nicely into your palm so you can warm the spirit up, promoting volatilization and enhancing the aroma experience. It will have a narrower opening with a bit of a chimney to funnel those aromas toward your nose. The exact shape will vary as cognac snifters are quite different from whiskey sniffers, but the shape pattern is consistent.

Warm the spirit in your hand, then sniff gently, rolling your head back and forth so that you can focus on one nostril at a time. This way, if one is a bit clogged that day you'll get the full experience. Sniff a few times then take a break and clear your nose and repeat the process 3, or 5, or 8 times until you are satisfied that your aren't getting anything new out of it.

Make sure to get your nose as far into the glass as possible. Your sniffs should be short and shallow not big full lung inhalations. It's easy to get a nose full of alcohol and burn your sensory out, decreasing your sensitivity and forcing you to wait for recovery. Remember ethanol is a topical anesthetic so it will make you go more than one way. Another thing that can help is having a pitcher of water handy to smell. A nice big surface of water to take a big solid inhale of can restore your ability to sense the less obvious substances in your glass and soothe some of the burn. Some people say keeping your mouth slightly open will enhance your ability to detect subtle aromas. I like to allow just a tiny bit of air into my mouth as I sniff as that seems to help move the air flow through my sinuses.

I'll also say that there are some new spirits nosing glasses in completely different shapes. I haven't really had a chance to review them, but will perhaps add to this once I have.

2. No spitting.
Take a small sip to acclimate your mouth to the spirit and let it sit for 15-30 seconds and then swallow. This first sip will give your pallet time to adjust to the ethanol and prepare for the next step. Now take a larger one, but no spitting please. One of the primary points of experience when tasting spirits is what happens after you swallow. The spirit rolls down the back of your throat on your tongue and volatile components travel up into your sinuses as vapor, where the real experience of "tasting" begins. In spirits some of the components easily volatilize, some less, but it is impossible to fully taste a spirit without the swallow. With wine tasting the mouth fulls are so large that some of this occurs even when you spit. Not so with spirits as you'll not be filling your mouth with the least I hope not.

3. Chew.
Ever heard of the bourbon chew? The amount of spirit you take into your mouth for tasting will be less than a mouth full and the best way to get the full experience is to tip your head back with your eyes closed and chew on the spirit, opening your mouth as you do so. This enhances volatility and allows you to experience all of the flavors there. A good spirit will have you chewing for a while before all of the flavors are gone. Mature spirits have higher molecular weight compounds that take time to evaporate from your pallet. The chewing helps, and in general the longer a spirit has aged the longer it will take to fully experience it, and the longer it will linger on your pallet. This is one of the major markers of maturity.

While those delightful volatile aromas are wafting up through the back of  your oral cavity to contact the nerves which register aroma, don't forget to pay attention to the effects the liquid has on your mouth. The surface of your mouth will register the 5 classic tastes (sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami) plus a variety of chemo-sensations (astringent drying/puckering, burn, pepper, cooling).

4. Drink lots of water if you are tasting multiple spirits.
This is a good idea when drinking anyway but the true reason in terms of tasting has to do with the topical anesthetic properties of the ethanol. A series of tastings will numb your mouth and reduce your ability to taste and water will help to mitigate this.

5. Don't automatically add water or ice.
At 20% alcohol it is much easier to smell some trace compounds in a spirit but almost impossible to taste the character of the spirit as it was bottled. Some producers use this 20% as a way of detecting certain faults by nosing but it is important to note that the distiller put it in the bottle the way he intended it to be experienced, and you should give a shot to tasting the way he did the day he hunched over his barrel and called it ready. I'd say that part of a complete evaluation is to taste and smell a spirit in a variety of contexts but for strictly evaluating one based on the qualities of the spirit as it is, warm and at bottle strength is a good place to start.

6. Everything you eat or drink that day will affect your senses.
Coffee in the morning can really decrease your sensitivity even 2-3 hours later. If you're going to be sitting down for a tasting, make sure everything you eat or drink is very mild before the tasting. This will make sure you're sensitive to the most subtle flavors your mouth and nose can pick up.

These are some tips I use. I'm sure a more experienced taster would add to this list but I've found these to be good rules of thumb.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Youtube Channel Dailies

We're going to start putting up a drink of the day (DOTD) at our youtube channel. Hope you enjoy and please drop a recipe in the comments if you have ideas!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Oak Aging 2, Other Wood

Here's another post on the wonders of whisky and what happens when you put it into a barrel.

First I'll repost the 3 questions I hear most often in reference to oak aging of spirits.

1. What does the barrel aging do?
2. If oak is good why not try other woods?
3. Is there another way to age whisky faster?

I tried to cover question one in post 1 on oak aging, I'll do number two here.

First off, many other wood types have been tried for holding liquids and aging wine and spirits. Keep in mind the current wooden barrel is known to date back in basic design and shape to the ones the Celts used as early as the third century B.C. That is plenty of time during which curious people could experiment.

To give a quick and incomplete list of woods that have been tried in the U.S. and Europe: red oak, chestnut oak, sugar maple, yellow birch, douglas fir, beech, black cherry, mulberry, spruce, pine, elm, and many more. This post is going to end up being more about why oak is used, rather than why not other woods, but that's because my experience with other woods has mostly been unpleasant.

The list of things you want in a wood for aging spirits
1. It is not excessively porous
2. It does not contribute unpleasant characteristics
3. It contributes good flavor and aroma
4. It is workable enough to be shaped into a barrel.

When you take these four points into account the only wood to pass the test for long term storage and aging, is white oak of the Quercus family. The rest of the woods above, and the many others not listed, fail at one of these four points in the long term. There are between 9 and 12 species of Quercus white oaks that are commonly used. The two major divisions are American oak and French oak. The two lend very different flavor characteristics but the features that make them liquid tight are similar.

Porosity: Think about what a tree must do to survive. It has to bring all of the water it needs to stay alive up from the ground to the canopy. Trees have to be extremely adept at transporting liquid up and out. That is a major problem in a barrel. Liquid inside the barrel penetrates into the wood during the aging process. In oak, most of that liquid makes its way back into the barrel, but in other woods the liquid is able to move through the natural conduction channels and leak out causing major losses. In a standard 52-59gal oak barrel the loss is ~5% per year (the ~ means roughly) which is bad enough. Oak luckily has a couple of features which are unique and keep this loss to a minimum.

Oak wood has two major anatomical structures that make it liquid tight. They are called tyloses and medullary rays. Basically what they do is prevent liquid from traveling longitudinally to the ends of the staves and leaking (tyloses), and prevent liquid from leaking out through the side of the barrel (medullary rays). Almost all other woods leak from the stave ends because they don't have tyloses blocking longitudinal conduction. The medullary rays on most other woods do not span multiple conduction cells the way white oak rays do. The way the staves are cut during barrel production makes careful use of these structures to retain as much volume as possible in the barrel.

Flavor and aroma characteristics: Oak wood is made of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. When the lovely green and supple buds appear in spring they are made of cellulose and hemicellulose. When the material becomes brown and hard it is because the tree is laying down lignin, which is its solidifying encrustant. Happily, in oak it is made out of phenolic components that are pleasing to the pallet. A phenolic compound is a ring of carbon atoms with some other compounds attached. These are known as aromatic rings by chemists because as they were being isolated in the nineteenth century it was noticed that as a group they smelled nice, or so the tale goes. Examples: vanillin, guaiacol (parsely, spice), eugenol (clove). The other great thing about these compounds is that their flavor thresholds are relatively low, so it doesn't take much.

While many other woods have lignin/phenolic content they are often in the company of compounds that have unpleasant sensory characteristics. These other woods may be appropriate for brief exposure as flavor accents but they are not typically used for long term storage or barrel production. The other thing I should say is that over the last 25 years wine and spirits makers have taken to tweeking their products by adding chips of oak wood to their barrels to get some wood extract they're not getting from their barrels (a professor I worked with at Michigan State pioneered the practice). There's probably plenty of room for experimentation with this type of tweeking using alternative woods to add unusual flavors and aromas to spirits, and I we're starting to see some of this in the industry.

Workable: Oak is a hard wood, but is remarkably supple under the right conditions. The process of making a barrel is multi-step and goes like this: drying, seasoning, heating and shaping, toasting or charring. Under the influence of heat, oak wood becomes nice and malleable so it can be shaped into that familiar bilge (the widest part of a barrel) shape. The bilge angle and hoop structure are part of the barrel's liquid tight nature. Many other woods are either too brittle or too soft to hold this shape.

White oak is a big part of the magic of brown aged spirits. Many people don't even know that all spirits are clear when they come off the still. All of the color and much of the flavor of aged spirits comes from the oak. A major contributor to this is the heat treatment of the inside of the barrel, but that could end up being a hefty read so I'll save it for another day.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Construction and distillery build-out

The next two weeks are going to be big ones around here. Tomorrow (Tues 2/28) the first of 18 concrete trucks will show up to start filling those big holes in the ground in the warehouse. That concrete is being poured to hold our still, fermentors, and tanks which will weigh roughly 143 tons in just liquid weight once they're all full...and that doesn't count the weight of all that stainless and copper!

After the concrete goes down it will be about a week before they cut a big hole in the roof to fit the columns on our still. I'll keep posting links but keep your eyes peeled. I think we're all going to have our kids here tomorrow for the trucks too.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oak aging in easy talk

There is more to say about oak than I can fit into a post or two but much of it can be simplified and I'll try to do it here, and in some later posts.

Oaking spirits is serious business for distillers. The most common business plan for start-ups is to put out a top shelf vodka and/or gin because it's quick, while you wait for your whiskey to age in oak. Now that white or unaged whiskey is rising in popularity, this has become another immediate way to start selling spirits. The standards of identity for aged whiskies require 2-3 years in a barrel before they are complete. Obviously this makes it difficult to get a return on your investment quickly with these alone.

Here are some common questions people have about oaking spirits:

1. What does the barrel aging do?
2. If oak is good why not try other woods?
3. Is there another way to age whiskey faster?

...and here's the answer to the first, the rest in posts to come.

1. What does barrel aging do?

Barrel aging is a chemistry project. There are 6 or 7 (depending on whose papers you're reading) primary interactions going on in the barrel. The ones you'll hear a lot about are Angel's Share and extraction. Angel's share is loss of liquid to evaporation. It's often discussed as one of the drawbacks to aging time but it's necessary and I'll come back to that, now on to extraction.

Spirits go into a barrel somewhere between 55-62%ABV (alcohol by volume). Once in the barrel the spirit penetrates into the wood where it finds all sorts of wonderful things that are soluble in alcohol and/or water. Many of these these things are collectively referred to as phenolics due to their chemical structures or aromatics because 19th century scientists thought they smelled nice. Many of them come from lignin which is the stuff in hard woods that makes them hard. In oak, the lignin is made up of phenolics that happen to be really pleasant to the human pallet. Things like vanillin (I'll be you can guess what that smells and tastes like), guaiacol (parsley, spice), Eugenol (cloves), and whiskey lactone. Yes it's actually called that and it tastes and smells like coconut, woody, or caramel character, but it's not a phenolic, it's a lactone.

Oak extractives are solubilized into the ethanol and water matrix. The liquid then migrates back into the barrel interior bringing the flavors with. Once there they either remain in their native form or react with chemicals in the spirit. Within the spirit are fatty acids, alcohols, aldehydes, among other things many of which are very reactive. Extractives interact with these reactive spiritous elements forming larger molecules. Aging can be boiled down to a process of small slightly harsh and very volatile compounds, combining with other chemicals within the barrel. This produces an aggregate increase in average molecular weight of the components within the barrel. The larger the molecules are at the end of aging the more smooth, lingering, and pleasing the flavors and aromas will be. This is pretty simplified but works as a general rule of thumb.

Also, while the oak components are definitely a major aspect of aging, the compounds native to the spirit are reacting away as well. They are pretty volatile compounds and you can think of the volatility aspect this way; the more volatile a small molecule is the greater the speed and enthusiasm with which it will leap off of your nice warm tongue and into your sinuses. This is where the harshness of a young whiskey comes from or what people call 'the burn'. Some of it is ethanol of course, but the higher the concentration of low boiling point, markers of immaturity, the greater the burn. Within the barrel oxygen is fueling the reactions that combine these small volatile chemicals with other compounds creating the bigger molecules that are less volatile and hence, not so eager to leap off your tongue into your sinuses, and instead cling to your pallet to help produce the complex flavor and aroma profile.

Now back to Angel's share. It may not be a pleasant fact for distillers that they may lose 10-50% of the spirit they put into the barrel, depending on the barrel size, the climate, and the time in the barrel, but without that volume loss they'd never reach maturity. The volume loss concentrates all of those less volatile tasties that have been maturing away in the barrel. Don't forget that once the spirit comes out it has to be watered down to 40-45%ABV for bottling, diluting everything you've spent years producing. The concentration from Angel's share helps to ensure that the finished concentrations are high enough to create the magic.

This is the quicky primer to aging of spirits. It gives an outline of question one. I'll write more later on the other two and of course on other spirits as well.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Whiskey and bread, basically the same thing

Yeast eat sugar. When they do this they produce ethanol and CO2, and some other trace compounds. In the bread industry they want the CO2. It's what causes the dough to rise, the bread to become lighter, and all of those lovely pockets to appear in the baked bread. They don't allow the fermentation to go on very long, so not much ethanol is produced, and it gets blown off during baking.

In the fermented beverage industry we want the ethanol. The yeast make other things as well, alcohols, esters, and aldehydes which are related to alcohols and add flavor (organic chem anyone?). Ethanol comes from sugar metabolism, many of those other things come from amino acid (protein) metabolism, or oxydation of something the yeast made directly.

 So, back to my title, to make bread you add water to flour, mix it up and add yeast. Let that ferment a bit punch it down, ferment again and bake.

To make whiskey you mill grain, add more water than you would to bread, add enzymes, heat it all up in a soupy mixture, cool it down, add yeast and wait for fermentation. A major difference here is that the enzymes break down the starch to sugar that the yeast eats. If you're making beer, you're just about done at this point.

The biggest difference of course is the distillation that takes place in the whiskey process. This concentrates all of the volatile compounds and eliminates all of the solids, but much of the flavor comes from the grain. So drink it or eat it, the flavors are very similar. Rye bread and whiskey aren't so different!

Our Director of Operations comes from the commercial baking world, I come from the artisan distilling world. We're pooling our talents to make good whiskey and other spirits.

Here's an interview I did with a British podcaster about our white whiskey. In it I give my thoughts on whiskey, white whiskey, aging, and some other related topics.

Check 'em out and don't forget about the webcam :)

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