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Craft Distilling: A Spirited Endeavor

Wed, 21 May 2014 08:05:02 CDT
By: Charlie Schlenker

Craft Distilling: A Spirited Endeavor The end of Prohibition is coming. What? You say that news is 80 years late? Not exactly. WGLT's Charlie Schlenker reports on the long delayed and now fast growing resurgence of local whiskey making.

J.K. Williams Distillery is releasing its first Old Buck's Young Bourbon June 7th and just released its summer seasonal J.K.'s blackberry Whiskey.

Before Prohibition there were about two thousand distilleries in the United States. All that went away during the so called "Noble Experiment" of Prohibition. But in recent years the number has started to climb again. There are now 350 and by the end of the year there could be 500.

One of the new small distilleries is in East Peoria just off I-74 at the top of the Illinois River Valley. It's a modern non-descript building off a frontage road that has shiny stainless steel equipment in a room at one end and a tasting area at the other.

"This bin here is full of 2000 pounds of corn. And the first thing we do is we run it through that grain mill."

Kristen Williams is one of four members of a family that has begun the JK Williams Distillery, named for a great great grandfather who worked the whiskey trade both before and during Prohibition.

"There is a little bit of powdery residue on the grain mill still. It breaks it down from being in kernels to being like a floury consistency. We do that to break down the starches so that when we cook it to break down those starches into sugars."

After the grain mills they cook it in the mash tun. When it's done cooking, they let it cool and add the yeast to turn the sugars into alcohol over five to seven days.

"You can take a look in that tank and see what it looks like. That's the mash that we cooked last weekend. That'll be about twelve to thirteen percent alcohol at that point. What we have basically made is beer without the hops."

The mash goes into the pot still 60 gallons at a time.

"Our still is what they call a hybrid still."

Jesse Williams is the master distiller for JK Williams.

"A mix of a pot still and a hybrid still. They're great for making whiskey and bourbon, especially for a small batch distillery as we are."

The Peoria area had more than 50 commercial distilleries before Prohibition Before the income tax, alcohol served as the main revenue source for the federal government and the Williams family notes the Peoria area liquor industry produced more than half of all federal tax revenue at one point. In the late 1800s Peoria area distillers made 186,000 gallons of Whiskey a day. Today's reboot is much smaller. Jesse Williams says a normal batch is 32 to 35 100 proof gallons and their operation is licensed to produce up to 5,000 thousand gallons per year. Back in the distilling room, the first pass is what Kristen calls a "stripping run." They also refer to the process as heads hearts and tails.

"Basically the science behind distillation is that alcohol has a lower boiling point than water."

Alcohol turns into vapor at 180 to 190 degrees. Water doesn't boil until 212. So with careful temperature control, they take the alcohol up into the column of the still and into a small tube.

"It travels over here, that's our condenser. So, there's cold water running through pipes in the condenser. Which cools the vapor down back into a liquid form."

And it drips into a barrel. That's the heads, compounds that have a lower boiling point than alcohol, things like methanol and acetone, better known as fingernail polish remover. Jesse Williams says the first cut comes off at about 160 degrees.

"And the difference between that and large distilleries is they don't make cuts on them. They run it off of one continuous still that just keeps running product and running product."

He says the small batch process creates a cleaner more refined taste. He says larger distilleries compensate by filtering or longer aging to get a good taste. What Kristen Williams says the small batch producers have left after the first cut, are the hearts.

"The hearts are the good quality drinking alcohol. This is what we collect for our finished product. See how clear it is. This is about 185 proof here in this jar."

And the last cut they take is called the tails, compounds that have a higher boiling point than alcohol. Kristen Williams says the smell is somewhat rubbery and pungent. At that stage, the liquid from the still also looks cloudy and the whole building smells different. The tails still has some usable alcohol in it.

"So, we'll collect the tails and then we add it back in with the next batch. So that way we're not wasting it and that way it helps us with the consistency of flavor in our product too."

The business of craft distilling is by many accounts growing at a faster rate than craft brewing did at the same point in its cycle a couple decades ago. Pennfield Jensen is the Executive Director of the American Craft Distillers Association.

"It has to do with people being involved with the locavore environment where there is just a great deal of interest in being part of a community, of building something that is one's own, that has identity, has integrity, has story."

Jensen says Craft Beer is now a $10 billion a year industry with 2,500 brewers. That history of success has lowered barriers for craft distillers. It might be easier to get a loan. Not that it's all that easy. There was an initial boom and bust for craft breweries caused by lenders inexperienced in brewing and brewers who loved to brew but who were not business people. Jensen says that's not happening this time partly because of the brewers experience and partly because of the law that prevents hobbyists from getting in.

"The standard of expectation is more sophisticated for craft distillers than it ever was for craft brewers. Craft brewers basically start out as home brewers. While home distilling is technically illegal, the aspect really is people coming to it from the idea of building brands, building destination distilleries rather than building something they are going to flip or sell to a larger distiller."

Barriers to get permits are intense and tedious. You go to the Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. That hoop jumping is just the start. Jensen says the ATF folks basically give you a license to go ask for another permit from the state and the state has its own requirements.

"It's alcohol and thank you Al Capone."

Other compliance issues involve fire, waste disposal, and so on. It takes a long time to solve those things. And money! Jensen says the entry level financial commitment is a half a million bucks minimum.

"There's three main requirements for bourbon."

Time AFTER licensing is another barrier. Next door to the J.K. Williams still in East Peoria is their barrel room. Kristen Williams says there are three main requirements for Bourbon. You have to use at least 51% of corn in the mash to make sure it's sweet. You have to distill it at a low enough proof to keep the taste in it.

"And the third requirement is that it has to be aged in a new charred American White Oak Barrel."

True Bourbon has to be aged two years. That's a huge delay until a maker can sell it.

"Each year that our bourbon sits in the barrel we'll lose about five percent of the volume as it sits there. About half of that is evaporating each year. So the part that evaporates is called the "Angels Share." And the other half is what gets trapped in the wood and that's called the "Devil's Cut."

Given the time lag of getting a product to market, The Craft Distilling Association's Penn Jensen says makers, and their bankers have to be patient.

"And they are going to take two years before they are going to get rolling. Most of the craft distillers are going to be making a clear spirit that doesn't have to be aged. At the same time they are making a gin or a vodka they are also making a whiskey. So the overall plan for most of these people is a long term plan."

Even though the success rate for craft whiskey may actually be higher than for those trying to start a brewpub, Jensen says it's remarkable so many are actually making that leap. Unlike in beer where the mega brewers are basically making lagers and the craft brewers are making a wide variety of styles of darker and heavier more flavorful brews, the high volume distillers are already making upper end whiskey.

"The big guys are making some pretty good stuff...uh...darn good! (laughs)"

So there is more competition for the luxury and super-premium market segment. A couple factors help craft distillers compete, the so called grain bill for instance.

"Different varieties of corn do make a vast difference."

J.K. Williams master Distiller Jesse Williams says they use about 80% corn,10% wheat and 10% barley in their recipe.

"It's a very high corn grain bill. A lot of distilleries use a little bit more of a wheat or a rye to change the palate of the corn. We use a lot of corn which adds a lot of sweet note and I think adds a little bit of an apple flavor to it."

Jesse Williams says the impossibility of duplication actually encourages cooperation and information sharing among people craft distillers who you might think would be die hard competitors.

"There is a couple distillers that use blue corn. I've heard of a distiller that's using Indian corn. We've come to know a fellow distiller who is using white corn. We use a standard yellow corn and it's a little easier to work with, to be honest. Most of the other kinds of corn are very very hard corn and they are very tough to get the starches out of."

The mass market Whiskey makers, on the other hand have established a brand and tend to be averse to anything that would jeopardize that image. So the distilling association's Penn Jensen says industry innovation is happening at the craft level.

"And the little guys are coming up with all sorts of whiskeys. They're adding smoked malts to their mash bills. They're getting unique flavors out of what they're making. They're using locally grown grains. It just becomes interesting and exciting."

Even a young bourbon takes six months to get to market. Kassi Williams says they have also used a fairly modern wrinkle to accelerate the aging process by contracting with Black Swann Cooperage in Minnesota which has a patented honeycomb design for the interiors of its barrels.

"The staves have holes drilled in them. And by having that honeycomb pattern to it that allows more surface area so therefore faster maturation times for a bourbon to interact with those woods and pick up those charred note flavors."

It is possible to age a whiskey too much. Some distillers say if you leave it too long, the taste becomes too woody and you lose sweetness. Jesse Williams says making the trade-offs is a complex question.

"You have to take into consideration the atmosphere at which you are aging, whether you are in a climate controlled environment or non climate controlled environment, what your climate swings are. A lot of barrel houses you see are eight ten story buildings and they do that because you get different pressures at different heights and they rotate barrels throughout the year."

Jesse is describing a traditional large maker operation. Some distilleries even have favored aging locations that tend to produce so called golden barrels, with reliably better whiskey. Jesse says you can't know without quality testing every month or so. Large makers now tend to build facilities in which to age where they can vary temperatures and sunlight exposure without moving the barrels around quite so much. Another help to craft distillers is the possibility of appealing to local markets, on premise sales at restaurants and taverns where customers might want a novelty. Penn Jensen of the craft distillers association says pairing a local whiskey with someone who makes local cheese or grass fed beef can help grow the business.

"The regionality of the distillery works in its favor to get a toehold into a restaurant. If you are a distillery that's also a destination somewhere nearby people say, will come in, as they often do and will ask what do you have that's local, what do you have that's nearby."

Craft brewing has grown exponentially in the last two decades. Craft Distilling is making its mark now. Jensen says Craft cider, long popular in France and Britain actually has a faster growth rate in the last year than either beer or spirits in the U.S.

"It's hard to foresee a cultural shift such as we are perceiving, because it's more than just beer, it's more than just spirits, it's more than just cider because those are just aspects of an entire revolution in how people are consuming and why they are consuming it."

Even with competition from high end products made by large distillers, craft whiskey makers feel there is a lot of up side for them by teaching people what to taste for and savor. J.K. Williams partner Kassi Williams says the education of drinkers about taste has been neglected since Prohibition ended and mass market makers took over.

"Pre-prohibition everybody drank em neat because it was good quality products. Post-prohibition though, people had to start making their cuts with bathtub water and so no one really liked that flavor that came behind it. And so began the evolution of mixed drinks."

Marketing including tours and tastings can help craft distillers make inroads. But, Penn Jensen says it's more than wooing drinkers from high end or established mass brands like Seagrams, old Grandad, Old Overholt, the OLDs as they are known. Jensen says it used to be you get a brand, you sell the brand, you push the brand. But, culture, he says has a very bad reverse gear, and it's not only unpopular to drink the same drink common in the 1950s, but, the changes are accelerating in the modern period.

"And the brands themselves are simply not as important as the flavors. And that's, that's a huge difference."

Jensen says the martini craze of the 1990s is also helping craft whiskey makers. That might seem counterintuitive. But, Jensen says it's more than a return to spirits, it's a search for the novel, served up by mixologists. Don't call them bartenders any more.

"It's very interesting to see the reports that I read, how many women are getting involved in brown spirits. Where it used to be Chardonnay, now they are very bold, I mean they are drinking whiskey, they are drinking excellent cocktails with quality ingredients, they are driving brands."

Craft distillers are stepping into this opportunity. Jensen says they are even rescuing styles that fell out of favor long ago. Rye Whiskey for instance. The giant distiller Maker's Mark used to produce a little Rye, once a year as an after-thought. Rye, is surging in popularity thanks to craft distillers, a style common from the country's founding, at Mount Vernon.

"George Washington made rye whiskey, was a big rye whiskey guy, largest in the country. And they have turned that park into a working distillery where you can actually go and buy a bottle of rye that very closely matches Washington's own recipe. And they figured that out by looking at the invoices and receipts from the materials that he purchased. And so they kind of reverse engineered from that."

Might very well see a local brand made in any decent sized town. He says consumers will decide the saturation point based on what they like. They will eventually stop trying new things and settle on brands or styles they like and the people early to the marketplace with quality products will have a leg up. But, there is a long runway for growth to take off.

"Right now it's hard to find used distillery equipment because the distilleries are just going full bore."

Jensen says there is not much to suggest whiskey and spirits growth will slow in the near future. Not everything is going to be a success. Some new whiskeys will not be to the palate of the general public. But, as Jensen says, if you are spending your life's money to build a distillery, you had better make a product somebody wants to buy more than once. And over in east Peoria, the Williams family is one of many around the country embracing the challenge, teaching the taste and history of whiskey in their distillery."

"Distilling was the industry here and overnight it became illegal. A lot of people left the Peoria area, fled the town. The people that were left were pretty much unemployed. Our great great grandpa JK was one of those. He had six kids. His oldest son at the time was 14. And Buck and JK did what they had to do to keep the kids fed."

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