Distilling Like a Brewer

Feature by | Apr 2012 | Issue #63

The distilling facilities at Ballast Point.

There might be a major expansion going on at the Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits warehouse in San Diego, Calif., but head brewer Yuseff Cherney is still dedicated to his craft—or, should we say, crafts. In addition to being the company’s head brewer since he and co-founder Jack White went pro with their homebrew setup 15 years ago, Cherney is also Ballast Point’s head distiller, a position he created four years ago when he tore out the company break room and put in its place a handmade stainless-steel still.

“The spirits are kind of my baby,” Cherney says of the microdistillery, which has since added three fermentation tanks, stacks of American oak char #3 barrels and a custom copper pot still.

Distilling wasn’t a huge leap from brewing; the two processes require much of the same equipment and chemistry knowledge. Because every type of hard liquor starts off as some sort of fermented sugar, brewers who spend their days turning malted barley into beer are that much closer to making distilled beverages. All that’s needed is the still itself.

Anchor Brewing in San Francisco was an early adopter of this idea, and in 1993, it became the first brewery in the world with its own in-house distillery. Nine years later, Dogfish Head’s brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Del., became the second when owner Sam Calagione turned an old piece of farm equipment and some welded-together kegs into what head distiller Alison Schrader lovingly calls her “Frankenstill.”

Today, out of the roughly 235 craft distilleries in America, 18 are operated by craft breweries, according to a forthcoming white paper on the subject by Michael Kinstlick, co-owner of Coppersea Distilling in New York—and that number is expected to rise as these once-mutually exclusive industries slowly recognize just how much they have in common. “As a brewer, you got the fermentation science background,” says Cherney, “so you know you can make a base and ferment it pretty easily. And the distilling is all based on high school chemistry.”

For rum, the base—or wash—is made from sugar cane or molasses. For neutral spirits like vodka and gin, the base can be made from wheat, a blend of low-grade grains or just sugar plus nutrients. Whiskey’s wash, though, has a closer relationship to beer since it typically requires barley. What eventually gets distilled into whiskey is essentially a beer brewed without hops.

At Ballast Point—as well as other craft breweries that now operate on-site distilleries—this means that instead of sending wort to the kettle to be hopped, the wash can go directly from the brewery’s mash tun into fermenting tanks to await distillation. It also means that the possibilities for whiskey flavors are as endless as the grain bills for your favorite beer.

“There are guys out there every day making wash, but they don’t even know it,” says Bill Owens, who, after a long career in craft beer, founded the American Distilling Institute, an organization that hosts conferences and competitions for the growing craft distilling movement. “I just know in my heart of hearts that the best whiskey in the future is going to be the whiskey coming out of the guys that brew their own beer.”

Ranger Creek's TJ Miller, head distiller and co-founder.

Ranger Creek’s TJ Miller, head distiller and co-founder.

One Brewer’s Mash is Another’s Wash
In Michigan, New Holland Artisan Spirits—based out of New Holland Brewing, near Grand Rapids—offers not only a line of brewer’s whiskeys made with beer grains, but also its Hatter Royale Hopquila, a twice-distilled white whiskey steeped in Centennial hops. Oskar Blues in Colorado recently announced that it, too, would start making its own spirits (with plans to put them in cans, no less!), which seems appropriate for a brewery that once supplied nearby Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey with its wash.

And in the Midwest, Missouri’s Square One Brewery and Distillery—under the clever “Spirits of St. Louis” label—not only produces a tequila-like spirit, but has also used the recipe’s 100-percent agave nectar to create a seasonal agave wheat beer. “We’re seeing a reverse in the process now,” says John Witte, Square One’s brewery director. “Our whiskey was based on everything we had in the brewery, and now we’re starting to see some beers that are having us bring raw ingredients out of the distillery. We figured that if we’re going to marry these concepts together, let’s marry them.”

As Missouri’s first microdistillery restaurant and one of the first whiskey-makers in the state since Prohibition, Square One is setting a model for craft in the spirits industry. Unlike a brewery, for instance, where it is safe to assume a beer is brewed from scratch, the term “distillery” is slightly more vague.

A company designated as a “distillery” can run the gamut from highly engaged (i.e., making and distilling their own wash) to … well, not so much (i.e., buying finished spirits and merely blending, aging or filtering them). But when a brewery operates a distillery, there is no need to guess. “Craft brewers will never buy pre-made alcohol,” says Mark McDavid, co-founder of San Antonio, Texas’ Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling, a self-described “brewstillery” that invented its own “Texas bourbon” recipe.

Breweries are also using higher-quality, brewer-grade ingredients and mixing them in a sanitary brewing environment. Much like beer’s beginnings, the recipes for basic spirit types were designed to make alcoholic liquids out of agricultural waste under less-than-ideal conditions. But rum made from sugar cane byproducts is often spiced to hide impurities, and whiskey made from corn leftovers and feed-level grain spends more than a decade in a barrel to remove its consequentially sour flavors.

“We literally brew our whiskey wash just like a beer,” explains Square One’s Witte. “It goes through a sparge, then a boil. We cool it down, oxygenate it and then add yeast into a fermenter. It takes a little more time, but it’s a cleaner product that goes into the still, and then when it comes out, you can still taste some of that cherry smoked malt we put into it at the beginning.”

With better ingredients going into the wash and a clean environment for fermentation, not only is there more control over the flavor profile of the spirit, but it results in brighter (clearer) characters in the distillate (final product).

The still at Rogue House of Spirits.

The still at Rogue House of Spirits.

The Quiet Revolution
In 1978, the federal government legalized homebrewing; unfortunately, home distilling continues to be illegal in all states, and the comparatively slow growth of the intimate craft distilling industry stems from that. “Home distilling is something no one wants to talk about because it’s not legal, and homebrewing is,” says Brett Joyce, president of Rogue Ales and Spirits. “[Rogue’s master distiller John Couchot] was a chemist by background and was probably one of the early guys home distilling. Like homebrewers, he made a lot of batches, made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of stuff that worked.”

Rogue Ales started distilling in 2003 out of its Newport, Ore., brewery, after 15 years of brewing beer. In 2006, Rogue’s House of Spirits opened in the brewery’s parking lot and, with its 150-gallon Vendome copper pot still, became one of the first distillery pubs in the country. (“When we started, I think there were only five craft distilleries in the country, and now there are over [200],” Joyce says.)

So if consumers are proving receptive to the new crop of craft distilleries, and breweries already contain half of the equipment necessary to make spirits, why aren’t there more of these so-called brewstilleries? For starters, breweries looking to open distilleries face the red tape that craft brewers faced 20 years ago, since some states still aren’t sure how to handle the licensing (“They looked at us like we were insane,” says McDavid, from Ranger Creek). But states such as California and Oregon—home to early combined operations—have set a precedent for easing business owners through the dual-application process.

Some state laws have not been touched since Prohibition and just need legislative action to change them. Luckily, federal law is pretty clear that a company can operate both a brewery and a distillery, though the two production areas might have to be in separate rooms or buildings, depending on the local regulations. For the most part, permitting agencies just need a little education on the subject, which some permit-seekers have found can be as simple as a link to an existing operation, like Anchor Brewing and Distilling’s website: proof that precedent exists.

“Just like we do with beer, we continue to think creativity and variety is relevant,” says Joyce. “This revolution is happening—it’s just going to take some time for it to really explode.”