by Neven Vorkapic
Dreams can be overwhelming, but what is left out there for us if there are no dreams to follow?
Some time ago, way back in the 1980s, I was just another small-town kid dreaming big, aiming for the skies. Yes, exactly that: aiming for the skies. I wanted to be a jet pilot… in the Yugoslav Air Force. Getting behind the wheel of one of those MiGs that I’d see flying over my head is all I dreamed of. I had this scrapbook where I collected every bit of information about jets I could find in newspaper clips, books and magazines, reading it over and over again. It was my Bible. Don’t even ask how many times I’ve seen Top Gun and Iron Eagle.
My grades in school were great; I was even a school champion in math one year. I didn’t even want to participate but my teacher signed me up. It didn’t matter much. The only thing that mattered was getting good grades to get into military high school and later become a pilot.
Everything was going as planned—until the worst happened: Yugoslavia went to war with itself. In fact, my country was no more.
I never even knew my ethnicity until that moment. Our parents taught us to be good people, not Serbs or Croats. Suddenly everything came crashing down. The country was up in flames. Divisions and hate grew between people, and my dream of becoming a pilot, the only thing that mattered to me, was gone, too. Worse, the war taught me first-hand, the hard way, what those jets were really made for. Those years were ugly. They left us all with emotional scars that will never heal.
With my dream long gone, never coming back, nothing else seemed important.
I got into law school because I figured I was always seeking justice in everything and I might be a decent lawyer. Naive? Yeah, I know.
I consider those lost years—law wasn’t for me. I just couldn’t get along with the “lawyerly bunch,” with the whole system. One day I said to my parents, “I’m going to America for the summer. I’ll work as a lifeguard in a summer camp.” They didn’t believe me until the day I said goodbye and boarded that Boeing.
In retrospect, I can say that was the best summer of my life. I was free for the first time since childhood, free in so many ways that few people can understand. Nobody cared about where I was from, my skin color, religion or ethnicity. People from all over the world just wanted to know Neven, to know me, who I was as a person. During that summer I found out so much about the world on so many levels, about myself. I made lifelong friends, and—against all expectation—I met my wife! At the age of 22, my life got turned upside down again, this time in a good way.
I returned home with new energy, started planning and dreaming again. I still had no idea what I wanted to do, but I went back to school, this time in computer science. I got a job in an IT retail company. I liked computers, but as the years passed, I was getting restless; there was no spark, no twinkle in my eye. You know that feeling: it’s all ok, work is not bad at all, but you don’t enjoy it that much, you spend too much time watching the clock.
It took 15 years of IT before I accepted my true passion: distilling. It was pretty weird because I didn’t drink and I wasn’t good in biology or chemistry (flunked it in high school).
It was October five years ago. My father and I were distilling pear brandy (home distilling is legal in Croatia) and we got in an argument about cuts, and I was educating him about the chemistry of distillation. You should have seen the look on his face.
My family has a generations-long tradition of distilling, with knowledge and skills passed from father to son. I have been distilling since the age of 8 or 9, when one autumn I first helped my father and my uncle to make fruit brandy. We produce various organic fruit brandies, primarily plum and pear, from the family’s orchards. Every year since then I have either assisted or run the still myself. One day I started thinking: Why not start my own commercial distillery? That is something I would actually enjoy doing. The spark was there. The twinkle reappeared. I knew deep down that this was it.
My best friend came on board right away. We planned out a distillery that would continue the family tradition of making fruit brandies but also produce other spirits like whiskey, gin and vodka, all based on local ingredients.
This all sounded great except for one thing: I didn’t know how to make whiskey! I started reading everything I could, but what I really wanted was to find a distillery where I could learn about production methods and how to run one as a business. My lucky break came in the form of Bill Owens, founder and president of the American Distilling Institute.
I first met Bill in October 2015 at the London Distilling Expo. We had a short but constructive and memorable chat, and we stayed in touch during the following year.
In October 2016, I joined Owens and a group of fellow spirits experts and enthusiasts for a four-day tour of distilleries in Speyside, Scotland. Not only was the tour fantastic (I met some amazing people and we got to taste some delicious single malts) but I also had a chance to discuss my future plans with Owens. He offered to help and suggested I take part in ADI’s internship program, which would place me for a couple of weeks in a craft distillery somewhere in the United States. It was exactly what I was looking for!
Owens sent me a list of distilleries where I could do the internship. There were many great choices, but I ultimately landed on Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery. Not only had Cedar Ridge recently earned ADI’s Bubble Cap Award for Distillery of the Year 2017, but their spirits had also earned numerous medals in the 2017 ADI Judging of Craft Spirits and other competitions. Their product line includes an extensive array from brandies to gin, vodka, rye, single malt and bourbon. Cedar Ridge’s winery makes more than a dozen different varieties of wine. Their varied production is almost as impressive as their numerous accolades.
I wrote to Jeff Quint, founder and CEO of Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery, introducing myself, explaining what my plans were, and asked if I could do an ADI-sponsored internship there. Quint responded quickly, and within a few days we ironed out all the details. Just a few short weeks later I flew in to Cedar Rapids and started the internship at Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery.
My two weeks with the Cedar Ridge team were nothing short of amazing! I learned how to work with different types of grain and the process from milling and mashing, distilling, barrel filling and bottling. One of the most important parts of the entire internship was working with brewers (shout-out to Pete and Jon, two fantastic guys!) and becoming familiar with the mashing process for each type of spirit produced at Cedar Ridge. Aided by my previous experience of running the family still, I quickly got acquainted with their stripping still, and just one day after I came to Iowa the team entrusted me to operate the still by myself during the night shift. Not only did I get hands-on experience in distilling rye whiskey, but I got to help my colleagues with their work.
I also learned things such as the specifics of making cuts in a grain spirits run, barreling and aging the spirits and, of course, bottling and packaging. One of the most significant benefits was the opportunity to see how a real, thriving distillery functions in real time, and how the team responds to and deals with problems.
Cedar Ridge is an exemplary distillery in many ways. Seeing it from the inside made clear how they earned all those awards and medals. It is truly an amazing place to visit and see how things are done right!
Reflecting on those two weeks at Cedar Ridge, I think not only about all I learned but also about how I was welcomed by Jeff, his family and the entire Cedar Ridge team. Everyone I encountered was so kind and friendly. I struggle to find words in the English language to fully express my gratitude and thanks for everything that all those wonderful people did to make me feel welcome and help me learn what was necessary to start my own distillery.
I left Cedar Ridge on the California Zephyr, headed for the San Francisco Bay Area.
This was another dream of mine. My father was an engineer, and you know how it goes: He was my hero, I looked up to him. So, I learned to love train travel. Father and I talked so many times about the most amazing train rides around the world, and the Zephyr was one of them. There was no way I would miss the opportunity.
I boarded the Zephyr at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, for the two-day and two-night journey to California, through Denver into the Rocky Mountains, along the Colorado River, through the Utah desert, the Sierra Nevada Mountains—and ending in one of my favorite places on Earth: San Francisco. There I joined up with Bill Owens and Christy Howery for a tour of local distilleries.
In two days, we visited Hangar 1, St. George Spirits, Seven Stills Distilling, Anchor Distilling (now Hotaling & Co.), Do Good Distillery, Gallo and Sutherland Distilling Co. The next day I visited Spirit Works Distillery on my own. Many thanks to Timo and Ashby Marshall and Lauren Patz for letting me spend the entire working day with them, picking their brains. Wonderful people!
After my visit to Spirit Works distillery there was one more important stop I had to make before heading home: the USS Hornet!
How could I miss an opportunity to visit an aircraft carrier museum and take a gazillion pictures of everything? The F-14 Tomcat, the F-4, the Skyhawk… That young aspiring pilot, the Peter Pan kid in me, never disappeared. It was like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, eating through those planes with my eyes.
I got an early start the next day to visit the Big Sur coast and take more pictures. It was fantastic. I drove all the way to Bixby Bridge, while making stops at Carmel-by-the-Sea, Point Lobos, Garrapata Beach—wherever I found a great location, regardless of the weather. Then the John Denver lyric “leaving on a jet plane” started playing in my head, and soon I was on board an Air France flight toward home.
The experience psyched me up for starting my own distillery in ways I cannot fully describe. I believe that my country, especially the region where I live, with its mix of temperate Mediterranean and cold mountain climates, offers excellent quality ingredients from grains and fruits to local botanicals. I hope to do right by those ingredients and create true grain/fruit-to-glass spirits that will live up to the uncompromising excellence of Cedar Ridge and the other distilleries that left their mark on me.
Cedar Ridge Distillery and all the people that work there are truly a group of amazing professionals and, above all, wonderful people. Quint and his family became my family away from home, and that is something I will remember and appreciate for the rest of my life. This past spring, they came to Croatia where my wife and I got a chance to show them around, introduce them to some great local cuisine and, I hope, return some of the same hospitality and friendship that they showed me in Iowa.
The American Distilling Institute has been instrumental in this entire process, for which I’m very grateful. The entire internship experience was truly incredible, and it far surpassed my wildest dreams.
I thank you all for making this possible.