A Brazilian living in Rhode Island decides to design a still and contacts a Chinese manufacturer to build the prototype. The Chinese tell him they’ll be at the Independent Spirits Expo and he ought to come meet them there. While at the convention, the Brazilian is corralled by a rag-tag team from Tennessee who, after a few drinks, has him agreeing to help with their TTB application, distillery layout and product line. Visiting the future site of the distillery, the Brazilian talks with a local gentleman, at which time the Brazilian mentions that he both built and showed fellow distillers how to build traditional alembic stills. The Tennessee native asks the South American if he could have a class. Others follow and, seven months later, a school is born—and not just any school: The first school teaching the art of still-making, and a school that is determined to also give ex-cons a break.
The Brazilian is Max Makowski and, even though he is the inspiration for the school, he originally was not going to be a part of the project. “I occasionally teach; I am not a teacher,” he said. “Plus, I am anything but a master coppersmith.”
The investor didn’t care. He insisted that Makowski be in charge. “It is exactly because Makowski is not a formally trained still-maker that I want him at the helm. His story is inspiring. His philosophy on making spirits is refreshing.”
Max the Distiller was something Makowski had been striving towards since 1989. Max the Still-Maker was something he found himself doing out of desperate necessity.
In 2006, seventeen years after the idea of opening a distillery burrowed into his head, Makowski was standing inside an empty building on nine hectares (approximately 22 acres) of sugarcane fields with nothing left in his bank account. A month shy of harvest season, he did what anyone with everything to lose would do: He decided to build a still. The courage to act on this idea, however, only came during a factory tour of Brazil’s preeminent alembic still manufacturer, during which he broke away from the group and headed over to the workers, grilling them as to how they did what they did, and why. He then snuck over to the dumpsters where he stuffed tiny pieces of scrap metal into his pockets.
A day later, he used these discards to order proper materials. A day after that, he bartered some personal effects for used tools—his largest hammer coming from a travelling circus. The day after that, he started to pound away. But, to make this all about Makowski is missing the objective of the school.
Named The Refinery, the still-making academy aims to demystify the entire distilling process. “The industry has become far too intimidating, both psychologically and financially,” investor John Slautterback explains. “The Refinery is about pulling back the curtain and reminding people that, not too long ago and for thousands of years before, anyone who wanted to make their own liquor did just that.”
Classes are limited to 10 students and, as part of an outreach program, there are two spots given to candidates who either cannot afford the course or are ex-cons (of non-violent crimes with references from prison officials or parole officers). Candidates must also go through an interview process.
This does not mean filling students with false hope and unfounded confidence. “That would be dangerous,” Makowski stated. “It took me years to get it right.” Granted, a person already possessing the necessary skill-set could build their own still after taking the five-day class but, for the absolute novice, the course serves primarily as a way for them to learn the language of still-making. “You’ll be able to tell a machinist exactly what you want. You’ll know what sort of still you need for the type of spirit you plan to make, thus avoiding over-spending on unnecessary accessories or paying a premium to have a still manufacturer make what a metal shop could easily construct for a fraction of the cost.”
The course also educates attendees on how to design a still using AutoDesk Inventor, Fusion 360, SolidWorks, and FreeCAD, an open-source application available online for free. Aside from the obvious advantages such know-how provides, learning to work these programs enables a student to test the structural integrity of a model virtually, before time and money are spent building the real thing. Naveen Govindaraj, the Refinery’s engineering professor, is also available to help graduates long after the course is over. The rationale for this made sense. As Govindaraj put it, “Our success can only be measured by our student’s success.”
For those unable to commit five days or are not interested in learning construction techniques specific to both the Portuguese and Scottish alembics, there is a two-day Appalachian moonshine still-making class. The instructor, Eric Pearson, starts the lesson by showing how simple a still-design can be to build. “A hammer, a saw and a screwdriver is all you need,” Pearson said. “Even less, if you have access to items like a keg and pre-cut pipes.”
In many ways, Pearson is the exact opposite of Makowski. Born into a family of farmers who have been building their own stills for generations, he has still-making in his blood. Both Pearson and Makowski subscribe to the exact same school of thought: Still-making is simple—definitely not easy, but simple, which is precisely what The Refinery is all about. “The end-goal is to open the possibility of owning a distillery to anyone, regardless of whether they have $7,000 or $700,000 dollars to do so,” Slautterback said.
The first courses of 2016 will be held March 14-21, in New Orleans. Partnering with Faubourg Distillery, located in the historic Treme district, The Refinery will offer the two-day and five-day, as well as a combined seven-day option. The latter two include a hands-on lab, during which students learn about distilling and fermenting by making a small batch of rectified spirits on their own individual fermenters and distillers. There are also four add-on classes covering design and construction of dephlegmators, double-thumpers, reflux columns and, for the more scientifically inclined, an intro to gas chromatography/ mass spectrometry.