When did you read eight books on any topic? How about ten? Probably never. But now you can SAY you read ten books on craft distilling in one sitting. All courtesy of Distiller Magazine. On the other hand, if you ACTUALLY want to read any or all of these beauties, go to distilling.com or Amazon and buy them. We know it’s an editorial conflict of interest to promote our own books. But we suffer from Silicon Valley’s “no conflict, no interest” disease. Our bad.

Some of what’s in these books you already know. But like the Ohio River, craft distilling is both deep and wide. Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously observed that in warcraft, there are three types of intel: The “known known,” like that terrorists want to kill us. The “known unknown,” which is what you know you don’t know, like where the spies are hiding. Then the “unknown unknown,” which is what you don’t know you don’t know, such as yet-to-be-invented future weapons.

Here are our Great Eight (which are really ten):

  1. Chemistry and Technology of Wines and Liquors by
    Karl Herstein and Thomas Gregory
  2. Craft of Whiskey Distilling and Modern Moonshine Techniques by Bill Owens. (Two books, but they count as one.)
  3. The Maturation of Distilled Spirits and Traditional Distillation Art & Passion by Hubert Germain-Robin (Again, two books that count as one. They’re each powerful, but they’re small.)
  4. The Cocktail Bar by Chall Gray.
  5. Whiskey Atlas North America 2021 by R.J. Hirst
  6. The Art of Distilling Whiskey and Other Spirits by
    Bill Owens and Alan Dikty
  7. The Nano Distillery The Future of Distilling by
    Bill Owens, Brad Plummer and Andrew Faulkner
  8. How to Get U.S. Market Ready Wines and Spirits by Steve Raye

While some of these reviews are long and some are short, the lessons here are many, and they all stand the test of time.

Chemistry and Technology of Wines and Liquors by Karl Herstein F.A.I.C. and Thomas C. Gregory (D. Van Nostrand Company, 1935, reprinted with permission by White Mule Press).

Why do we start with a book from 1935, before there were even color pictures? One word: Prohibition.

For those who may not know and for those who do, prohibition in the United States lasted from 1920 (the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, combined with the Volstead Act to make liquor illegal) to 1933 (when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th), and marked some of the darkest days in our nation’s history.

Prohibition was an epic failed social experiment. It crushed
America’s important agriculture, hospitality and transportation sectors. It created perverse political alliances. And it single-handedly fed the growth of American organized crime. All three of these factors combined to cause the Great Depression. Prohibition stomped on our government’s tax revenue air hose. Page 332 of Chemistry and Technology features a chart showing that distilled spirit tax collections dropped from $353,737.044.77 in 1919 to $8,517,399.98 by 1932. That’s today’s equivalent of a loss of over $500,000,000,000 (that’s billion with a “b”). The economic and social disruption of Prohibition was so vast that several historians argue that it rippled across the world and helped start World War Two.

While Prohibition did spawn NASCAR (fast cars were perfected and popularized by rum runners), its merciful end in 1933 marked the start of a renaissance in American distilling. And combined with the economic boom from military spending to win WW2, prohibition’s end marked the beginning of America’s rise as the world’s largest economy.

By 1935, demand was at a peak for Herstein and Gregory’s bible for the enterprising distiller. The pair saw boundless interest in restarting distilleries to deliver distinctive brands of whiskey, bourbon, gin, rum, vodka, brandy, tequila, liqueurs and cordials (the last two of which are really the same thing, liqueurs the preferred French word, and cordials the British).

And the pair were focused on helping distilling entrepreneurs repair the damage that Prohibition had done to the heritage of quality American spirits. They dedicated the book to “the scientists and engineers who may within the next few decades largely transform the beverage art.” As they explained:

The era just past in the United States, prohibition, may be likened, by not a too strained analogy, to the Dark Ages in Europe from the fourth to the fourteenth century…The repeal of prohibition found the beverage art as a sort of stepchild. Chemical science was ready to step in. Chemical engineering had its techniques ready. But the art to which these were to be applied was demoralized. Bootlegging required very little of its product. A very bare resemblance to its prototype (e.g., whiskey or bourbon or brandy or rum or gin) and a substantial “kick” were sufficient to satisfy the market. Quality of product was generally unattainable by bootleg manufacturer, and really unnecessary to his market. Economy of production was a relatively minor consideration when the liability of government seizure and the maintenance of an army of thugs and wholesale bribery constituted the larger items in the final selling price of the product.

Chemistry and Technology is the densest of our Great Eight–350 pages complete with charts, exhibits, diagrams, and formulas that read like a chemistry professor’s idea of booze porn. Take this passage, for example:

The entire wine and liquor industry rests on the fact of nature that under suitable conditions sugar is transformed into potable alcohol, while at the same time the other materials in the sugar solution and the by-products resulting along with the alcohol lend various pleasant characteristics to the finished product. It follows, then, that the character of the finished product depends, first, on the raw material which furnishes the sugar and alcohol, second, on the conditions of the transformation of the sugar into alcohol, and third, on the after treatment of the alcoholic solution.

Because American distilling is dominated by grain-based spirits, Chemistry and Technology starts with the composition of grains—barley, rye, corn, oats, wheat—and only then weighs in on grapes. Grains and grapes are followed by analyses of whiskey processes and whiskeys. For whiskey makers, the most important section comes from the era’s most extensive analysis of American whiskies, the 1908 study by Crampton and Tolman. Here are the eight highlights from their study:

There are important relationships among the acids, esters, color and solids in a properly aged whiskey, which will differentiate it from artificial mixtures and from young spirit.

  1. All of the constituents are undergoing changes as the aging process proceeds, and it is evident that the matured whiskey is the result of these combined changes.
  2. The amount of higher alcohols increases in the matured whiskey only in proportion to the concentration.
  3. Acids and esters reach an equilibrium, which is maintained after three or four years.
  4. The characteristic aroma of American whiskey is derived almost entirely from the charred package in which it is aged.
  5. The rye whiskies show a higher content of solids, acids, esters, etc., than do the Bourbon whiskies, but this is explained by the fact that heated warehouses are almost universally used for the maturing of rye whiskies, and unheated warehouses for the maturing of Bourbon whiskies.
  6. The improvement in flavor of whiskies in charred packages after the fourth year is due largely to concentration.
  7. The oily appearance of matured whiskey is due to material extracted from the charred package, as this appearance is almost lacking in whiskies aged in uncharred wood.

At the time, Chemistry and Technology caused a minor stir with its description of innovations in still technology. While Scotch and Irish and British Patent and other pot stills were well known for centuries, the Coffey Still, an early column still that allowed continuous production was relatively unknown except in rare industrial settings. Today’s ever-present column stills, no matter the maker, all borrowed some of their technology from the Coffey.

While deep dives into composition analyses of all distilled spirit types today are available online, in 1935, Chemistry and Technology was the first to publish detailed charts on Whiskeys as well as Eaux-de-vie De Vin of Known Origin, 25-Year-Old Brandy, Jamaica Rum, Demerara Rum, Martinique Rum, Gin and Liqueurs.

Today’s American craft distilling markets feature over 10,000 varieties from over 2,000 brands, as compared with barely any at the time of Prohibition’s repeal. So Herstein and Gregory realized their vision—they helped drive massive innovation and expansion in American distilled beverages. It’s important for craft distillers to understand the shoulders upon which we stand. Chemistry and Technology remains a priceless resource guide for the makers of all manner of distilled spirits. As in all endeavors, in distilling, fundamentals matter. And there is no more fundamental text for the ADI member than this.

Craft of Whiskey Distilling and Modern Moonshine Techniques, by Bill Owens (American Distilling Institute, 2009).

Bill Owens, the spirit animal of American craft distilling, was as prolific as Picasso in 2009, authoring both of these tidy paperbacks while ramping up the American Distilling Institute. His easy-to-read descriptions of principles, mashing, processes, formulas, licensing advice, Standards of Identity guidance, equipment, barrel aging, bottling, distribution and selling of artisan whiskey and moonshine has so far introduced craft spirit-making to two and a half generations of makers who have generated billions-plus in commerce.

The impact of Owens’ publishing fusillade is hard to overstate. He has earned the admiration and partnership of big distiller organizations such as DISCUS and the US government’s TTB, spawned a gaggle of distillation educational institutions such as Moonshine University, engendered the undying loyalty of scores of distillers who seek the honor of hosting an ADI workshop and giving back to future generations, fueled hundreds of consulting and professional service firms, driven membership in dozens of state and regional guilds, and even sprouted a couple copycat wannabe organizations (they who shall go unnamed).

As Owens puts it:

Craft distillers don’t need a column still with two dozens of plates to make whiskey. Visit any small whiskey distillery and you will see that most have a still without column and plates. And, if they do have a column still, it will be used to make stripping runs with plates open. Then they make heads and tails cuts on the second spirits run using one plate. Every distillery works differently. The key is to make head and tail cuts that save congeners (flavors) that define the style of whiskey you are distilling.

While cooking corn and making whiskey and bourbon represent 50% of U.S. craft spirit production, arguably the most American of all distilled potables is moonshine. An old Appalachian proverb goes, “Where the English went, they built a house, where the Germans went, they built a barn; where the Scots-Irish went, they built a whiskey still.”

“Moonshine” was first used in Britain, because it referred to activities that took place at night. In the US, on the other hand:

…it has always been associated with illegal liquor that has been known under colloquial names such as white lightning, popskull, corn liquor, rotgut, panther’s breath or more simply, shine.

As anyone who has seen the play or movie Hamilton can attest, tax on alcohol was one of the main ways that the young American republic used to pay for its long war for independence from the English. But booze tax was not popular with the subsistence farmers who grew the corn and wheat and turned it into alcohol. And as anyone who has ever taken an economics course will note, taxes are often the root of unforeseen consequences.

This is where Owens embarks on an American history lesson:

In 1794, things finally came to a head with the Whiskey Rebellion. A group of several hundred managed to overtake the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In reaction, George Washington (a distiller himself…in fact, the ADI logo is fashioned after old George’s still) dispatched 13,000 militiamen to take back the city and jail the leaders. The incident served as the first major test for the fledgling federal government.

But as we saw in our first chapter of this issue, the Whiskey Rebellion was not the last time government would take issue with distilled spirit makers.

In the 1860s the government attempted to collect more excise taxes to fund the Civil War. In response, a number of elements, including Ku Klux Klansmen, joined the moonshiners in an attempt to fight back. The new alliance led to more brutality and incidents of intimidation of local people who might reveal stills, and revenue agents and their families.

Owens, who wrote, co-wrote or published many of the books we’re reviewing here, is the country’s foremost authority on craft distilling techniques and the community of craftspeople who have built craft distilling into a multi-billion-dollar industry. And this 2009 book is a tradecraft paperback text book, with quizzes at the end of each chapter to make sure you’re learning the lessons and can apply them with your own still, whether legal or not. And for shiners, whether commercial or not, Owens wants you to learn to be proficiently productive after finishing his 93-page manual.

As with all his books, Owens pays homage to the pioneers and first-movers in the category. Among the moonshine luminaries he features are Payton Fireman of West Virginia Distilling, www.mountainmoonshine.com, the late Rodney Facemire of Isaiah Morgan Distilling, www.kirkwood-wine.com/isaiahmorgan.html, and Chuck Miller of Belmont Farm Distillery, www.virginiamoonshine.com.

Owens’ book’s real gift to the distilling community was to show the four phases of moonshine evolution: 18th century corn shine, sugar shine (which is really sugar rum), pot stilled whiskey-style shine, and column stilled whiskey-style shine.

The 18th century recipe was a ten-step process.

  1. The corn was first put into a burlap bag and then soaked in a tub of warm water. The water was changed each day for the next three days.
  2. The tub was drained and the corn sat for three more days, or until it sprouted.
  3. The corn was then spread out in the sun to dry.
  4. Once dried, the corn was put back into the bag and tumbled, thus knocking off the sprouts.
  5. The corn was cracked in a roller mill set at 1/64.” Flour and corn mills were in every town in America.
  6. The cracked corn was mixed into hot water, thus creating a mash for fermentation. The distiller used the “Rule of Thumb” to determine if the water was hot enough. If he could hold this thumb in the water for 5 seconds if was the right temperature to create the mash. (In his footnotes, Owens comments that the original meaning of the Rule was that you couldn’t beat your wife with a stick bigger than your thumb.)
  7. After mixing, the mash was left to sit for a few hours. This allowed the corn starches to convert to sugars. Some distillers would let the mash just sit and undergo a spontaneous 7-15 day fermentation.
  8. Fermented mash was then bucketed into the still. Today, distillers use a sump pump to move the wash.
  9. The wash was brought up to a low boil, allowing vapors to flow up and out to the condenser and the collection pail.
  10. 18th century distillers use smell and tastes to distill moonshine.

Sugar shine is what evolved from this recipe as refined sugar became readily available, so poor farmers could make moonshine as cheaply and quickly as possible. Today, he notes you can make about $800 worth of moonshine from a $25 bag of sugar bought at Costco. Sugar shine is character-free, but it’s cheap and easy.

Barrel aging will add some flavor and some value to your sugar shine. Technically, a sugar wash is what TTB calls a “spirit specialty,” which would have to be on the label if you were selling it. Chemically, this sugar shine is fairly similar to Neutral Grain Spirits, or NGS.

The third and fourth level of moonshine is really whiskey, distilled in a pot still or a column still, respectively. And that means you have to use corn, which results in something tastier than the sugar-based product, but it’s harder to do because you have to cook corn. A straight corn mash will give you about a 6% ABV mash, and adding sugar will boost it to 9%. Alternatively, you can add barley malt to your mash tun, which will result in a single malt whiskey after you distill it.

Pot stills versus column stills? Owens has your back.

A pot distillation can increase the concentration of a 10% abv wort/wash in a 55% abv spirit. The first spirit is called low wines and before the second distillation it is diluted to 30% abv. This dilution will allow for accurate cuts during the second distillation by increasing the run time. After the 30% abv low wines are distilled, a 70-75% abv spirit is obtainable. In contrast, a pot still with a column with copper mesh packing and a deplegmator (also known as a pre-condenser) can take the same 10% abv wash and on a single pass get a 60% abv of more spirit. Even more efficient is a column using trays and/or bubble caps.

Owens was even an early environmentalist.

Several years ago I made some beer and tossed 30 lbs. of spent grain in the backyard. One year later, it was still there. Worms won’t eat spent grain unless it is cut with green material and composted. If you don’t have a farmer to come get the spent grains, put them in a bag and send them to the dump.

Distilling owes much to Bill Owens. Not so for worms.

Traditional Distillation Art & Passion and The Maturation of Distilled Spirits by Hubert Germain-Robin (White Mule Press, 2012 and 2016 respectively).

Fruit-based American craft spirit-making is effectively pure French. Hubert Germain-Robin, born on the property of his grandfather at the Chateau du Logis de Lafon near Cognac, scion of the French Jules Robin et Cie family, cognac royalty since 1782, is the poster boy for this heritage. He learned distilling at the knee of Master Blender Pierre Frugier at Martel Cognac. From calvados in Normandy to cognac and eau de vies (EDVs) in central France to brandies further south, France’s skills in “preserving the bounty of the summer” are unmatched, and Germain-Robin is the perfect narrator for these time-honored techniques.

While the American palate is often more attuned to grain-based spirits, the alambic pot techniques used in classic EDVs are also artfully used by the greatest grain and corn distillers.

Germain-Robin’s cognac distillation technique will be familiar to all distillers.

A first distillation of wine gives 3 fractions: heads, hearts (brouillis) and tails. Heads and tails are re-distilled with the following batch of wine. The broullis is used for the second distillation, also called “bonne chauffe.”

A second distillation of brouillis gives four fractions: heads, hearts 1 (cognac), heart 2 (secondes) and tails. Heart and tails are re-distilled with brouillis.

As with any spirit, “making the cut” of heads is the penultimate moment. Here, Germain-Robin shares four different ways to do it:

  1. The “Three Pearls”
  2. In ancient times, distillers relied on their visual observation to make the cuts. At the fateful moment, you will notice that if you cover your hand over a glass and agitate the spirit inside, a myriad of bubbles float around inside of the glass. They disappear rapidly, then less and less. When you repeat the same procedure and you only have two bubble left together and one on the side, and they remain in the glass for a little longer, you have the “Three Pearls.” This is beautiful and fairly accurate for grape distillations.
  3. “The Nose” of Cyrano
  4. This method is the mother of the others. The education and training of your nose should drive you in your decision. A long experience in the distillation of grapes, fruits grain and plants will increase your accuracy and confidence. Good training is crucial.
  5. In Cognac, at the Organisation Economique du Cognac (ORECCO), they created classes on tasting for new or experienced distillers, covering the defects in EDVs coming from the grapes, the vinification, the distillation and the identification of the different terrior of the appellations. By reproducing the same methods and criteria of their parents or mentors, certain to do the right thing, the ORECCO instructors wanted to teach how to avoid common mistakes. It has been very effective to raise the quality of distillates.
  6. “The Dance of the Alcoholmeter”
  7. This method is also based on observation. Let’s say you have determined that your cut should occur at 60% volume at the alcoholmeter. At a little above 60%, you will notice an up and down movement of the alcoholmeter. After the third time the alcoholmeter rises a little more than 59.5%, it is time to cut. At first you will be hesitant, but soon you will recognize the “pas de trois” dance steps.
  8. “By The Book”
  9. The most reliable, secure way to make the cuts is to keep mixing the EDV you have in the tank. Take samples every few minutes until the percentage of alcohol you have in your tank is between 70% and 71% alcohol by volume, but not below 70%. Otherwise, your EDV will be tainted by the secondes.

As for maturation or aging your EDV, Germain-Robin is similarly traditional:

Three successive processes occur during the aging process:

Subtraction Function of Oak—After distilling in copper pot stills, the copper taste that was acquired during that process disappears after about 2 months.

Extraction of Oak Components—As a function of grape varietals, quality and the origin of the wood, size of the casks and the aging conditions, the duration of this period should be between 9 months to 1 year for a 92-gallon barrel, and a lot less for smaller barrels. The cellar master should be particularly vigilant not to over-extract tannins that will delay the next step and be detrimental to final quality.

Degradation: Hydrolysis—After the extraction period, the spirit should be transferred to neutral barrels. In the following years, some of the true characters will come back on the top of the oak; then, over 2 to 3 years, the spirit will go through a strong period of oxidation. The EDV develops a temporary and not very appealing chewy taste. The flavors are muddy and undistinguished (don’t worry). After the hydrolysis of the tannins takes place, the spirit recovers from these important transformations with aromas of sweet spices and vanilla, gaining more complexity and depth. It also acquires a warm amber color. At this stage of maturation, the spirit is appealing and ready to bottle.

While Germain-Robin is a master maker and blender and a fan of patience, he also acknowledges that in the future, technology may make his art obsolete. He observes that environment can impact taste. Scientists have recently proved that curved furnishings and red lighting, for example, make single malt whiskeys taste sweeter. It’s only a matter of time, he believes, until technology replaces traditional distilling and aging. But until then, tradition will reign.

The Cocktail Bar, Notes for an Owner and Operator by Chall Gray (White Mule Press, 2018)

This little book is the best sourcebook for distillers who sell on-premise or sell to bars and restaurants since Harry Johnson’s 1882 Bartender’s Manual. He laments that 80% of bars and restaurants fail within five years, and offers an answer why: Lack of knowledge and preparation.

Gray’s treatise is based on one simple premise: The difference between your bar as a concept (focus, market demographics, naming, design, money, partnerships, service structure and standards, cocktail list development and pricing, bartending tools and techniques, ambiance and culture) and as reality (business plans, location selection, financial projections, start-up costs, architects and contractors, backbars, lighting, opening, hiring and staffing, training, accounting, PR and marketing). And you have to get both right.

The one point Gray makes after dozens of interviews with successful bar owners is this:

Know more than you need to about every aspect of business that relates to owning a bar, especially as it relates to the financials. This will have the single greatest effect on your success.

Whiskey Atlas North America 2021—Bourbon, Rye, Whisk(e)y, Distilleries in United States of America, Canada, Mexico by R.J. Hirst (Alba Collection Verlag GbR, 2021).

Why am I surprised that the most authoritative atlas of North American distilleries is published in Germany? Yes, that’s right, Alba Collection is located in Hamburg, Germany, info@alba-collection.com. And to their credit, the publishers fairly accurately recount the extraordinary growth in the US market — 300 craft distilleries in 2013, 600 in 2016 and 1,762 at the beginning of 2021.

In fact, the Atlas contains over 2,000 entries:

  • 1,762 active in the US
  • 230 closed in the US
  • 146 active in Canada
  • 21 closed in Canada
  • 8 active in Mexico
  • 2 closed in Mexico.

The maps and listings are super-convenient for the craft tourist who want to start driving in Green Mountain, Vermont and go south on highway 91 to Bridgeport and hit every spirit maker on the way (hint: you’d make 18 stops).

While ADI’s own annual directory of distilleries is pretty good, our maps are not as pretty as the German maps. Maybe we’ll learn from them.

The Art of Distilling Whiskey and Other Spirits by Bill Owens and Alan Dikty (Quarry Books, 2009)

The Art of Distilling Whiskey is the third book featured here written or co-written by Bill Owens in 2009 alone. The guy was on fire. What’s more, the forward was written by legendary founder of San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Beer and Anchor Distilling, Fritz Maytag.

In 2003, Bill founded ADI by gathering 80 hardy souls at the St. George/Hangar One Distillery in Northern California. By 2009, Bill was astounded that the ADI database had grown to 1,246 names with 165 distilleries represented, and that he had sold 300 copies of his Craft Whiskey Distilling (Book #2 above) in under 3 months.

And while the authors were authorities, they still had no adequate explanation for why folks in the US and Ireland spell it whiskey, while Scots, Canadians, French, Japanese and Kiwis spell it without the “e.”

This book’s unique feature is its “Gallery of Artisan Distillers.” Featured personalities and processes include:

Jeff Quint of Cedar Ridge Distillery, Jorg Rupf and Lance Winters of St. George Spirits/Hangar One Vodka, Maytag, Marko Karadesevic of Domain Charbay, Don Payne of Stillwater Spirits, Bill Mosby of Mosby Winery, Dave Classick at Essential Spirits, Joe Thomas Corley of Germain-Robin, Daniel Farber of Osocalis Distillery, Dennis Todd of Garrison Brothers Distillery, Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery, Michael Kliglesmith of Highball Distillery, Lee Medoff of House Spirits, Ryan Csanky and Erik Marting of Artisan Spirits, Rich Philips of Integrity Spirits, Kieran Sienkiewicz of Rogue Distillery, David Eliason and Diane Paulson of Cascade Peak Spirits, Kent Fleishman and Don Poffenroth of Dry Fly Distilling, Kevin Settles of Bardenay, Andrew Koenig of Koenig Distillery and Winery, Rob Masters of Colorado Pure Distilling, Jess Graber and Jake Norris of Stranahans’ Colorado Whiskey, Steve McNally of Wyoming Whiskey, Ted Huber of Huber’s Orchard and Winery, Mike Beck of Uncle John’s Fruit House and Winery, Duncan Holaday and Steve Johnson of Vermont Spirits, Graham Hamblett and Frank Reinhold of Flag Hill Winery and Distillery, Jay Harman of Triple Eight Distillery, Brett Ryan of Newport Distilling, Chris Dowe of Maine Distilleries, Robert Barlett of Spirits of Maine, Ralph Erenzo fo Tuthilltown Spirits, Phil Prichard of Prichards’ Distillery, Chris Sule of Celebration Distillation, and Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox Distillery.

The book is a snapshot in time. 2009 seems like yesterday. 12 years ago yesterday.

The Nano Distillery The Future of Distilling by Bill Owens, Brad Plummer and Andrew Faulkner (White Mule Press, 2018).

It’s a great truism that the two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day she buys the boat, and the day that she gets rid of it. Sometimes it’s the same with a distillery.

Spoiler alert!

The first piece in The Nano Distillery is “Just Do It—Or Get a Dog” by Randy Pratt, founder of Great Notch Distillery. It is, like Randy, a Ph.D. former public school superintendent, a smart and well-structured guide to the roller coaster ride that is startup distilling. His story about a rock fight with another distiller over his trademark makes the hair rise on my neck. And his adventures in licensing, permitting, self-distribution, learning, endless requests for booze donations, and leasing a facility are cautionary tales, (and why CVS sells nausea medicine).

The last piece is also by Randy Pratt. It recounts July 31, 2017, the day that his landlord, town council and shadowy “local influences” forced him to shut his doors for the last time. While whiskey is Earth’s great social lubricant, in the eyes of a landlord or a town councilman, it can be a toxic irritant. Bottom line: Randy’s failure is his, not yours.

The Nano Distillery is about much more than one man’s horror story. It is a very practical guide to how dozens of today’s fastest-growing distilleries started the fly wheels of their passion, their recipes, and their businesses. The names and affiliations of the experts in this book are essential names to put on any startup distiller’s iPhone directory.

Parts One and Two cover regulations, operations and construction. Architect Colleen Moore tells you to know your building codes. All local booze production codes are based on the International Code Council (ICC), International Building Code (IBC) and International Fire Code (IFC) rules, and all localities in the U.S. have a version that applies to you. Steve Dalby of Distillery Code Consulting gives the ten do’s and don’t’s of working with your code officials. Bottom line: Make the code guys your friends, or they’ll surely be your enemy. Gary Spedding of Brewing and Distilling Analytical Services shows you how to use the OIML tables and tools to get your Alcohol By Weight (ABW) and Alcohol By Volume (ABV) right, but if you want to get it right and just push a button, get an Anton Paar Alcohol Meter. Don Snyder of WhiskeySystems.com gives you tips and tricks on record keeping and staying in the TTB’s good graces and staying out of the way of a giant federal excise tax return penalty. And Brad Plummer of Farallon Gin Works gives you the essential list of equipment for a nano distillery. The list is 10 pages long, and can cost as little as $5,000 and as much as $50,000. And don’t forget the fire extinguishers.

Part Three covers production techniques, which, truth be told, is the real passion of ADI founder and reformed brewer Bill Owens. Whether you’re making vodka or gin or whiskey or tequila or brandy or moonshine (each of which has its TTB-defined Standard of Identity), the essence of the distilling process is this:

Assume that you’re putting a mash mix of 90% water and 10% ethanol by volume in your still, to be separated by distillation. Water has a boiling point of 212F and ethanol has a boiling point of 173F, but this 10% ethanol mixture has a boiling point of 197F, it will not boil at 173F. The vapor above the liquid will be 61% ethanol, as will the distillate. In a simple kettle, the ethanol percentage will drop during the boil because more ethanol than water is being removed, and neither is being replenished. This alone accounts for the increase in boiling point from start to finish—the ratio changes, so the boiling point changes. As the run goes on, ethanol is removed from the kettle, the kettle temperature rises toward 212F and the vapor concentration decreases.

Whether you have a pot still, which runs batches, or a column still, which runs continuously, the condenser, or worm, cools the spirit vapor and spills it into a collection tank. The distillate from a pot still comes out in heads, hearts and tails. Heads are lower-boiling-point toxic alcohols, and tails are higher-boiling-point and also bitter and toxic. The hearts are the good stuff. Separating the heads and tails (together, called “the feints”) from the hearts is called “cutting,” and is one of the arts of distilling. Distillers can use the feints and re-distill them to make them tasty and safe. Or use them to clean the garage floor.

The question for new distillers is how to switch from the stripping phase, distilling the spirits, to the cutting phase, where you’re separating heads, tails and hearts? Experienced distillers do this by taste. Some do it by instrument. Those who don’t do it at all end up like those big holiday parties in third-world countries where 200 people die from drinking straight un-cut spirits distilled by a bunch of crazy uncles or homicidal maniacs with a still.

Michael Myer of Distillery 291 in Colorado Springs gives you the seven steps to make award-winning whiskey in your basement. Here they are:

  1. The Cook.
    Set your source ingredients, corn, wheat or rye or rice or potatoes (for vodka) or fruit or cane sugar (for rum), water, and enzymes such as malted barley or starch-converting enzymes which you can buy at your local homebrew shop.
  2. Fermentation temperature, yeast and time.
    Toss in some yeast at 75-80F. This creates your mash, with minimum 10% alcohol. It will take from a couple days to several days.
  3. Stripping run (no cuts).
    This takes your 10% ABV to about 35%. Many craft distillers cool their condenser with cool water they toss down the drain. More sophisticated folks like John Reid of Old Flatbed Distillery in Meridian, ID, use a double-loop cooling system that recycles the cooling water.
  4. Spirits run, head and tails cuts.
    This might take 12 hours of slowly increasing the temperature to separate the heads, which are high alcohol esters, and tails, which are fusel oils and water, from the hearts, which are pure ethanol. You can do the cuts by instrument, or by taste.
  5. Barrel aging.
    Dilute the hearts to about 60% ABV and age it in charred American white oak barrels (available in 5, 15, or 30 gallon sizes). Fast aging in small barrels, slower in bigger, but smaller barrels deliver a bit harsher taste.
  6. Blending with water to proof.
    Get your whiskey down to the proof you want (remember, 100 proof is 50% alcohol, 80 proof is 40%, etc.).
  7. Marketing.
    Keep it local.
  8. Gin, on the other hand, as defined by Philip Crossley of Australia’s Mobius Distilling, is juniper-flavored distillate, is much more complex to distill and blend, and has many forms:
  • Distilled Gin, which includes London Gin, 70 proof.
  • Jenever/Genever and Kornwijn, gin and malt wine combined, typically lower proof.
  • Plymouth and Old Tom, sweeter than London.
  • Sloe, a liqueur with fruit infusions.
  • Aged, which is barrel-rested gin and typically has some color to it.

As for how to cook corn mash and turn it into corn whiskey aka moonshine, Whiskey Gap’s Brandon Egbert has his own recipe. Half-fill a 53-gallon Groen kettle pot and turn on the steam. When the water reaches 165F, turn on the mixer and add 70 pounds of milled corn, 15 ml of Termamyl SC and 10 ml of Viscoferm enzymes from Novozymes. In an hour it boils, where it stays for one hour. Then add cold water to bring temperature down to 160F and add 25 ml of SAN Extra L enzymes, again from Novozymes. At 155F, add 10 pounds of milled, two-row malted barley. One hour later, add cold water to bring temperature to 90F. Keep the mixer running. At 90F, add yeast and transfer the mash to the fermentation barrel. Ferment for approximately 14 days. Then transfer to still and make moonshine, aka straight corn whiskey. There are plenty of YouTube videos on how to make moonshine.

As for the ultimate guerilla nano-distillery approach, Casey Miller adds his six-step recipe to make 1,243 bottles of rum and whiskey, investing $6,000 to return $22,000 in 6-to-12 months of aging by selling 25% from your retail location at $35 each and 75% via distribution at $12.50 each. If you want the formula, buy the book. Go to Distilling.com and swipe your card.

How to Get U.S. Market Ready Wines and Spirits by Steve Raye (Positive Press, 2018).

Steve Raye (steve@bevologyinc.com) is 30-year veteran of getting wines and spirits to market through America’s unique three-tier system. While George Clooney’s $700,000,000 tequila sale to Diageo and Ryan Reynolds’ $610,000,000 gin sale made headlines recently, Raye reminds us that the sizes of the prizes in liquor acquisition have been astronomical for over a decade, and show no signs of slowing. For example, in 2008, 7.7 million-case Absolut was acquired by Pernod Ricard for $8,300,000,000, or $1,078 per annual case.

Raye’s book is simply a must-have how-to guide for anyone bringing a craft spirit to market. His real-life experiences bring the process to life. For example, a must-do for anyone seeking distribution is to attend the annual WSWA, Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America convention. The hallway bumps at WSWA are worth hundreds or thousands of times the price of admission. Actual case history:

We closed a deal for distribution with a friend of ours at WSWA. He just happened to be the GM of our targeted distributor in the Southeast and was striding down the hall like MacArthur wading ashore in the Philllipines. We called out a “hello and can we get together” and got back “Just call Mary back at my office and she’ll set up the paperwork for you. Didn’t even get a meeting. Didn’t even need one.

While there’s plenty in How to Get U.S. Market Ready for international brands coming to America, this 30-Euro book published in Italy is just as relevant for the American craft brand planning to launch in Iowa and get distribution into Minnesota.  

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Jay Whitehead has founded and run 15 investor-backed media, tech and social enterprises, raised $100+ million from investors, and managed 5 liquidity events. He is an author, faculty member at The Negotiation Institute, and served on the board of Harvard University’s Sustainability & Environmental Management program. Jay earned a BA from UCLA and a Strategic Finance certificate from the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Jay@LeagueNetwork.com.