Distilling 101 – A Moonshine University Experience

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It’s the beginning of my second week in my new role as a Sales Professional for Brooks Grain.  As a newcomer to the industry, I’m excited (and, admittedly, a little nervous) about the week ahead.  I’m about to begin the six-day distillers course at Moonshine University in Louisville, Kentucky! 

Moonshine University brings together the “who’s who” of the distilling industry to teach professionals, enthusiasts, vendors, and entrepreneurs an all-inclusive crash course on craft spirits.  They offer a variety of classes, but the six-day distiller course was the obvious starting point for me.  The class is geared toward entrepreneurs hoping to invest in new distilleries, but is relevant to anyone with an interest in spirits.  Presenters touch on everything from TTB compliance, financial considerations, marketing, and, of course, the distillation process itself. 

My mission for the week is to develop a deeper understanding of the distilling process.  I’m also hoping to learn about the challenges that face my customer and discover ways I can help with those issues.  This is a unique opportunity for me to put myself in their shoes and to see the industry from their perspective.  I’m confident that this experience will provide me with the knowledge and tools I need to create value for the craft distillers I work with!

Day 1 – On day one, I arrive and am greeted by the Moonshine U staff.  I find my seat and am presented with a daunting four-inch binder stuffed with course materials and resources for the week.  I chat with fellow classmates and enjoy their stories about their craft distilling ventures all over the United States!  Class begins and we have presenters discussing financial considerations, TTB and environmental laws, and other legal concerns associated with opening a distillery.  Wow!  I had no idea how much hard work and dedication was devoted to opening a distillery.  Of course, I’ve toured distilleries all over my home state of Kentucky, but this is my first “behind the scenes” look at the blood, sweat, and tears that distillers put into their craft.  I have an entirely new respect and pride for the craft distillers I’ve met.

Day 2 – Today is Distilling 101!  We get a hands-on look at Distilled Spirits Epicenter at Moonshine U with two industry legends, Pete Kamer and Randy Allender, as our guides.  We start by firing up the mill and looking at samples of the milled grains followed by a discussion on grain selection.  This is of particular interest to me, because it really drives home the importance of my product in the process.  The flavor of the finished whiskey is directly related to the quality of the grain I am providing. 

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Pete and Randy then transfer the ground grains (corn, rye, and malt) to the cooker and begin the cooking process.  In a few hours, we sample the mash from the cooker and note the sweetness from the corn that has developed during the cook.  Despite the lackluster appearance (below), the flavor is a nice blend of sweet and spice.  The texture is something like cream of wheat.  At this point, it is still difficult to believe that this will become a spirit in a few short days.

 

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Day 3 – It’s a fermentation celebration!  We start the day by sampling the fermented mash we made yesterday.  The juice is a little more recognizable at this point and will spend the next three days in the fermenter.  Class discussion includes a breakdown of the science behind the process as well as an overview of rum, bridge spirits, and inter-state distribution.

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We do a post-lunch discussion of heads, hearts, and tails and get to taste all three in the distillery.  The acetone and acetaldehyde in the heads cut have a harsh astringent taste.  The hearts cut smooths out and the grain flavors really come in to play.  The heads eventually give way to tails and the flavor neutralizes and the mouthfeel becomes oily.  I am amazed by how much of spirits making, like making the cuts, is more of an art than a science.  A distiller relies heavily on his or her sharp senses to create the flavor and consistency of the batch. 

 

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Day 4 – Whiskey tasting at 8am?  Why not?! We start off the day with a sensory evaluation.  I enjoy tasting whiskey samples made with 100% one grain type.  Singling out only one grain for the mash really allows me to decipher which flavors each grain contributes to the overall taste of a distilled product.  Here’s my palate’s take:

Corn:

  • Nose: sweet, honey
  • Taste: corn, caramel

Rye:

  • Nose: herbal, spice
  • Taste: pepper, mint

Wheat:

  • Nose: fruity, nutty
  • Taste: creamy, butter

Malt:

  • Nose: brown spice, nutty
  • Taste: astringent, spice

distilling_8

 

 

We are treated to an inspiring testimony about entrepreunership from Copper and Kings CEO, Joe Heron after lunch.  He touches on the grit and courage this type of venture requires and I agree with him wholeheartedly.  He shares examples of his marketing ideas and what he has done to create success for his brand.  Our class is also visited by Paul McLaughlin of Kelvin Cooperage for an overview of cooperage and the importance of barreling.  Immediately following, is a lesson on aging, blending, and proofing.  The day concludes with an evening cocktail reception on the roof of the Brown.  I am afforded the opportunity to chat with the industry’s best and brightest.  I feel so fortunate to be in such esteemed company and I do my best to drink in every piece of wisdom my new colleagues offer.  Pun intended!

Day 5 – This morning included a spirits run throught the still.  It’s incredible to watch and hear the still work and the trays capture the vapor.  The chemistry happening right in front of my eyes seems more like a science lab experiment than a carefully calculated recipe.  I get to climb up on a ladder and see the trays collecting condensation in the column still.  Pete and Randy allow us to taste heads, hearts, and tails again.  We finish the day with a tour of Vendome and Copper and Kings Distillery.  I’m in awe of the gorgeous copper stills at Vendome.  Each one is custom made using great attention to detail and craftsmanship.  Copper and Kings is a perfect demonstration of Joe Herron’s brilliance.  He has somehow created a beautiful destination and a functional distillery in the same place. 

distilling_9

Day 6 – Today is my last day here at Moonshine U! Class begins with marketing, bottling, and budgeting presenters.  Once again, I am reminded of how difficult it can be to live a day in the life of the craft distiller.  I have a fresh perspective and feel empowered to start helping my customers.  I think back on the relationships I’ve developed through the course of the week.  All of my new friends are ready to rush home and apply the things they’ve learned.  I’ve always loved an underdog, and these new friends are no exception.  They work tirelessly to make their passion for their craft a success and the Brooks Grain team is rooting them on every step of the way!

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Article Written By:

Tori Doughty
Craft and Milled Product Sales

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