Podcast

Press Democrat

Timo Marshall: How To Make Alcohol

The science of distilling spirits
Wednesday, February 14, 2018, 12:46 AM

Alcohol has been a part of the human experience for nearly as long as fire.

For millennia, people have used alcohol to find "pleasure in their cups", defend against infection, fuel machinery -- among a long list of other uses.

In a barter environment, it's a high-demand and easily tradable currency. Should we ever experience a time when our current supply chains are out of commission, those with the knowledge and ability to distill alcohol from local inputs will have a highly valued role in their community.

But how does one do this, exactly?

The process of distilling alcohol to produce common spirits -- like vodka, gin, whiskey, bourbon, brandy, rum, tequila, and vermouth -- is not widely known. (FYI: we're not talking about brewing beer; that will be the topic of a future podcast).

On this podcast, we're joined by Timo Marshall, co-founder of Spirit Works Distillery. In today's discussion, Timo walks through the basic science underlying the distillation process, what differentiates the most common spirits from one another, and what resources are available to those interested in taking up the practice.

Click the play button below to listen to my interview with Timo Marshall (45m:29s).

Transcript: 

Adam: Hello, and welcome to The Resilient Life Podcast. Resilient Life is the part of peakprosperity.com where we talk about practical and actionable solutions for tomorrow. Today, we're meeting with Timo Marshall, cofounder of Spirit Works Distillery of Sebastopol, California. Timo and his wife Ashby cofounded one of the country's first, 100 percent fully sourced and prepared organic distilleries. Why organic? Well, we'll get to that in just a moment with Timo.

But more importantly, we want to talk about the science and practice of distilling alcohol. It's something that, to the average person, is a bit a black box. But it's something that humans have been practicing and enjoying for millennia. So without further ado, we're going to get into a discussion here with Timo to find out exactly how one goes about doing this, what the basic science is, what is legal and not legal to be able to do. We're going to enjoy the process of learning how man has found enjoyment in his cups. So Timo, thank you so much for sitting down with me.

Timo: Thanks for having me.

Adam:  Oh, it's a real pleasure. And Timo, we live here in the same town. I've watched the journey of your business here. Your distillery has been open for how long now?

Timo: We started distilling in January of 2013, so five years.

Adam:  I've only been in Sebastopol slightly longer than that, but I remember your first products, coming to the market here down in your tasting room, and I remember the town waiting eagerly for the next three years as your whiskey matured in its casks.

Timo: Yeah, everyone has to be patient for that side of things, even ourselves. Watching the whiskey rest in the back is definitely an art in patience for sure.

Adam: Well, from what I hear from the community it really seems to have paid off in terms of how enjoyable people have found it. I've been very impressed both with the quality of product that you and Ashby and your crew here have appeared to come out with, and also that you’ve had, I think, a very clear vision of how you wanted to do this. I mentioned in the intro that your distillery is declared as an ‘organic distillery’. Can you dabble a little bit more into that? And, as you do, maybe just give our listeners a bit of a quick history as to your background and how you came to wanting to become a distiller in the first place?

Timo:  Sure. Well, when we talk about being an organic distillery, we're not a certified organic distillery. That's important to know, but we are organic. It's more about a commitment to the process itself. And so we are a “grain to glass” facility. And what that means is that we start with whole grain, and then we mill, mash and ferment that here, here on site. And that's the unusual part of this distillation process. I think that many of the distilleries that are out there will produce spirits in a slightly different way, and a lot of the spirits that you find out there are purchased in some way or another before they're manipulated before going into the bottle.

But our process and the way that Ashby and I learned how to distill involves starting with whole grain. And our background is coming from working with environmental nonprofits, and so we always knew that those ideals were going to be something that came through into our business as well. Organic is just a no-brainer. I mean, unless someone's been living in a cave for a while, why the pros outweigh the cons is pretty obvious. The reason why we chose that was more an environmental angle rather than anything else. There are other advantages that come from being organic. There’s flavor, and there’s texture, and there's all sorts of other aspects of spirits that are important with it being organic. But the main driving force for us was about the environment and sustainability in that sense.

Adam:  When I saw that you were billing yourselves as an organic distillery, it's something I'd never heard of before. Are there many other ones, or are you really a pioneer in this field?

Timo:  It's nice of you to present us that way, but we are definitely not the first to be forging ahead with organic spirits. They are few and far between, that's for sure, but there's more and more coming on the scene all the time. The craft distilling movement in the US has gone crazy over the past few years, as we all know. Within California, that has changed – a few laws changed in the past few years which has added an exponential growth factor to distilleries coming on the scene. And a lot of them are choosing to go down the organic route because they need to add a certain differentiation between themselves and other distilleries. So being organic is now being used as a marketing tool as well, obviously.

Which is interesting because, for a while, saying ‘organic’ on the bottle was actually detrimental to some industries, like the wine industry for example. That's changed now, of course, the perception being that you were paying more money for an organic wine than a conventional wine, and it might not even be as good. So the dollar is always going to speak louder in that sense in the general market.

Adam: What are the challenges to having a completely organic supply chain? Are you able to find enough product to buy? Or are you constrained by product availability? Or are there things that you need to do with the grains once you get it that are different because it's organic?

Timo: So when we first started distilling we found it difficult to get a hold of some of the malted grains, for example, as organic malted grains. And so that was a bit of a struggle. Some of our original whiskey was produced with not necessarily organic malted barley, but we had several prerequisites for all the raw materials that we were getting. They had to hit some numbers: organic being high up on the list, but also local, sustainable, non-GMO was a given – those sorts of things. And for grain, that's a very different ballgame.

When you talk about grain being local, it's such a massive industry that pretty much anything West of the Mississippi is local to us out here. That's how it's considered when you start dealing with a grain broker. But we were able to find non-GMO barley right at the beginning when we first started, and we were experimenting with recipes and things. And then soon after that we found a source for organic, malted barley. So that worked out well for us.

But yeah, it has been a struggle at times. It's the same with a lot of the botanicals that we put into our gin. There you might be able to find local organic botanicals, but really the flavor protocol that they produce is nothing like what we need in order to produce the spirits that we want to produce. So we had to go further afield for organic juniper, for example. Yeah, it's been difficult. But as more and more members of the industry start cropping up, there's more and more demand for it, we find that a lot of those avenues are opening up for us.

Adam:  That's great. All right. So let's get on to sort of the stars of the show here which is the actual different alcoholic beverages -- or strains, or products -- that you guys create. You tell me how to refer to them. I know you do vodka, I know you do couple variants of gin. We talked about whiskey. What are the main types of alcohol a distillery like yours produces? What's notable about each? What differentiates a gin from a vodka? Then we can get into the process of actually making them.

Timo:  Sure. So most of the products that we make here we make from grain. We can make products from fruit as well, but we make it from grain. So pretty much anything that can ferment is going to produce alcohol. And then, that defines the type of alcohol. So, for example, if you – I'm generalizing here – there are other rules here as well – but essentially, if you make something from grain you're making a whiskey. If you make something from fruit you're making a brandy. If you make something from sugar, molasses, that kind of thing, you're making a rum. If you make something from agave, you're essentially making tequila, but you're essentially making an agave spirit, that kind of thing, tequila, those sorts of things.

So the raw material is really important to define the name that most of us hear. You know, someone orders a brandy, all that means is that it's fruit-derived. That's all that it means. And whiskey is a grain-based distillate. So different types of whiskey will then be different types of grain. So a bourbon, for example, is a majority of that grain has to be corn. We make a straight rye whiskey here at Spirit Works, and so the majority of that base has to be rye. We make a wheat whiskey, and the same, it has to be wheat. And so depending on what the base is, is going to define what the final spirit is for those that are experienced.

Then there are a whole group of spirits that are produced from a base of alcohol. That sounds funny, but you can take any of those – whiskey, brandy, run, whatever – they're all particular types of spirits that are being produced from a raw material. But you can take any of those and clean the alcohol itself, the ethanol itself, out of those spirits and create what we call a neutral spirit. And from that neutral spirit, you can make things like gin and aquavit and other spirits where you're just adding flavors or botanicals to that pure ethanol. I think I made all that way more complicated than it needs to be…

Adam: No, actually I thought you were pretty clear. It was helpful.

Timo: Essentially, you can produce ethanol from anything. And that's a very clean alcohol. So that's what we do here. We take grain, we mill it and mash it, which actually means that we're breaking it down and cooking it in water – it's an enzymatic process too, so we add enzymes, cycloelimination enzymes which will turn the starch in those grains into sugar, and then we add water and yeast, and it just starts fermenting. It's essentially producing a type of beer but without the hops, of course, without any of that flavor attached to it of that aspect. And then once that has fermented over time, it has produced alcohol. So whatever, 10. 11, 12, 13 percent alcohol. All we're interested in is the alcohol. The rest of what is in that mash, to us, is waste stream for us. And so we will put that mash through our still, and we will clean our or extract just that pure ethanol itself, and then that becomes the base for the products that we're going to make.

Adam: Great. And then you were talking here – we're actually in the Spirit Works distillery. We're upstairs, but I can look outside the window of the office right here and see the gleaming copper still that's used for what Timo was just describing. When you talked about kind of ‘cleaning’ the alcohol and concentrating it, let's talk a little bit about the science behind what happens in the still during that process. It's really vaporization and condensation, right.

Timo:  Yeah. If you imagine you take a pot of water and put it on a stove, and turn the flame up, turn the heat on underneath, that pot of water will get up to 100 degrees. I deal in centigrade because it makes sense.

Adam: And because you're originally from England.

Timo: But primarily because it makes sense. [Laughter]. So you get up to 100 degrees and the water will start boiling. The reason why it's boiling at 100 degrees is because that's the property of the water – it'll start boiling at 100 degrees. Boiling just means that it is changing its state. So it's changing from a liquid state into a vapor state. And in this case, because it's water, the vapor – we refer to it as steam. So we see it boiling Do you know how hot the flame is under that pot.

Adam: No.

Timo:  Because it doesn't matter. It absolutely – there's not relevance to the flame because the property of the water is 100 degrees. It will always boil at 100 degrees given normal atmospheric conditions. Of course, if you go to the top of Everest and atmosphere changes, it will boil at lower temperatures. But given normal conditions, it will always boil at 100 degrees. If you turn that flame up, it will still be 100 degrees, but it will just boil with more energy. If you turn that flame down it will simmer. So most liquids will have a boiling point – all liquids will have a boiling point – in that way. And so alcohol – ethanol, which is what we're interested in, will boil at 78 degrees, for example.

So that means that if you have ethanol in a pot and you add flame underneath, it will start boiling. And the temperature of that liquid in there will be 78 degrees. And then it will evaporate – not evaporate – it will boil, and so it will turn into vapor, and we don’t call it steam, we call it vapor at that point. And essentially, if that alcohol was in water, so in the mash in that situation, and we added heat to it, when that liquid gets to 78 degrees the alcohol is tuning into vapor – it's coming off there. The water that it's contained in, that it's mixed with, is merely warm.

Adam: It will stay a liquid.

Timo: Yeah. It's not boiling. It doesn't want to boil because that's not its property. And so what that means is you now have this vapor of alcohol coming off of it which is now separated from the water. You condense that, you force that vapor to go through a tube that is surrounded by cold water or something like that. It'll condense on to the side of that tube, drip down to the bottom, you collect it, and you now have clean alcohol.

Adam: Clean, 100 percent ethanol, 100 percent ethanol, liquid ethanol.

Timo:  Well, you have alcohol which is separated from water. There are different types of alcohol. So you have – and you may have a mixture of those different types of alcohol in there. But essentially you have alcohol that is cleaner from water from the stuff that you had in the still.

Adam:  Got you. Do you have any kind of alcohol that will vaporize at 78 degrees?

Timo:  Ethanol is one example which will boil at 78 degrees, but there's like methanol, for example, is another type of alcohol which will boil at a lower degree. It's more volatile. I think – I'm not sure exactly what that temperature is. I think it's somewhere – I think it can even start becoming volatized at room temperature in some situations. And methanol, of course, is one of the aspects of alcohol that is really hard for the body to process. In fact, too much methanol will harm you – I mean, any alcohol too much of it will harm you – but methanol in particular can make you go blind, for example. That's where those expressions blind drunk come from and drinking too much moonshine will make you go bling. Methanol smells like nail polish remover and Sharpies – acetone – boom. I personally really like the smell, but it's really bad for you. Don’t like the smell of it – that's like lesson number one – try not to like it.

Adam:  All right. But getting back to your example there. So we've separated the ethanol from the water in that ethanol vapor that we've then condensed, we've cleaned it from the water, but it still has some of those other alcohols in it like methanol. So you’ve got alcohol there, but you still probably want to refine it further to get to that ethanol.

Timo:  That mixture we refer to as low wines. I don’t know why. That's like a traditional name that distilleries have given that first distiller. Also, we've just stripped it out of that mash, and so we call it a stripping run. The waste – I just want to briefly talk about the waste – our distillery, of course, you’ve got all that water and the rest of all the grain in the mash – it's still there, and it no longer has alcohol in it, so it's not useful to us. We put that into containers that's picked up by a local pig farmer, and he feeds it to his pigs. We get bacon in return every now and again, so it all works out well. We're happy, the pigs are happy for a while.

Adam: That's great. It certainly comports with your brand and the founding elements of your mission – sustainability and whatnot. They always say “Someone's waste is someone else's treasure”, and certainly I'm sure the pigs feel that way. And when you get the bacon back, I'm sure you feel the same way.

Timo:  Yeah. It all works our really well. But there's a business side to that as well because we don’t have to process that waste into the waste management system that is by the City of Santa Rosa or put it down the drain, so the sewage works – so the people at the City of Santa Rosa, they're really happy with us. There's no waste management system that we have to work with or pay for or get permits for. It all works out really, really well from a business standpoint.

So that's the first step. Once we have the alcohol, we have a still which is a hybrid still. It can do many different things, but one aspect of our still is called a rectification column. It's a very tall piece of equipment that has various stages to it, and what that does is when we redistill the low wines – that means we put it back into the pot still and redistill it – we sent out vapors through a rectification column which allows us to separate those different types of alcohol that I was taking about before. So we're able to really concentrate the methanol, the heads side of it, and we are able to cut those out of the final steam of product. And so then we're able to collect just the hearts of the distillation run which is essentially just very, very clean, pure ethanol. In fact, it's so clean that when it comes out of the still we collect it at 96 percent ethanol, 4 percent other things.

Adam:  All right. So then you have that almost 100 percent pure ethanol, how do you use it to make your – I forget how you refer to that – but the spirits that are ethanol based?

Timo:  Yeah. We refer to them as white spirits in house, but there's various ways of looking at them. Essentially, what you now have is a very clean ethanol. You can add flavor to that in various different ways. We make a gin here at Spirit Works Distillery. So a gin is predominantly a juniper flavor in character – that's the idea of it. And so we put that ethanol back in the still. We add water to it because 96 percent pure ethanol is actually pretty volatile. So we add water to it, and then we add various botanicals to it of which juniper is the main component. But we add angelica and Orris root as well. Angelica is part of the fennel family, actually, interestingly. Actually, it's really interesting flavor and smell. We add like these grassy earth notes from that fennel and from that Orris. For spices we add cardamom and coriander. We add a hibiscus flower as a floral component. And these are all quite normal things in gin. The hibiscus is maybe a little bit different, but some people add rose or lavender. And there's always a citrus component to gin, and so we add fresh orange and lemon zest as well to our gin.

All of that stuff goes into the alcohol. We distill it again, and that distillation process, as it all boils again, it will actually grab a lot of the flavor from the essential oils from the oils of the various botanicals that we put in there, and we'll bring those flavors from the perfumes and the smell from those various components across with it. So once it condenses, that's our gin.

Adam:  Okay. Something like a whiskey when you prepare it, it has to age for a long period of time. In whiskey's case, I believe, years. With these white spirits that you're talking about, where you're infusing them with things like juniper and fennel and whatnot, does it need to sit for a long period of time? Or is it something you make relatively quickly?

Timo:  No, they're done. When they come off the still they're done. Thigs that come off the still are relatively high proof generally, so they're always proofed down is the phrase. Essentially, you add water to it to bring it back to a normal percentage spirit, so like most spirits, they all have to be over 40 percent in the US. Vodkas, gins, whiskeys and any spirits actually. But they can range. They can be up to whatever you want them to be, so they're proofed down with a little bit of water. But essentially, they're ready to go when they come off the still. When you add water you have to let them sit and attenuate. The alcohol and the water and the bonds and the mix and marry as the expression goes.

Adam:  And what do you mean by a while? Ballpark?

Timo:  I mean, you can put it in bottles right away. Yeah, a week, maybe, is probably a good amount of time for that.

Adam:  And then you guys make a – well, before I go there -- so you guys also make something called sloe gin, which I don’t think too many American's are aware of. I think it's more of a British type of gin, but it's wonderful.

Timo: So it is definitely British tipple, but it's actually a liqueur. You have to think of it as a plum liqueur. The sloe berry itself, which grows on the blackthorn bush, is a wild plum. It's a droop.

The droop itself is – so it's a stone fruit – the plum looks like a blueberry – the sloe berry is like a little blueberry. It's very sour, it's very tart. And in England it was planted for centuries around fields as a hedge in the days before barbed wire. It was very useful for keeping animals out and your dodgy neighbors and anyone else coming to steal your cabbages and carrots.

And so at the end of harvest, at the end of summer, once the work was done in the fields, this blackthorn bush would produce this fruit. And no one really know what to do with it back in the day. I mean, I guess they had some use for it, but it really wasn't very edible. But it's bounty and to preserve it, people added it to alcohol way back in the day they added it to cider and produced a drink called slider which was delicious, of course. But then one bright spark added it to gin, and we've never looked back. It lends itself so well to those botanicals, but it's a true liqueur. So just adding it to gin itself is still too sour to enjoy, so you have to add sugar to it as well. We add organic cane sugar to it, and that produces a true liqueur.

Adam:  And that is liqueur added after you’ve gone through the regular gin production cycle?

Timo: Yeah. So we have to make that base first. Then from that base we make Them from that gin we can either put it in bottle or we can add fruit to it and make sloe gin.

Adam: All right. So you’ve got gin, sloe gin – you guys make vodka as well.

Timo: Vodka is just pure ethanol. That's all it is. Ethanol and water. That's the idea behind there. And so…

Adam: So it's the easiest thing for you to make.

Timo:  Well, it's the first thing. When we make clean base we can literally just proof that down and put that in bottle and that's our vodka.

Adam: So is it correct to think that gin is basically vodka with just a little extra attention given to it?

Timo: Yeah. Gin is actually just redistilled vodka with the appropriate things in it. Someone was – I think it was Racheal Maddox was asked if she enjoyed flavored vodkas and she said "Yes, gin."

Adam: Sounds like she's accurate.

Timo: Something like that – I'm paraphrasing horribly, but the conversation something like that.

Adam: And then, the other major product that you guys create here -- and if there are others let me know -- is whiskey, which you’ve referenced a couple times before. Just talk a little bit about how that differs from the whole process you just walked us through here.

Timo: Sure. The process that I just talked about all starts before, I mean, the part of it that's processed to go into the bottle, it has to be very, very clean ethanol. That's the idea behind it. In fact, legally, you have to distill that base to over 95 percent at some point in the process. With whiskey you are not allowed to distill it that clean. In fact, legally, it can't go over 80 percent in distillation. So it's hard to understand that until you think of it visually. 80 percent of that glass is ethanol, and 20 percent of it has to be something else. So that something else is water that comes across and other alcohols and flavors and characters and other things that come over from that initial mash that you're going to make whiskey from. So it has way, way, way more character than the vodka which is 95 percent ethanol and only 5 percent of that flavor.

Adam:  Got it. Makes sense.

Timo:  So that's the difference. Whiskey has a lot more flavor and character coming over from the still. When whiskey comes off the still it's clear. It's clear as the vodka it. There's no color in it. There's not character to the liquid itself visually. So at that point, it's referred to as white dog, moonshine, new make, it has various names – white lining. People seem to really enjoy it out here. However, some of those other components in that 20 percent are flavors that not everyone really enjoys. They prefer something a little bit cleaner and a little bit rounder. It can be quite harsh. And to do that people put it in barrel. The barrel maturation process dos many things to that whiskey, but it softens it for sure. It makes it a much rounder mouth feel [PH] [00:31:37] and it imparts color, and it imparts flavor from the barrel which, in a lot of cases, has sweet components which makes it that much easier to drink.

Adam: Okay. And when you say it ‘softens’, what is the wood doing to soften it?

Timo: Maturation is all about the interaction of the liquid and the wood itself. And so within the wood there are various components from the type of plant that it was before. The type of wood that we use, and most America style whiskey is used, is American white oak. Quokas [PH] alba is the type of wood, and within it there are certain literally components that are specific to that type of wood which get extracted by the alcohol and kept in the alcohol. So there are some lanolin's, for example, within the cell structure – there's on in particular within Quokas [PH] alba which is called vanillin, and vanillin has the property of tasting very much like vanilla. So when you store new make or whiskey in a barrel, after a while it's grabbed quite a lot of vanilla flavor out of American white oak.

There's similar components if not the same component in other types of oak as well, but at different quantities. There are other flavor components that the whiskey's going to grab from the oak as well – toasted coconut, butterscotch, caramels – these sort of sweetened components, as well as some of the tannin-y wooden, smoky, those sorts of flavors as well. The inside of the barrel itself that we use is burnt, is literally burnt – it looks like charcoal on the inside of it. And as the inside of the barrels are burnt as they're put together, that does several things, but it also acts as a filter as the liquid moves in and out of the wood.

Adam: It’s like charcoal. I mean, charcoal is great for filtering.

Timo: Yeah, exactly. It becomes an organic filter is that way. But also the burning of the wood creates other esters and other flavors that are going to be added to that whiskey. Why all of this is done? There are so many theories, of course, from back in the day. Everything used to transport in barrels, so someone would send sardines out to the Midwest in a barrel. And when they got that barrel they wanted to use it to send whiskey back, and they didn't want the sardine flavor, so they burned the side of the barrel, filled it with whiskey, and then after a while everyone on the east coast was like, we want the whiskey that came in those barrels again. Because it would take that long to back to the east coast as well, so it would age in the barrel as it went along. There's so many stories like that as to how that barrel ageing came along. It's also a legal requirement for a lot of whiskey's to be put into a brand new, charred oak barrel. Like where did that law come from? There's a lot of people talking about lumber barons who were involved in politics at the time, so there's a lot of things like that.

Adam:  From the barrel-burning union, too. I'm sure…

Timo: I'm sure. There are other aspects as to what happens in maturation in a barrel that are really fascinating to me. There's a certain amount of osmosis that happens. You know, you’ve got a movement of components from an area of low concentration to an area of high concentration through a semipermeable membrane which is, in this case, is the wood. And so, if you have – that all sounded complicated, but essentially what that means is that if the air, if the space around that barrel is humid, it there's water in that space, then alcohol will want to move from inside the barrel to outside the barrel, will evaporate in an effort to balance the two which essentially is what osmosis is doing. But if it's essentially very dry outside the barrel then it's not alcohol that will leave the barrel, it will be water that leaves the barrel. So what is around the barrel can also affect it in that way.

There is oxygen that can more through – you know, you get an oxidation of he alcohol within the barrel as well – not of the alcohol, of the whiskey itself. Actually, oxidation happens more when there's more water inside the barrel than less which is interesting. You also – I mean, those are the main components. And then how that whiskey moves in and out of the wood can happen for various reasons – for all those – osmosis and just the very fact that wood is cellular, and so there's capillary action that draws liquid into the wood just by itself. But there's also temperature. So as you add heat to the environment that that barrel is in, the liquid inside the barrel will expand, push into to the wood, and then as it cools it will leave the wood and come back. And so a lot of subtraction and extraction happens during that time.

Adam: It sounds so incredibly complex because there's so many variables.

Timo: But it's so fascinating.

Adam: It is. And one of the things – I first heard it with you guys – I don’t know if anybody else is doing it – but I know that you guys are always kind of cooking up new ways to mix these different variables together to see what it produces. And I know one of the tests that you guys did with some of your whiskey was to experiment with sound – actually play certain music to see if being exposed to sound waves over a period of time influenced the ageing process.

Timo: Yeah, I mean, that was really a bit of fun at the beginning because we could. You know, we're a small craft distillery, so we're able to do that. But yeah, it's actually we wanted to see if we could excite that boundary between the liquid and the wood itself. We wanted to excite it somehow. And we thought why not vibrate it and do it using – physically do it using physical sound waves to vibrate that liquid or the wood, whichever way you want to look at it? And so putting a couple speakers on the back of a barrel and pumping music into it was is an effort to just pump sound waves into it. But, at the same time, having a bit of fun because it was music as opposed to just a set of beats.

Adam: Well, did you determine whether it made a difference or not?

Timo: I mean, every time we make a batch of whiskey – we do it batch by batch, and we start with a ton – one ton of grain – 2,000 pounds – and that essentially produces just over two barrels and a bit of whiskey, a barrel being 53 gallons is size. And so we took two barrels from the same batch, and we added music to one and we let the other without as the control to see if there was going to be a big difference. It's a hard experiment to really quantify because the results are subjective – that's the first thing I'll say – and the second thing I'll say is each barrel is like a snowflake, and so there is a difference from one barrel to the next anyway – what ever happens.

But we did a bunch of blind tasting with some – we didn't just have one music barrel either, we had several different music barrels with different genres and things going on. It was really good fun putting that together. We still do it. We still have some barrels out in the back we do it. But after our first ever barrels had been listening to music for three years – 24/7 – for three years, we did a bunch of bling tasting with several of our customers here in Sebastopol, and they definitely found differences between the different whiskeys. Then they were asked which one they thought was the music barrel. Now here's where it gets interesting to me. I know that there's a difference between the barrels. Sure, there is a difference. But then, most of the people got it right as to which one had the music. So how do you assign what you think the music is going to do to a barrel to what you're tasting? It's really interesting. Yeah, there's a difference. It was a bit of fun.

Adam: Was there a genre that was preferred amongst the ones that were music exposed?

Timo: So I played bluegrass to the first barrel – Americana bluegrass, and Ashby picked a barrel, and she and I go every year to see the Nutcracker in San Francisco – it's a very American thing, by the way, and I love it. But we go every year. So we put the San Francisco philharmonic orchestra playing the Nutcracker on another barrel, and that one – we've only released those two, and that one has been the favorite.

Adam: I remember hearing at some point somewhere about a barrel that was getting a bunch of Bob Marley?

Timo: I mean, we have every genre out there. I'm not sure about a reggae barrel actually. I think that might just be a rumor. We definitely have like Led Zeppelin. We have a tribute barrel to Prince and Michael Jackson. We have a dance – like a barrel that's just dance music from the Bay area, hip hop – it's fun.

Adam:  That's so cool. Well, Timo, just in wrapping up here – you’ve given just such great insight to the process. You're clearly a master of your craft here, so thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. Now, you did mention to me as we were sitting up here that unlike home brewing – home distillery is generally frowned upon by the law systems here in the states. Can you just comment on that briefly?

Timo: Yeah. It's difficult to learn how to distill in the United States because it's illegal to distill spirits for any use in the United States. It's a federal law. It's a felony in the eyes of the federal government.

Adam:  So what do you do? Do you need some sort of license or…?

Timo: Yeah, so in order to distill you need to go and sign up with them and get a license to distill. But then that starts involving a huge number of other issues. Because then you need a space, and the local building inspector gets involved, and the city has to issue you a license, and then your state has to issue you a license. It becomes very, very complicated to distill. If you want to learn how to distill in the US, there are ways to do it now. It was very, very hard when Ashby and I were learning, but there are now some courses that can be done as part of fermentation and brewing courses at a couple different universities, distillation being one branch of it. There are many distilleries that do workshops, so you can go and learn distillation 101 kind of thing from scratch, and then you can progress through that process. There are a couple of organizations in the US – The AID, or American Distilling Institute is one that has an amazing forum to answer all sorts of questions and for people to get involved in that way. The other one is the ACSA, American Craft Spirits Association which is more of a lobbying side of things, but also a great resource for knowledge.

Adam: Right. And that was the American what Association?

Timo:  American Craft Spirits Association.

Adam: Cross Spirits.

Timo: Craft Spirits.

Adam: Sorry, "Craft" Spirits.

Timo: Sorry. My accent. Craft Spirits Association. The AID though, American Distilling Institute, their forum is pretty extensive. It's a good place to start. In countries where it is legal to home distill, like New Zealand, for example, they have some great forums as well for people that are just interested in what that would look like if it was legal in this country.

Adam: Great. Well, thank you, and for Peak Prosperity listeners here, we've long had discussions on the site that if we ever got into a situation where the trucks stops running for a little while, if you're one of the few folks in your area that knew how to create and produce alcohol, you'd clearly have a value proposition there that would definitely have some real clout in any sort of barter type environment. Anyway, Timo's just given us a lot of resources to go look at for anybody who wants to learn how to potentially develop some of these skills on the side. And with that, Timo, I'm going to say thank you again, so much, for sharing your expertise here with us.

And a remember for those who are listening who are coming to the Peak Prosperity seminar in early May this year, we're going to be arranging a private tour of the Spirit Works Distillery for anybody that wants to go to that. So you'll be able to come here and see the beautiful still, and actually sort of see the science here in action and obviously get to taste the great product and take some home with you if you like. And for those who are not going to be coming to that seminar, Timo, but want to learn more about Spirit Works distillery, where can they go?

Timo: I mean, our website, spiritworksdistillery.com is a good place to start, and our Facebook page as well. And also, just reach out to us if things come up that you are curious about, questions that I haven't necessarily – that you might have that I haven't necessarily touched on and missed as well, just reach out to us.

Adam:  That's very kind of you. And your product – is it generally available anywhere in the US? Or is it regional at this point?

Timo: At this point, we're covered in California, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, and Oregon. We're looking to open up the East Coast this year, actually, so we're looking at New York, Florida, Washington DC, I think.

Adam: Great. And if someone lives in one of those areas where you haven't quite opened up yet, and they come to your website and are interested in your product, can they special order it? Or do they have to wait until a distributor in their area picks it up?

Timo: On our website there is a place that will point you at some online retail stores that will be able to sell you product. We're not allowed to. Being a manufacturer – that's the other things we didn't even touch on, but this is a three-tier system in this country. And so we're not allowed to sell direct to consumer unless it's out of our tasting room in person. So we're not allow to ship products to anyone else. But there are lots of other retailers out there that can.

Adam:  Okay. So basically the general audience listening can one way or another find a way to get your product. Excellent. Well, Timo, with that, thanks so much, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again in May.

Timo:  Awesome. Thank you, man,

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11 Comments

Grover's picture
Grover
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 16 2011
Posts: 867
Be Careful

As Timo pointed out, methanol's boiling point (64.7°C, 145.8°F) is lower than ethanol's boiling point (78.2°C, 172.8°F). Since methanol can cause serious damage to animals (including humans) at very low levels, it needs to be eliminated from the final product. As Timo pointed out, a double distilling can remove the methanol (if done correctly.) That makes home distilling very difficult and potentially dangerous for human consumption. For this reason, be very aware of homemade "moonshine" now ... or in a post business-as-usual environment. Of course, if you are using it to power machinery, it isn't an issue.

I homebrewed beer for about 7 years and was considering becoming a distiller. When I started checking into all the regulatory requirements to become a distiller, I lost interest. A friend told me there were 14 State agencies that needed to approve the process (going off memory here. Things may have changed, and your State may have different requirements.)

My hat's off to Timo for pursuing this avocation! Although the following graphic applies to beer, it really applies to distilled spirits as well. Cheers,

Grover

dcm's picture
dcm
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 14 2009
Posts: 218
Currency with a kick

I used to home brew as well. Real beer is more complex than wine and brewer's yeast is one of the best sources of B complex vitamins. The Irish feed good dark beer to their jumping horses because they're convinced it  strengthens their jumping ability. When the Romans beat their way up to the Scots, they discovered heather ale (heather instead of hops as a bittering agent). They fell in love with it and offered a deal - we'll leave you alone if you give us the recipe. The Scots pondered, said hell no, then beat them back.  A man has his priorities

They think beer may be older than bread but best of all it was used as currency by the Egyptians - which is brilliant when you think about it. That way if your currency goes bad, you can still use it to drown your sorrows.

blackeagle's picture
blackeagle
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: May 16 2013
Posts: 227
Unfortunately...

Unfortunately, prohibition is still in force in Canada. The average Joe can ferment, but not distill. Owning a still is illegal and is punishable by up to 10 years of jail. Too high a risk...

 

DennisC's picture
DennisC
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 19 2011
Posts: 324
Hard Cider

I've been making my own hard cider and mead and have had fairly decent luck quality-wise.  As with most home food endeavors, cleanliness is key to a successful batch of whatever you are making.  I did the beer thing for a period but the prep, the process and the cleanup wore me out eventually.  I use 500ml PET (plastic) bottles.  I prefer cider with some carbonation so additional sugar is added prior to bottling.  The plastic bottles are ideal, IMO, because it's easy to judge if there is a good positive pressure.  A bottle that sounds like a drum when you thwack it with a finger indicates a good fizzy brew in process.  How it tastes in the end, it's sometimes a surprise!

Uncletommy's picture
Uncletommy
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: May 4 2014
Posts: 602
However, there is one thing. . .

. . .you can be sure of:

It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption, that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. . . . If duties are too high they lessen the consumption—the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds. This forms a complete barrier against any material oppression of the citizens, by taxes of this class, and is itself a natural limitation of the power of imposing them. (Alexander Hamilton)

DennisC's picture
DennisC
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 19 2011
Posts: 324
Stick it to the Man, Man

Bad week to give up...well, pick one.

Hey, it's only 49 seconds, and it's a classic (depending on your definition of classic).

Got milk? Got gas? Got diarrhea? Too bad, get a diaper.  We're from the government and we're here to help (protect you from yourself).

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/01/30/fda-wan...

lambertad's picture
lambertad
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 31 2013
Posts: 181
Not legal advice

I'm not a lawyer, so not advice. But, I think you can use stills to make essential oils. In fact, you could probably make quite a bit of money at it as it's all the rage in some areas of the country. Utah specifically. 

So, acquiring a still could be justified if you plan to make essential oils. Diversifying income streams and such. Always a good idea to be careful as others have said, though. 

There are lots of great videos on running stills for those interested. Barley and Hops on YouTube comes to mind. Milehi Distilling out of CO has some very nice stainless steel stills. Pack the column with copper mesh and it may be similar to a full copper still (?). I've had my eye on one for quite a while and this interview has me thinking about it again.

You know, for making essential oils.

robie robinson's picture
robie robinson
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 25 2009
Posts: 1199
H20

I use my still for water distillation.

Dlumb77's picture
Dlumb77
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: May 25 2014
Posts: 43
Very Enjoyable and Informative episode.

Thank-you Adam and TImo!

grandefille's picture
grandefille
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 11 2010
Posts: 38
distilling essential oils, column packing

Distillation of essential oils is quite different than distilling alcohols like methanol and ethanol.  That's because most essential oils do not mix with water, either as liquids or vapors.  That changes the fundamental principles involved and requires much less column packing.  Use a lot of water to "sweep" the higher boiling oil overhead, and separate the two liquid phases after condensation.  Packing a column with an inert material makes the distillation more efficient.  Stainless steel, ceramics, and glass are often used to pack distillation columns.

Digger's picture
Digger
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: May 3 2017
Posts: 1
The boiling points of

The boiling points of Methanol and Ethanol was my question from listening to the podcast.  I'm not sure but as a scientist with a logical mind I expect that it must be a two stage process... first to separate the water.. and then to separate the Meth. and Eth.  I will do more research. 

But people... be careful.  In my wife's hometown of Prague a few years ago there was a spate of people that went blind from dodgy moonshine. 

Note: I listened to the podcast on my morning walk along the corniche in Abu Dhabi this morning.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Timo sounds like a sterling chap.  I'd love to share a wee dram of Led Zepplin tipple or two with the man! 

And Adam, of course, is a gentleman I could listen to all day long. 

Peace & love to all.  

Digger 
(I like to dig holes in the garden... no, I LOVE to dig holes... anywhere really) 

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