And now, the end of my Leviathan conversation with Mike McCaw, Matthew Rowley, and Ian Smiley. Part 1 is available here, and Part 2 can be found here. I had a great time talking to these guys, and I expect the Hausgemacht panel to be engaging and informative.
Michael Dietsch: Now, Mike and Ian, do you find that home brewing and home winemaking is sort of a gateway drug for home distilling? Do people start off as brewers and winemakers and then become distillers?
Ian Smiley: Yes, I find a lot of my customers are that. Now, my book Making Pure Corn Whiskey is focused on making whiskey and vodka and other flavored spirits, so a lot of people who have been making what they call artisan beers, or making excellent product all-grain beers, or making excellent wines now want to move into distilling. They’re looking to do it properly, and they’re looking to do it for high quality, that this is often a segue that has come from the brewing and winemaking. In a manner of speaking, that’s how I started myself.
I do find, in answer to one of the questions you asked Mike earlier, is I see a lot of customers who really don’t feel too hands on with making the equipment, they don’t want to experiment with it, they don’t want to go through the phases of having equipment that doesn’t work very well, they often want to just buy, get it made, get it perfected right from the outset, and move forward like that so they can produce the excellent product because they are pursuing excellence.
So, in summary, to answer your question, yes in my business, I do have a lot of customers that come through the brewing and winemaking venue.
Mike McCaw: I’d say that it’s probably more than half. Where I especially see, though, people with no experience is people that are wanting to get in to the business end of distilling. So we get a lot of contacts from people saying they’d like to buy a PDA-2 and they want to set up a microdistillery because they’ve run the numbers on the back of an envelope and it looks like a hugely profitable business to be in. But they’ve got zero brewing or distilling experience. So those are actually my biggest challenge.
Dietsch: How does that wind up working out for them? Do they get started and then realize they’re in over their heads?
McCaw: No, what I usually do is gently dissuade them. What I do is I send them a big questionnaire to fill out, trying to make them think about the scale of what they’re proposing to do and frequently they haven’t thought at all about the whole front end.
If you’re going to be producing, say, 20 cases of vodka a day, you need to be fermenting several hundred gallons of grain-based or grape-based or sugar-based wash to process into that every day. And just the scale of the operation is much bigger and much more intense labor than they’ve usually thought and a large number of them simply drop out when they realize that. But much better to cull at the front end than have them spend several thousand dollars on equipment and then discover they can’t handle it.
Dietsch: That might be why a number of professional brewers, like Fritz Maytag, start a brewery and then a distillery—because he already has experience running equipment and working at that scale. They don’t have that naïve expectation that they can just start this without any sort of experience.
McCaw: Right. There’s one other aspect, at least in the States, which is that onerous process of getting a license. I’ve worked with people that I’ve sold the equipment to, for their fully legal microdistilleries, and it did in fact take them two and a half years to get all their licensing in order. But if you already hold a Federal license, as a winery or brewery, they already know you, they don’t have to redo the background checks, and you can get the additional stamp on your license to distill usually in a matter of a few months.
Smiley: I can add to this. I’m a member of the American Distilling Institute, and I go to their conference each year, and I have a lot of give and take with them. More than 50 percent of the membership are actual start-up, small microdistilleries, and one of the things that’s become quite fashionable among them is to contract a microbrewer or a small or medium-sized brewery to make the wash for them. For example, there was Stranahan’s in Colorado who makes an American straight malt whiskey; they’ve got a brewery making their mash for them. I think they’re now starting to make their own, but one good way to get started is to contact a professional brewer to make your wash.
McCay: Sure, that reduces your capital costs a lot, too.
Matt Rowley: I see Charbay has been doing that in California. Although they’re charging $250 a bottle for their whiskey, which is a bit steep.
Dietsch: Now, Matt, to pull you back into this for a moment, you’re not manufacturing stills or that kind of thing, but how did you get interested in this?
Rowley: I was kind of tickled, listening to Mike and Ian talk, because we’ve never really talked about how we got started. Beer, for me, was the gateway beverage, again. I was in college, I was about 19 years old when I started making my own beers. I also liked big, heavy things—y’know, I did Irish reds, I did stouts. Back in the day, Coke still came in 16-oz. glass bottles, so I had my bathtub filled with bleach and water and Coke bottles. Then I got to really liking this a lot.
I was at a Derby Day party when I was maybe 20 or 21 and had some applejack made by the host of the party. No, not made by him, but by his family, who he claimed had been apple-cookin’ for ten generations or so, and it was fantastic. I had had some really bad moonshine before and been around stuff that from the smell of it I didn’t want to try, but this stuff was great.
So I started looking into it a little bit more. And this was 1990, 1989, something like that. There really wasn’t a whole lot of reliable information out there. Like Ian said, you could look in encyclopedias, and I remember the Foxfire book, the first one, from when I was a kid.
But the first thing I got that was specifically about moonshining was a guy giving directions, and his still was, well, you take two pressure cookers and you cut the top off one and the bottom off the other and you arc-weld them together and that point, I went, “No. No, I’m not going to be that guy. I’m going to kill myself if I do that. Or blow up the house.”
So I became interested in it more from an academic and historian point of view. I trained as an anthropologist and have been a museum curator, so my angle has been, sort of the stories about the people who are making it and why they’re doing it and sort of seeing how it differs primarily within the United States, but by extension you’re taking that back to, okay, why is the tenor of distilling and distillers different in Appalachia than it is in Washington State. Those are the sorts of answers that I like to find out about—why people are doing what they’re doing.
Camper English, from the San Francisco Chronicle, was doing an article last summer, and he asked me if I could put him in touch with some of the distillers I knew in San Francisco, and the guys I knew didn’t really want to talk to him. So I said, okay, here’s sort of my trick to finding distillers is to talk to craft brewers. Or go to bars where the bartenders are really known for doing exceptional cocktails. Because especially among the craft brewers, without exception, they either are distilling themselves or they know someone who is.
And that really is the clear pattern to me is to see that Ian and Mike both started with beer, I started with beer. It seems like beer just leads you to think in the direction of whiskey. Especially if you’re thinking about putting out a really quality product, and you think, “Okay, I’m happy with my beers, I’ve done some great stuff, and re-created old styles, I’ve got the Belgian beers down pat. What can I do with turning this into a whiskey?”
McCaw: It’s the new frontier, yeah.
Rowley: That’s one of the reasons that, because my own personal interest is more of a sort of anthropologist/historian take on this, as a distiller as well, when Ann [Tuennerman] originally asked me to do a presentation, I was really happy to do that, but I thought, I’m not the only voice out there in distilling, and it would be disingenuous to pretend that I am, so that’s why I reached out and asked Mike and Ian if they’d be interested too, because I thought, between the three of us we can probably give a pretty balanced view of what the scene is like out there today.