A Revival of Spirits

2012-03-26T10:00:00Z 2014-09-15T12:53:31Z A Revival of SpiritsWritten by Brandon Chuang | Photography by Corey Woodruff | Shot on location at Square One Brewery and Distillery Feast Magazine | Inspired Local Food Culture/Midwest

Editor's Note: American Craft Brewing & Distilling announced it was closing after our April issue went to press.

Nick Roady might be a thief – and a time traveler – because I’m almost certain the dingy blue metal pot he’s showing me in the distilling room of his company headquarters is the same one I used to heat soup back in college. “This is what we used to make our experimental batches,” says Roady, vice president of sales and marketing for Mastermind Distillery, located across the river in Pontoon Beach, Ill. Considering the bottle for the company’s flagship product, Mastermind Vodka, is so shiny, I’m confused as to how such a pretty product could come from what appears to be my old ramen maker. “Hey, it got the job done,” Roady quips proudly.

Welcome to the growing world of craft distilling in Missouri.

Distilling is the physical process used to separate a mixture – in this case, extracting alcohol from a fermented product like wine or beer. The steps needed to make a spirit – both before, such as milling and fermenting, and after, such as diluting and cutting – are laborious and time-consuming, to say the least. Worthwhile, if you’re making thousands upon thousands of gallons. Bordering on the ridiculous when you’re making 10 to 50 gallons, which is exactly what craft distillers do.

“Small batches are so much more exciting,” says Ralph Haynes, a graying keg of a man with a mustache that could rival Tom Selleck’s. He’s one of the founders of Pinckney Bend Distillery. “You can experiment more because you don’t need to sell 100,000 cases to be profitable.”

Haynes knows what he’s talking about; his New Haven, Mo., distillery’s eponymous gin won a gold medal for taste at last year’s MicroLiquor Spirits Awards in Los Angeles. “The industry today, it’s like the Wild West,” he says. “When we started two years ago, as craft brewing friends that wanted to see what we could do with spirits, the ‘veterans’ had only been doing it for a few years – the really old guys, a few more.”

Craft distilling in the United States may be young, but it has hit a growth spurt, with distilleries popping up all across the country, especially around St. Louis. “Missouri is one of America’s great farming states,” notes Dave Weglarz, owner and master distiller of the upcoming Downtown spiritmaker, StilL 630. “The quality of local ingredients will help distillers make great products.”

Roady agrees. “It’s the reason we got into this business,” he says. “We realized that we have the best grains on Earth in our own backyard. There’s no reason we can’t make a superior product right here.”

Many, if not most, of your favorite spirits are grain-based. So the spirit-making process often begins with milling. This is where the grains, often called a mash “bill” because of the combination of several varieties of grain, are placed in a mill. A grinder cracks the grain open. The newly exposed grain is added to water and heated, activating the starches in the grain and converting them to sugars. The resulting slurry is called a mash, which home brewers and brewery tour takers will recognize because it’s the exact same process used to create beer.

“It does help that we do both,” admits Steve Neukomm, owner of Square One Brewery and Distillery, which makes Spirits of St. Louis products. “It saves a step.” Neukomm is no stranger to the craft distillery movement in St. Louis – actually, he was the first craft distiller in town. His experience shows when you walk into his Lafayette Square establishment and see his spirits behind the bar: a baker’s dozen of whiskeys, vodkas, rums and liqueurs.

“I wanted to create spirits that I actually wanted to drink,” he says, laughing. Jokes aside, Neukomm stresses that the difference in craft distilling is found in the details. “Most rums, for example, use blackstrap molasses. It’s the second-lowest grade in the sugarcane process, right above animal feed. We researched and found that golden cane was the highest grade, so we sought it out when making our rums.”

Making rum is similar to making wine because the sugars are readily available: In the case of rum, the sugars are found in the molasses; in wine, the sugars come from the grapes. Unlike with grain-based alcohols, milling and mash making are unnecessary. In fact, as long as enough sugars are accessible, alcohol can be made from anything.

The reason sugar is so important is because of the next step: fermentation, vital in the creation of all forms of alcohol. During fermentation, yeast is added to the liquid. (When making rum, water is also added during this step.) The yeast then “eats” away at the sugars. The results are alcohol and carbon dioxide. Although the process may sound boring, it’s where much of the flavor profile begins to take shape for many spirits. In other words, this is where craft distillers start going bananas.

“You can use two different yeasts on the same grain bill and come out with two distinct spirits,” Haynes says. “Same with differing grain bills. What would whiskey taste like with 80 percent barley, 10 percent quinoa and 10 percent millet? I have no idea, but I want to find out.”

At Crown Valley Brewing and Distilling Co. in Ste. Genevieve County, distiller Scott Eckl is also a curious fellow. Seeing Crown Valley had more grapes than it could use, Eckl saw a chance to jump into the distillery game last year. “It just made sense to try and make a grape-based spirit,” says Eckl. The result, Crown Valley Vodka, is distilled completely from grapes. “The definition of vodka is to have no taste, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. In the case of our vodka, grapes add a floral nose and a nice sweetness. It’s its own thing.”

The final technical process – the one that distinguishes spirit-making from other forms of alcohol production – is distillation. The fermented liquid is slowly heated in a metal vat called a still. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, which means alcohol also vaporizes at lower temperatures. As the mixture heats, the alcohol in the liquid boils off, steaming to the top. The steam runs into a collector, which ranges from a copper coil called a worm submerged in cold water to a complex shell and tube condenser. As it cools, the vapor returns to liquid form, and the result is distilled alcohol.

Depending on what spirit is being produced, the alcohol may be distilled several more times to further purify and/or concentrate and increase the strength of the spirit. Vodka is the most common example of this practice. In the case of gin, the alcohol is distilled again so juniper and other botanicals can infuse themselves into the spirit.

Distilled alcohol isn’t necessarily drinkable alcohol, however. It’s often too potent. Most alcohols are either barrel-aged to mellow their flavors (as with whiskey and rum) or diluted with water (as with vodka and gin). Not only is distilled alcohol’s potency unpleasant, but it could be lethal.

From the still, alcohol has three distinct parts: heads, hearts and tails. The hearts are the purest form of ethanol, or drinking alcohol. The tails are also drinkable but not really palatable. Spirits like whiskey often include a portion of the tails to impart flavor. The heads, however, contain methanol, which is poisonous. But microdistillers understand the craft of “making cuts” and separating the good from the bad.

Alcohol comes in varying strengths and volatilities: The more volatile the alcohol, the lower the boiling point. So when fermented liquid is distilled, the “bad” alcohol is the first to vaporize and come through the collector. As the distillate begins to drip out of the collector, a distiller is prepared to gather the bad alcohol with a heads container. Based mainly on scent and taste, the distiller determines when the heads have run their course. At that time, he makes his cuts – swapping out the heads container for a hearts one. He does it once more toward the end, when making the cut between his hearts and tails.

“That’s the beauty of small batches,” says Bill Schroer, one of the founders of St. Louis Distillery. “There’s a beginning and end to the process.”

Schroer’s point stems from the difference between continuous- and batch-distillation processes. Continuous distillation is often used by large-volume distilleries because of its speed. Unlike batch distillation, where physical cuts are made in the spirit, continuous distillation automatically discards a small amount of the unwanted distillate – there is no end, just constant distilling.

“In small batches, there’s a definite heart,” says Schroer. “You can be a surgeon and cut out just the bad stuff.”

Schroer, ironically enough, is a surgeon – an orthopedic one. And he, along with two of his neighbors, formed the St. Charles-based distillery a little less than two years ago. Their first spirit is Cardinal Sin Vodka, which Schroer says will come out in late spring or early summer.

“Our wives think we’re going through a midlife crisis,” says Schroer, laughing. “We explained to them that it was cheaper than a car and cheaper than a girlfriend.”

However, Schroer adds, “We’re probably past the point of a car now.”

Jake Jones pulls up in front of American Craft Brewing and Distilling in a burnt-orange 1976 Datsun 280Z. He is the general manager and master distiller of American Craft as well as the master distiller for Amalgamated Distilling Co. As we sit and talk, he speaks thoughtfully on what he believes to be the future of craft distilling and how it differs from craft brewing.

“A lot of people have a distinct idea of what an IPA should taste like,” he says. “So everyone goes out and tries to achieve that idea.”

What ends up happening, Jones suggests, is the market saturates itself with similar products, leaving the customer’s decision to be founded on things like tap-handle design. “For the most part, [craft distillers] want to make unique products, not necessarily improve old ones,” says Jones. “Try my rum and then go down the street and try [Steve Neukomm’s]. They’re both good but completely different.”

As we continue to talk, Jones predicts how we’ll see more unique spirits and spirit-making methods. He tells me about his upcoming spiced rum as well as a vodka made from wine. He speaks favorably about the benefit of St. Louis’ locavore mentality. It’s put into practice by companies like Mastermind Distillery and Pinckney Bend Distillery, which use only local products – even down to the glass bottles that contain their wares. Jones also outlines his vision for microbreweries to inexpensively expand and add distilleries, promoting the craft movement and increasing independent-brand distinction at the same time.

Jones speaks like a man who has done this a long time – Neukomm beat him by only a few months. And it’s funny because Jones looks to be about 30. I didn’t think it possible, but had I finally met a somber and stoic distiller? Did I really want a guy like that making my party fuel?

As I left American Craft, I noticed Jones’ Datsun again; it was parked in front of me. Its color seemed to change; now a dark candy-apple red in the dying light that flashed across his license plate. “ALCOHOL” was stamped across the plate in bold, bright “I-welcome-your-DUI-checkpoint” letters.

“I have another Datsun with a plate that says ‘DISTILL’, ” Jones says.

The air was calm, and all was right with the world.

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