Distiller Career

What Do People Think You Do?

Most of the reactions I get are that of surprise, especially when I explain the process of spirit distillation and what kind of work goes into it. But a lot of jokes are made, like “How much of the product are you sampling at work?” or “You are like a moonshiner!” Generally, though, a lot of people don’t really know what it takes to get a product from grain to glass.

What Do You Really Do?

The distillery I was employed at purchased the grains from local farmers. We milled it on-site, grinding rye, malt, and corn into a fine powder to make our whiskeys. We made potato vodka as well. Everything was sourced either locally on Long Island or from the state of New York. The grains were cooked and fermented on-site, then distilled using pot and column rectification.

In the case of whiskey, we would barrel it soon after and let it age for at least two years. We had an automated bottling line and a hand bottler, so every spirit in the house was hand bottled, labeled, corked, sealed, packaged, and shipped. So we saw every stage.

Seeing a ground powder eventually become a potable spirit for distribution is pretty amazing. Our product line was wide, too, consisting of Potato Vodka, Corn Vodka, Gin, Barrel Aged Gin (Delicious!), Bourbon, Rye, Single Malt, and various flavored vodkas.

A Day In The Life

We grind every day. In the case of whiskey, we would have a certain mash bill. Let us take our bourbon, for example. So we needed to grind a 2000-pound cook comprised of 1600 pounds of kerneled corn, 300 pounds of Rye, and 100 pounds of Brewer’s malt. The grain was directly fed into the hammer mill from the silos and starting around 8am we could have a grind done by noon, 1pm the latest. The grist (powder) was then stored in bins for the next day’s cook.

While this is going on, we are cooking in the steam-jacketed kettle inside the main production facility using yesterday’s grind. Starting at 8am this usually took until about 3pm or 4pm. Around 600 to 800 gallons of water is heated to 110 F, the grist is added, along with a regimen of enzymes and ground malt to help break it down as it heats up to 210 F.

The cook must rest for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on what mash bill we are trying to achieve. After that, the hot mash is run through a heat exchanger to be cooled down between 90 F and 75 F (again, depending on the bill). The yeast is pitched, which means rehydrating it by adding water at a specific temperature (85 F in most cases) and then adding it to the cook. The cook is then pumped over to a fermentation vessel to sit for the next three days. The yeast eats away at the sugars to produce CO2 and alcohol.

I would run strips on the already fermented mash in tandem with the cooks. The mash is pumped into pot stills, essentially giant steam pressure cookers, and the mash is cooked again. The hot vapors that come off are cooled and liquified, resulting in a nonpotable high alcohol content “wash”. This is then rectified or distilled again, and this is where we get the drinkable alcohol. But not at first.

Different types of alcohol are coming off the. Still the first is Methanol, which is toxic. Methanol stops at about 80 degrees, so we would either dispose of it until then, store it for cleaning, or re-distill it. The hydrometers show Methanol at 85 to 90 percent ABV, another reading to watch out for. From there, we gather the Hearts of the spirit, which are between 80 percent to 68 percent ABV.

Ethanol. This is the good stuff. With Vodka, this is ONLY what you want. With Whiskey, you have a little more freedom because anything below those percentages is Tails: oily, fatty, but robust alcohols that aid in flavoring. They can be added to the hearts in minor amounts or redistilled repeatedly to extract more dormant hearts until they completely and utterly evaporate. The biggest flavoring element in Whiskey, however, is the barrel. The traditional application of oak with varying levels of char (insides of the barrels are lit on fire by the cooperage to encourage the natural sugars and flavors of the wood) is where whiskey gets its true profile. Each barrel would need to be primed and filled with local aquifer water that was filtered with reverse osmosis. This moistened the char and plugged any leaks. After they were emptied, the whiskey was pumped in.

Finally, they were branded with the logo, racked, and stacked in the barrel warehouse. We would bottle accordingly depending on what product our distributor needed for the monthly order.

Tedious, yes, and monotonous. We did everything by hand, and our automated line was only calibrated for all things whiskey. Even so, we hand-wrote the batch numbers, hand-loaded, and hand packaged the bottles. The machine can put out a hundred cases in little under an hour. That’s 600 bottles. Our other products were 100% hand bottled.

Vodka, for instance: remove the bottles from the packaging, place on the hand filler, cork by hand, foil, insert into the foil sealer, insert into the hand labeler, construct the box, construct the dividers for the box, put the bottles in, seal, stack, wrap, load the trucks, ship. I much preferred the automated line.

What’s The Average Income?

$40,000 to $100,000 gross per year, depending on the company’s size and your expertise level.

What Education If Any Is Needed?

My mentor had a chemical engineering degree, and that helped him. One can get a Distiller’s certificate through the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD). You can sign up online, pay a fee, receive the study materials, and then take the test at one of many testing sites they offer. It is a multiple-choice test taken on a computer, but it is certainly not a cakewalk. I suggest that if anyone is serious about getting the certificate to study hard, on top of maybe getting an internship/apprenticeship at a brewery, distillery, or winery to learn the production aspects of the industry.

Something Important To Know

Prepare for some physical labor, and don’t be afraid of getting dirty. There is an equal amount of monotony, too, especially if you are involved with the bottling and packaging aspect, which most entry levels should be. You have to start somewhere. A lot of the job was the order of operations, which doesn’t make it any less fun; when you have a routine down, it makes life so much easier, which is true of most occupations, I suppose.

There is room to experiment, especially if you want to make your own products one day. Hit the books too, and consider that certificate. Lastly, there is a minor amount of paperwork to do as well, so not only will you be pushing barrels around you will be pushing the keys on a computer.

There is a lot of filing and reporting to be done to the federal government, as all production aspects and volumes need to be recorded.

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