So it finally happened. Your lotto numbers came up. A previously unknown relative left you a hefty sum. Your life of petty crime has turned non-petty. Maybe that Nigerian scam actually paid off. Whatever it is…you’re filthy rich now. And the money currently sitting in your bank is burning a hole that would make thermite welders jealous. You’ve ruled out a burgeoning rap career (you strained your neck wearing all that gold) and sponsoring a PGA golf tournament (St. Andrews was miffed that you drove around in the cart swilling beer and harassing people).
But as you sit smoking a cigar and enjoying a tipple in your cigar club/movie theater, you realize something: you like spirits! You’ve always wanted to see how they’re made. Better yet, why not make them yourself? So you decide to jump in with both feet and start up a distillery. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of time between the government reviewing and approving your license and actually DOING anything with said license. So what can you do in the mean time? Well it’s your lucky day because I have several ideas to cure you of the Bureaucracy Blues. So pour another snifter, light a cigar, and start penning your 24 karat date book.
Hit The Trail
Just because you want to own a distillery doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a look around. A proverbial kick of the tires is pretty handy. Luckily, most distilleries warmly welcome visitors with a handshake and a sample. Craft distillers generally will welcome fellow distillers / prospective distillers with open arms and will share what knowledge they’ve garnered through trial and error if you’re the affable sort of person. You can also get a feel for what equipment other people are using, what products they’re selling (and how they’re selling), as well as start building a distiller network.
Trust me, come party time, a distiller network is a hell of a lot of fun. But don’t just stick with craft distillers. The big boys in Kentucky and in Scotland are important views as well. While they may not have the roguish charm of small distillers, they do have something important: efficiency. When you start selling your famous rye whiskey and the orders start coming in thick and fast, you’ll be thankful that you took a note out of the book of the big boys in terms of streamlining and improving production.
Don Quixote was constantly warring with windmills and you should be too. Well, not necessarily mills themselves but grain providers. Establishing a solid business relationship with a reputable grain seller is extremely important. Good grain makes good whiskey so check your sources carefully. You can look online for a variety of tests you can do to test grains for brewing and distillation but you can always trust your senses. Grains should smell clean, be firm, look healthy, and (if you’re brave enough) taste good too. If you don’t trust your senses, spend a little bit of that money and have them sent off for testing at grain labs. Once you find a retailer with a good source, get in tight with them. Why? Because running out of grain right as you’re doing a cook is the worst thing ever. Well, that and burning yourself on a still.
Barrel of Monkeys
Much like your grain provider, you need to rustle up a barrel provider as well. Barrels these days are a precious commodity: the craft distilling industry and whiskey boom is putting most US cooperages into overtime. Start shopping around and looking into your oak because if you’re making aged spirits, barrel quality is necessary. Arrange to chat with coopers and tour their facilities. Get a good sense of their work space, maybe watch them knock a few barrels together. Also, check out the quality of the wood: even char/toast, appropriately thick cut staves, solid feel (no wood rot). You’re going to be putting spirit into these babies to slumber for a while, make sure you’re giving them a respectable bed. It’s your choice whether or not you want to use small barrels or increased surface area barrels. Which actually leads me into my next topic.
Run The Gamut
Here’s the horrible, torturous part of distilling. If you have children, escort them out of the room so as not to scare them with your screams of anguish.
Ready? Drink.Yes, I’m serious. Buckle down and try a lot. It’s hard work, right? But it’s necessary. Improving your palate is key not just for your personal sake but for the sake of your spirits. It will help you blend batches later on. It will help you identify unwanted aromas and tastes. It can help you identify faulty spirits. It tastes good! Don’t limit yourself to one kind of spirit though. Try everything you can get your hands on. Whiskey, gin, tequila, cordials, liqueurs, brandies, everything! Not only will it give you a sense of direction in where you want to go with your product line, it will also give you a better idea of what’s out there in the market. And, maybe, just maybe, what the market DOESN’T have.
So there you have it. Is it an exhaustive list? No. I could say you should apprentice at a distillery for a bit, which would be wise. You could practice home brewing too because brewing is half of distilling. You could even go out and press flesh at the variety of distillers’ institutes and associations out there. But this is a good start. This leaves you with time to sit down and light up a cigar while watching “How It’s Made: Whiskey” at night in your lounge/theater. But don’t forget, when that Distilled Spirits Permit comes in the mail, it’ll be a whirlwind at that point. So relax while you can because soon enough you’ll be hauling 50 pound sacks of grain and working in sweltering, still heated rooms. But you love spirits, so it’ll be okay. And you’re filthy rich.