Of the many intricacies of setting up a distillery, none to me is quite as interesting as the abstract concept known as “distillery character”, a concept that is widely accepted and embraced throughout Europe and in Rum distilling but not often mentioned in the U.S. distilling culture.
The idea of distillery character is that each and every factor from still design, still charge, fermentation time, fermentation temperature, yeast selection, grain selection, grist, hygiene and more affects the unique character of the distillate created at that facility and that when properly managed, a distillery can hold onto that character as a “calling card” of the products origin and a hallmark of spirit consistency. Scotch makers have been very aware of this over the years and have used it to their advantage in creating a market for single malts and making unique blends which rely on individualized character traits to add flair to their blends. It is true also of the large Cognac houses who generally buy from local Chateaus and Distilleurs for their blends, each of which has not only its own “Terroir” but also its own Character.
Setting up Spirits of French Lick has been just as much about setting the parameters of our products, and “Finding My Way” to quote my favorite band Rush. All of our whiskies (and our future brandies) are double pot distilled products, similar to most current craft distilleries, but it is in the details therein that we separate our products and give them their unique profile that we separate ourselves from other producers. As an example, our striping still, Lilith (1200 gallons), is a stainless steel pot with a copper head and a stainless lyne arm that we have packed with copper gauze. Copper is common to distilling for multiple reasons but chiefly for its conductivity and its ability to remove impurities from mash, wine, and low wines. Scientifically speaking, copper should only be effective in the vapor path of the distillate which has always been my presumption up until now, as well as scientific consensus. As someone who has distilled on a copper pot of a similar size to my stainless behemoth Lilith I can confidently say that one may treat their base wine or mash the same way, use the same yeast, use the same protocol regarding temperatures of fermentation, and the same organoleptic (taste, smell) factors and follow all the same rules between both stills and yet create a completely different product from each due only to the nature of the striping still being made of a different metal! This is in no way a negative attribute of our still, in fact, for the type of product that we are making (focusing on the raw material and the balancing of its “quintessence” with the contribution of the barrel) it fits our product profiles perfectly! Our distillate is much more full bodied, very heavy on the flavor of the raw material, and enhanced with deeper aromatics than what had come from a copper still of similar size. We believe this is chiefly because our still is maintaining far more impurities (congeners, esters, flavors) in the first distillation to be rectified within our doubling still Sophia, therefore we have a wider pallet to work from which enables us to select far more “color” and tonality.
The other advantageous difference is that pot stills are batch systems, meaning that they are loaded with material to be distilled, processed, dumped, and loaded again (more chances to develop “Character”!). Coincidentally the breakdown of long chain fatty acids from fermentation is directly influenced by the amount of heat and the length of time that heat is applied. Since Lilith is stainless bodied she heats slower, since she is large (1200) gallons you must reach a higher temperature than a smaller still in order to reach the equilibrium at which alcohol builds enough steam to make its way out the line arm and over to the condenser. This prolonged heating allows our mash/wine to remain in contact with heat and to continue the breakdown of those fatty acids (which convert to Esters, better known as “flavor”) over a prolonged period of time as compared to a copper pot which will heat at a much more rapid pace (with a full batch it takes us right at one hour and 30-40 min. to reach our crescendo, a copper pot run from the same size boiler would be one hour or less) and thusly break down far more inefficiently those fatty acids.
Yeast alone is a valuable character builder as well and one we prize highly. We use a combination of two very particular wine/brandy yeast strains here at the distillery as well as the common Fleischmann’s bread yeast. Some products utilize only one of these strains, some utilize two, and a few utilize all three in varying percentages of a blend. This is one of many ways we give each product its own character and keep something like our Oat whiskey from tasting too similar to our oated Bourbon. Other microorganisms play a massive role as well, specifically for us is lactobacillus which is sometimes co-inoculated into our mashes later in the fermentation period to naturally acidify and soften our still beer. In some distilleries, Lactic bacteria is allowed to flourish naturally in wooden fermenters whereas we here at SOFL are very hygienic with closed top stainless fermenters and prefer to only allow lactic to work in the products where we want/need it and keep it away from the products where we don’t want it.
Grain plays an essential role as well and you will often hear me harp that grain not only has terroir but that there are indeed major differences between varieties of corn and the flavors which they impart as well as for the small grains. We rely quite a bit on enzymes that we add to our still beer to convert starch to sugar as opposed to using the traditional barley malt method. This allows us to instead focus on specialized barley malts with unique attributes such as roasting, toasting, etc. to create new flavoring opportunities in our products as opposed to exist solely for the conversion of starches to sugars.
Of course much is made of water, although it’s contributions are considered far less important than they once were due to water softeners and reverse osmosis. Believe it or not, we here in French Lick have the luxury of sitting on the same limestone shelf that all of Central-Northern KY does and consequently derive the same benefits from a very similar mineral content and limestone filtration as those distilleries.
Our 350 gallon doubling still Sophia is where a lot of the real magic of character building happens. Despite all of our whiskies being double pot distilled, we prefer a huge percentage of copper contact on our finishing runs and Sophia allows us to maximize that effort by way of her whiskey column. We never run the plates in the column (although we do use our dephlemator on low reflux with plates wide open for a percentage of our high rye bourbon blend) and we simply allow the vapor to flow through the column in order to take advantage of the natural reflux afforded by the copper. We also fill each of our plates in the column with copper mesh for further surface area as well as the lyne arm between the still and the column, this strips out any remaining sulfates but allows us to maintain those heavier elements that we would have otherwise have lost with a copper bodied pot still. Our average proof off of the still is somewhere between 130-135 which produces an incredibly full bodied, aromatic, and oily spirit with only a touch of “fire”.
The condensers themselves serve a character driven purpose as well surprisingly enough. Both Lilith and Sophia are equipped with what is commonly known as the “shotgun” or shell and tube type condenser which simply converts the spirit from a vapor back to a liquid for collection. The shell and tube condenses quite a bit faster than a serpentine coil or worm and gives a fruitier and more estery profile to the distillate by avoiding volatilization of flavor compounds that we would prefer to keep in our finished product. Of course “calling the shots” or making the cuts between heads, hearts, and tails is a huge factor in determining the character of a spirit since everyone has a different palate and each product requires something a bit different these cut points are the primary job of the distiller and consistency here is paramount and in no way based on numbers, time, or gallons, but simply on sensory (taste, smell, touch) observation. Some products might run a bit into the heads, some a bit into the hearts, some may be cut completely clean, all of this is dependent on the distillery as well as the product and it’s intended use as well as the sensory evaluation of the distiller.
Of course striking a balance between grain and wood is part of our hallmark so cooperage and barreling proof provide some major “character” enhancements. With bourbon whiskies New American Oak is a legal requirement for aging as with Rye whiskey but other whiskeys allow us to use used cooperage such as brandy barrels, wine barrels, used whiskey barrels or even New American Oak 60-gallon wine barrels. We barrel our bourbons at a fairly low (pre prohibition this was common) proof of 105 which allows us to evaporate more water than alcohol and further concentrate the congeners in our distillate as well as to further facilitate the extraction of lignin (Vanillin), tannin (acetyl or ester notes), and lactones (coconut). Further, our barreling room, or “chai” as we refer to it is much more like a brandy cellar than a bourbon rack house and gives us a consistently higher humidity and more consistent temperatures providing us with our own unique parameters for aging products.
All of this gives our distillery it’s unique character that will make our spirits widely identifiable to the consumer but we must also constantly juggle each of these elements to maintain the character of these spirits over the years by refining our methods and constantly training our sensory standards so as not to go “off character” and loose those unique and reliable traits that make us what we are. This is the biggest responsibility of a distiller and his team and as we continue to expand our products and profiles we at the same time continue to hone in on improvements to what we have already created and become more consistent within each step of the process.