Putting the "Craft" in Distilling
The fan whirred, the emerald light sparked on, and the sweet smell of bourbon filled the air as the still roared to life.
Step by step over the course of two and a half hours I watched as our Nashville based distiller, Ben Heflin, took every deliberate yet cautious measure to bring the copper pot still up to 148.2 degrees. This is the temperature at which the alcohol first begins to evaporate off and then travels through the pipes to our condenser or our “Storm in a Bottle”. Nicknamed this as the alcohol vapors gather at the top like clouds before condensing against the cold copper pipes and raining down gathering in a pool at the bottom.
From this pool of alcohol, we then separate the alcohol into three categories: heads, hearts, and tails. The heads are the first thing to go as they smell of nail polish remover (and taste like it too) but the tricky part is in knowing when the heads have turned into hearts (the good stuff!). There’s no color change or flashing sign just a slight shift in aroma and taste to indicate it’s time to start filling the stainless-steel barrel. Of course, the rise in temperature is a good indicator of this as the hearts boil at 173.1 degrees and lucky for us our distiller is skilled in detecting this change and was able to start collecting the hearts as soon as we’d run off the heads. Still one last test stands - knowing when to run off the tails (based again off temperature, smell and taste) known for their unpleasant fatty and oil substances, as we want to make sure we’re getting only the best every time.
Once we’ve collected all the hearts, we can then put them into a barrel and age it anywhere from a few months to a few years creating a bourbon or whiskey. To make a true Tennessee whiskey we have to age it in a new, charred, American white oak barrel. But if we decide to make a bourbon, we get to choose what kind of barrel we want to use from oak, pine, redwood, a previous wine or sherry barrel... the options go on and on and each one lends a different flavor profile.
Or we could decide not to age it at all and instead immediately drink it straight out of the glass, of course, after we dilute it to bring down the proof. That’s what makes the world of spirits so enthralling – the ability to meet science with creativity and make something entirely new. And the possibilities, as you can tell, are endless!
Still you may be surprised to find that my favorite part of this whole experience was the sweet notes of brown sugar, butter, and vanilla that filled the air – it reminded me of baking in the kitchen with my mother when I was younger. Suddenly I was back in my kitchen on Hackberry Drive making peanut butter blossoms and helping unwrap chocolate kisses to place on top of each cookie. It never seemed to matter what we we’re making but the recipe always started the same – sugar, butter, vanilla. Soon their sweet, rich aroma filled the kitchen and even now that scent makes me nostalgic for simpler times.
But despite the nostalgia I felt I was grounded by my fascination of just how delicate this process is; we’re working with pressure, water, and heat three elements that if miscalculated could be disastrous, yet modern safety measures and passionate, skillful distillers have allowed us to create craft spirits with ease.
That said the movements though tedious were as elegant and fluid as a ballet – every step as critical to perfection as the last so that the final product dances on your tongue.
Should you visit our distillery you may not get to experience this entire “dance” for yourself but you’re sure to be whisked away into a world of craft spirits where perfection is what we not only strive for but achieve with our four unique spirits: Big Machine Platinum Filtered Vodka, Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey, All Mighty Moonshine, and Abernathy Gin.
I hope to see you soon so that you can experience the magic for yourself!