On Spirits
By Lydia on July 19, 2010 8:10 AM| | Comments (0)
Yes, AWOL again. Sorry darlings, but I've been otherwise occupied mixing antique cocktails for the more and less appreciative and attempting an education in the production side of the liquor biz. 

What production, you ask? Well, I am apprenticing at New Holland Artisan Spirits for the summer, learning the fine craft of distillation. (Though as my ex-chemist boss would say, "Distilling is easy. The hard part is making it taste good.") I have found that the great majority of the job consists of piping booze from one tank to another. (Of course, my ex-chemist boss would never say "booze," but "ethanol" as in, "I've got about 110 gallons of ethanol to bottle today," and nevermind whether it's whisky or rum or gin.) Anyway, there are great piles of different hosing, clamps, gaskets, and nozzels; holding tanks of massive proportion which put one in mind of overgrown kegs or underweight corn silos; and bins and buckets and casks and barrels of every size, shape and material available. 

The process goes a little like this: a truck shows up mid-morning and it is already late. There are 2 300 gallon roughly cubical plastic tanks on the truck. Hosing is unwound from a pump in the still room to the truck. The proper spouts are fitted and clamped and the pump (attached at the other end to a hose connecting to one of the aforementioned giant kegs connected to the hip bone, connected to the thigh bone...) is switched on. Ethanol (or "wash" at this stage of the process: really beer, just high-proof, unhopped beer) fails to traverse the system, wash is walked down the 40 yard length of hose, to try to prime the pump and rid it of air bubbles which muck up the process. Wash starts to flow fitfully. Wash ceases to flow, repeat priming. This goes on for the hour and a half or so that it takes to fill the holding kegs. Everyone is swearing that this will never happen again, that usually it goes much smoother, that the pump is having a bad day, and that they swore that handle was in the off position when they unhooked that hose. 

But finally, the wash is in the tanks. Immediately, find other hosing, another pump, and a whole new slew of gaskets and clamps, and pump 40 gallons or so of wash into the still. The steam goes on immediately, thought the still takes a half-hour to fill. Turn the water on in the top condenser, and off in the bottom. Watch the thermometers, answer some emails. Wait for reflux and wait for distillate. Fresh distillate gets pumped (again, gaskets, hoses, clamps) into another tank to wait for its second run, the still gets emptied (another hose,) and more wash goes in the still. Repeat. 

The same script applies, more or less, to bottling, so I won't go into that, but I will say how satisfying it is to be wearing safety goggles and work shoes in a concrete pit, climbing onto tanks and fitting clamps and hosing machinery down. I only wish I got one of those cool mechanic-y work shirts with my name embroidered on a patch. Ah, well, a girl can dream...