Trends in Distillery Building and Design:

Operational Efficiency With Pleasing Aesthetics

By: Gerald Dlubala

Successful distillery designs serve the distiller’s needs while also projecting the brand’s intended personality and image. However, getting to that point can make even the most organized person a little overwhelmed. The key to realizing that goal is working with experienced builders, engineers and architects who ask the right questions and guide you through the process, considering your current and future needs.

“It’s about your dreams and visions for sure,” said Dan Nyberg, sales trainer for Morton Buildings. “But it’s also about your budget constraints. That’s where experience in distillery planning, design and building comes in – to build a place that delivers the feel and image you want. There are quality options out there. Do you want the popular barn-type setting? Anything except a barn-type setting? Older and rustic? Modern and contemporary? Pitched roofs are popular simply because the distilling columns are tall and need that height. Sometimes they’re taller than the original facility design. In those cases, rather than coming back down on the opposite side, we continue the roof’s pitch upwards, creating a higher-pitched side to fit the equipment. This design keeps aesthetic balance while keeping in mind future equipment or expansion needs.”

The pandemic demonstrated the usefulness of versatile spaces, creating an increased demand for those that flow seamlessly between indoors and outdoors and offer customization if needed. For distilleries, this translates into designs with multi-use porches and patios that naturally transition between indoors and outdoors to increase space when required.

“The challenges here, of course, are the primary budget constraints and location-specific code restrictions that tell you if something can or can’t be done in the manner you want,” said Nyberg. “But something like the full glass overhead doors that raise and transform a separated venue into one large indoor/outdoor setting are popular amenities that allow the accommodation of different sized crowds for different events. Whether we’re still talking about Covid, changing weather situations or just the ability to appeal to the folks that want to feel like they’re outside without sitting in scorching hot weather, every bit of space must be functional and versatile.”

Earth-friendly Materials, Sustainability & Solar energy

More than ever, craft producers are incorporating sustainability and earth-friendly habits into their production process. That type of conscientious thinking goes into building design, too, especially if it’s part of a distiller’s image. For example, Morton Buildings uses wooden columns, framing and trusses that provide a 100-foot span of clear space width within the building design. Their hybrid design features wood columns, structures and walls that attach to steel trusses, increasing a building’s clear width span up to 150-feet for an even more significant amount of floor plan flexibility.

“Wood is the ultimate renewable resource and a great insulator,” said Nyberg. “One inch of softwood provides an R-value of 1.25 insulation. Blast furnace manufactured steel uses 80-90% recycled steel content. We offer our one-piece energy performer insulation to fill and eliminate cold spaces. Combine all of these elements, and you have a distillery design with a true identity of building sustainably.”

Solar energy is growing in popularity, but mostly in incentive-based areas. Nyberg told Beverage Master Magazine that incentives allow the builder to recover the higher initial installation costs more quickly. It can be a lengthy recovery period otherwise. If solar energy is in the plans, the builder has to be made aware of it well ahead of construction during the initial design process.

“There is the obvious increased weight issue that has to be considered and addressed upfront,” said Nyberg. “It gets factored in with the other installed weight-bearing items that affect the load on the roof structure, like lighting and the type of sprinkler/fire systems used. It may even change your building’s overall orientation by looking at an east/west run with the pitch slope towards the south to get the maximum benefit from the sunlight.”

“Wastewater concerns are another location-specific code requirement,” said Nyberg. “Water runoff should always leave the property at the same rate it would if the new building and lots were not there. Detention pools are a common solution for this problem, and although there are different levels of codes, requirements and enforcement on this issue, we encourage businesses to conscientiously decide to be good neighbors and plan for it by adding it to their design. You don’t want to be the reason that others suffer because of the increased water flow due to your construction.”

How Big Can You Go?

Distillers need to be diligent about expected growth and build a distillery welcoming to future additions, including retail, restaurant and production areas. Otherwise, the potential for expensive mistakes multiplies.

“A distiller has to be realistic in the operations area of distilling along with the brand image that they want to project,” said Nyberg. “You never want to get into a project only to discover a high-priced issue that requires additional resources from your lender. You absolutely need an accessible receiving area, big enough to handle your needs, yet somewhat hidden from your distillery’s other, more public spaces. You need to know what equipment you will be using, including the square footage and height requirements. Retail space is nice to have but nicer if it’s separated from any restaurant or bar area. Even though the customers are buying your products, you don’t want them wandering through the bar or dining area to do so.”

“And now, most distillers – and customers –prefer that visually appealing connection between the production areas and customer use areas. And why wouldn’t you? It’s all pretty cool equipment, and customers want to see the copper, brass and stainless involved in the columns, stills and valve mechanisms. We know that they’ll be spending money while they admire all of this great equipment, but again, you have to defer to local codes for the design. You’ll likely need a fire-rated wall between the two areas, and probably an explosion-proof one at that. Add in large glass viewing areas, and you have a situation that must be well designed and planned to code.”

Seek Out Experience and Plan for Success

Nyberg said that first and foremost, it’s essential to work with a qualified, experienced distillery builder that fulfills your vision and offers a range of options. Then you contact your local permit authority for the specific steps needed to proceed and the correct path for the building team to take. For example, will subcontractors be allowed to formulate their plans and designs, or are you building in a highly permitted area where the entire project is documented and signed off on by a single qualified lead-engineer before any construction occurs? It varies in different regions, and you and the builder need to know.

“Some of the best advice I can give to potential distillery builders, and I’ve seen a lot of them, is to always plan for the best possible outcome of your business,” said Nyberg. “Plan for expansions in production, retail and even dining areas, and then design your space accordingly. Will you want to offer space for future events like private tastings, business or club meetings, weddings or anniversaries? Sketch these areas into your initial design, including all the necessary utilities, even if you’re not building those areas right now. There is nothing worse than trying to piece together expansions while keeping operations running. If the original plans include sketches of these areas, your building will be ready to accommodate the additions with the least amount of disruption possible. Patrons will be excited to see expansion happen in an organized way that allows them to witness the improvements while keeping your normal operations humming along at the same time. They’ll come back to see the progress, anticipate the opening dates, and think about what the changes mean for them as a customer. They’ll share your enthusiasm over the expansion rather than your frustration over trying to negotiate your place of business through a remodel, when they may decide to stay away until the remodel is complete.”

Including Engineers Early in the Process is Critical

“Engineers want and need to be included in the initial phase of design and planning,” said C.J. Archer, Vice President of Marketing for VITOK Engineers. VITOK Engineers have completed over 300 distillery projects, from new complex design through distillery additions. “When designing a distilling space, everything is dictated by your targeted volume of proofed product. If we know your production goals, we can determine the production rate needed to get that volume. Then we can evaluate the process and flow required with the appropriate instrumentation and controls. Then, after customer approval, we specifically look at the structure and utilities. Now we can provide the distiller and architects detailed information on the amount of space and the size of the building needed to meet those production goals while remaining aware of the process and utility requirements, the equipment and vessel specifications, and the necessary safety and code protocols.”

Archer told Beverage Master Magazine that the distillery’s geographic location usually helps determine the look, feel and branding image of the distillery and the product. For example, rural Texas distilleries look different from a modern metropolitan or urban location, and the brand image is usually marketed in the same way.

Include Visual Aesthetics and Alternate Income Sources

“What we have been noticing is the trend of utilizing the distillery equipment as a feature of the visitor experience,” said Archer. “The still, fermenters and all process equipment become integral to the visual experience and become central to the distillery’s design. The distiller must remember, though, that location-specific codes and safety regulations always have something to do with how far any distiller can go with this idea. Still, overall, visual integration is important.”

“We also see distillery designs drawn up to include alternative types of income-producing activities like coffee shops, retail and brand marketing areas, and event spaces. We know bourbon has to be aged for a minimum of three years before it can be bottled, so unless the distiller can just sit and wait, they have to generate income in other ways. Of course, they can always buy whiskey and sell or blend it as their own during the initial aging period, but they can also produce less time-consuming spirits, like gin, moonshine or rum. They can put on and hold special events and, of course, market their brand’s swag.”

Distillery expansion is always on the minds of any distiller. Moving from a batch distillation to continuous distillation puts the distiller in an immediate position to sell spirits on the wholesale market. Archer said that distillery expansion is typical, and the key to successful growth is having the space for the additional equipment, fermentation and grain storage. It’s better and more valuable to consider the aspects of expansion upfront in your design because it’s almost always cheaper and more cost-effective to expand within an established building rather than building a new addition.

The Green Aspect

“There have been recent trends toward a more environmentally responsible mentality with green designs, carbon capturing or building to optimize the use of gravity in the flow of the distilling process,” said Archer. “We’ve been asked to engineer around all aspects of renewable energy, including wind, solar and geothermal energy solutions, while also considering CO2 emission reduction or collection for repurposing purposes. Fermenters naturally give off CO2, as does the spent grain. We’ve seen a movement to capture and compress that CO2 and market it to soft drink and similar use companies. Building so that your production process is mostly powered by gravity, similar to the process used in moonshining days, is another option. Stillage has become a big issue for distillers. Large quantities are produced with dwindling opportunities for recycling or disposal. Sending it down the sewer is expensive, and because of the boom in craft spirit production, some areas are producing too much of it, even for animal feedstock. The green aspect is very appealing upfront. Everyone wants to do it, but without any incentives, it is cost-prohibitive for the craft distiller, so ultimately, only a few actually have the means to do it.”

Perfecting Your Product is Key

“A successful distillery design starts with the product itself,” said Archer. “The first thing to do is produce a good product at the target quantity goals according to your business plan. From an engineering perspective, you need to know the process requirements to produce that product consistently. You must then consider code requirements, safety regulations and ease of operation. This method delivers process repeatability and savings in manpower through possible automation. After you perfect your product and process, you can focus on building the visitor experience. Historically, if you try to do this in reverse, you’ll have problems, and in today’s distillery, you need operational efficiency along with an aesthetically pleasing visitor experience. There’s an inherent tourism aspect to distillery life in the modern marketplace.”

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