By: Kris Bohm, Owner of Distillery Now Consulting
The idea to start a craft distillery can come from many places. If you talk with almost any brewer they will tell you the idea of a distillery is one they have considered. The tools needed to start a distillery are so similar to a brewery that much brewery equipment is identical to the equipment found in a distillery. Brewers who want to jump into making distilled spirits have most of the knowledge, tools and skills needed to manufacture spirits. One skillset brewers lack is in the art of operating a still but have no fear we are here to help. Let’s talk about selecting the right still for a brewery to make amazing, distilled spirits. Afterall good beer makes great whiskey so if you have a brewery why wouldn’t you do it?
Designing a Distillery
As the dream is put down on paper and planned for the specifics start to come into play. Are you going to make whiskey, vodka, gin , rum or do you plan to make all of them? What do you want your still to look like? Will it be a shiny copper showpiece or a stainless economical work horse? What ingredients you plan to utilize to produce distilled spirits is very important to consider when selecting the right still design. The equipment for distilling potato vodka is very different from that used to distill malt whiskey. If you are unsure where to start here, this may be a good point to bring in an expert to help you make these choices.
Selecting the Right Still Size
The first question many folks ask when selecting a still is something like how big of a still should I get? Should I get a column still or a pot still? What is more important to consider about how big is how small is too small? A common issue with many new distilleries is that they start off far too small. In fact some distilleries start so small that they outgrow the capacity to produce enough product within a year. The opinion held by most whiskey distillers is that a still any smaller than a 250 gallon will hinder your distillery from growing. Depending on the configuration of a still and the ABV of the wash a 250 gallon still can produce a single whiskey barrel per day. This key number is important to consider. Why this matters is that a larger still only costs slightly more than a smaller still. Secondly the larger your still is the less you will spend on labor per gallon of spirits produced.
It can be easy to underestimate the real quantities of spirits a distillery needs to produce to be successful. This is especially true if you plan to distill any spirits like whiskey or brandy that need to age for years before they are ready to bottle.
Some of the best whiskies from around the world like bourbon, or single malt whiskey spent years in the barrel before they were bottled. If the products you plan to make are going to taste as good as other products on the market they will need to age as well. There are no proven shortcuts to age spirits faster, but there are plenty of examples of so called “rapid aged” products that were not successful. The point of all this is that you have to plan years into the future. If you buy a still that can only produce enough spirits to meet the demand you are planning for today this still will not be able to make enough spirits to age to meet your demand several years down the road. The more whiskey you are putting in barrels every day the more potential you have to grow. To put a cap on growth by selecting too small of equipment can be a costly mistake.
Selecting the perfect size still or stills is not an easy decision to make. There are a multitude of factors that must be carefully considered to make these decisions with confidence.
Budget is the critical factor. Budget not only for the cost of the still but also other equipment needed to support the still is important. A budget for operating expenses is also helpful as once you get the still it takes capital for raw materials, labor and overhead to operate the equipment.
Another consideration to take in is the size of the facility.. If you only have 500 square feet of space for your equipment, then it is unlikely that a 500 gallons still is going to fit well into your building and still leave room for the operation to function. You should not select your equipment until you know the amount of space you have for the equipment.
Production Goals are a critical factor that must be given thought and planning. If you want your distillery to be producing 1000 barrels of whiskey every year then there is no way a 250 gallon still can get the job done. Sizing the still for the long term production goals of a distillery will help you stay ahead of your growing pains. The size of the still will directly determine the quantities of spirits you can distill.
Skilled labor is an essential part of the equation. For a brewery to make the best spirits possible it is a wise investment to bring in an experienced distiller to help guide the process and handle the distilling. Although there are many similarities between the brewing and distilling, there are also vast differences in the process and in the regulation of the industries. A skilled distiller will bring the knowledge and experience to the table to help you make the best whiskeys possible and also ensure it is done in a way that is compliant with regulations.
Lets Make Whiskey!
Building a brewery is an expensive endeavor and most brewhouses in a brewery are not run constantly. The addition of a still can create the opportunity for a brewery to run its brewhouse more often to create distillers’ beer to be distilled into whiskey. This is good for the business as it can create greater economies of scale. To do this effectively is it paramount to select the right size still to meet your goals. This is a huge opportunity for most breweries and one that can create immense new value and also open new markets for a brewery. If your brewery is ready to take the leap into distilled spirits now is the time to do it. After All most brewers love a good whiskey and good beer can be transformed into great whiskey.