Cheers to New Beginnings

How Start-Up Distilleries Can Get It Right the First Time

bronze distillery machine

By: Cheryl Gray

Starting a new distillery can be a daunting task. Failing to do it properly will inevitably cost the owner time and money.  

  The industry is flush with experts to guide start-up distilleries in the right direction when it comes to equipment, building, layout, local health regulations and environmental requirements – virtually everything to consider when launching a well-tooled distillery.

  Few companies know better what a start-up distillery requires than VITOK Engineers, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky. The global consulting engineering firm, launched in 1967, offers a singular source for multiple engineering disciplines and targets a wide range of chemical plants and manufacturing facilities, including distilleries.

  In its early days, VITOK Engineers was local. Still, its engineering expertise was far-reaching, with a client list that the company says included the United States Navy, for which VITOK designed and built CO2 scrubbers for the Navy’s nuclear submarines. By the mid-1980s, new leadership at the company introduced the distilling industry to VITOK, which already had a solid foundation for the design of a complete chemical processing facility. In the 40 years since, VITOK touts a solid reputation for designing and optimizing every aspect of distillery production, with more than 500 distillery projects sprawled across the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Africa. The projects range in size from small craft distilleries to more established facilities and some of the world’s largest and most recognized distilleries that manufacture up to 50 million proof gallons per year.

  CJ Archer is Vice President of Marketing for VITOK Engineers and has been with the company for nearly two decades. As an electrical and controls engineer licensed in more than 20 states and the Caribbean, Archer points out what sets VITOK apart from its competitors.

  “What sets VITOK Engineers apart from other companies is our ability to serve all engineering disciplines within our organization,” he said. “Continuity and flow of information between engineering disciplines is important for the successful completion of a large project.”

  Archer says that with distillery start-ups, it is important to gather critical information up front, beginning with what kind of spirits the distillery will produce and the proof gallon output the client desires.

  “Our engineers will then produce a Process Flow Diagram (PFD),” he said. “This helps to determine the vessel sizing, pump sizing, still size, boiler size and chillers.”

  The next steps, Archer says, are evaluating current infrastructure, such as available sewage, water and power, to help determine any additional power distribution equipment, water treatment or RO requirements that may be needed.

  “This PFD and supplemental infrastructure equipment will reveal the size, scale and types of equipment. From there, our staff can calculate and perform a Total Installed Capital Cost Estimate for the facility.

  VITOK Engineers can design and optimize every element of the beverage distillation process, from the receipt of raw materials to the proofing and bottling. Our staff can design the process, specify the equipment, design the building, define classified areas, specify and design instrumentation and controls and program the controllers, even tablets. We can also help you with the intricacies of environmental permitting.

  Our depth of experience enables us to provide clients with an expansive overview of projects, as well as a unique, cross-disciplined perspective on the design process. As an employee-owned company, the staff members of VITOK take a vital interest in building loyal client relationships. We are constantly striving to improve our services and technology while providing cost-effective solutions for project challenges,” he said.

  Archer points out other equipment and protocols distilleries can deploy to optimize production. Examples include automated control instrumentation, which serves the dual purpose of standardizing the process and freeing up labor. Another factor to consider is achieving maximum energy efficiency, which saves money. Archer explains that this means distillers will want to know if they can achieve an energy benefit from chillers, versus a cooling tower or aquifers. Examining the mash cooling systems and techniques are also on the checklist. Distillers may want to look at introducing solar to enhance so-called “green” branding, which Archer says is not a significant increase or decrease to the overall cost of implementation.

  Another point Archer mentions is installing power efficiency equipment to help save on energy costs. The power efficiency equipment helps distilleries coordinate with utility and correct for any apparent power overages. Also, comparing continuous operation, versus batch operation, as potential energy savings is another area to consider. Finally, Archer says that examining the number of shifts, timing and staging process of operations can help improve energy efficiency.

Another expert company that assists distilleries with installing equipment for both short- and long-term use is Trench Drain Systems, which manufactures and distributes drainage systems for distilleries, wineries and breweries. Engineer Michael Schroer started Trench Drain Systems in the basement of his home in 2004, selling only about three products. By 2017, the company had purchased a 10-acre property with office and warehouse space large enough to service a clientele that now spreads throughout all 50 states, Canada and the Caribbean. Schroer explains why his firm is different from others in the industry. 

  “When buying a drain system for your distillery, winery or brewery, you will most likely have to go through a distributor who interfaces with a manufacturer,” he said. “Your distributor usually won’t have the knowledge base to cover all the particularities of the drain and its installation. Trench Drain Systems is both a distributor and manufacturer of drainage systems. We have a full understanding of all brands of drainage systems. We can make custom drains when needed. We have a full engineering department and provide drawings for your installation, something that a distributor doesn’t do. In short, we are specialists in drainage systems. We have the flexibility to handle many product lines while being able to customize your drain when needed.”

  Schroer describes what key steps his company takes in helping new distilleries make the right choices when it comes to installing a drainage system that meets specific needs. 

  “I like to start this discussion by asking who owns the property where the project is being done. The reason being, if that facility is rented, the process is going to be a five-year project, and if the owners see themselves going to another location that they will own, the trench drain can be downgraded a bit. There will be differences in the drain channel chemistry, in general, when we are speaking about the drains of beer vs. wine vs. distillate manufacturing.  

  However, if you have a five-year lease on a building and have to foot the bill for the trench drain, consider a drain that will last as long as you need it. When you get into phase two of your project, where you own the building, it makes sense to have a longer vision for the drain design. That includes having a system that will handle the rough and tumble start-up period when construction equipment may be involved. It also is good to look at your future development when you may want to showcase your process and change your look from something industrial but practical to something more commercial or customer-friendly and aesthetically pleasing.

  After that detail is revealed, we need to consider the temperature and chemical demands of the process on the trench drain system. Breweries are the most demanding on drains, as they have high-temperature solutions and a wide range of chemicals that are put into the drain. And breweries will have differing drainage needs in different parts of the facility, depending on how the consumer will interface with the operation. Wineries and distillates don’t see the high volume of daily cleaning and temperatures as does a brewery. They generally don’t need drain systems that have high-service demands. Generally, these facilities have a lower drain budget unless the owner is going for an aesthetic, which costs more,” he said.

  Yet another company that helps new and existing distilleries make critical equipment choices for the long and short term is Della Toffola Group. Headquartered in Italy but supported in the United States by Della Toffola USA in Santa Rosa, California, the company positions itself as a global frontrunner in designing and manufacturing state-of-the-art technology solutions for a wide range of beverage products. Della Toffola recently entered the distillery market by acquiring Frilli Srl, another worldwide company founded in 1912 that specializes in designing, building and refitting distilleries and distillation systems.

  Experts agree that careful equipment planning is the key to a successful operation, no matter the size of a distillery or whether it is a start-up or a more established production house. Those experts also agree that success begins with a thorough consultation with a company that respects a distillery’s immediate needs and what it will take for the operation to expand.

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