September 3, 2004

The arrival of the TUTHILLTOWN SPIRITS pot still has been long in coming. It was constructed in Germany by Christian Carl to specs provided by my partner Brian Lee and me after two years of research. A “pot still” consists of a single “pot” or boiler into which the “mash” containing fermented liquids and pulp is set. The pot may be heated with electricity, steam or propane flame* till the alcohol in the solution, which vaporizes at a lower temperature then water, is separated from water and sent into the “helmet” or cap which then feeds the vapors to the “condenser” where they are returned to a liquid state. That, simple as it may seem, is the entire distilling process.

*Contrary to common belief, still explosions are not the result of the boiler blowing up, stills are an open system. Many so called moonshiners cooked their mash in pot stills (at night, hence the nickname) over open fires. A careless distiller might be found here and there, and there, and there, should he spill a bucket of hootch near the cooker. (Photo, old-style home still, the pot is on the right, the condenser on the left.)

This time last summer on a visit to Cognac (yes, the source) I was taken into the inner sanctum of the obscure craft of distilling by the owner of the famous French fabricator of the traditional copper pot stills. Chalvignac fabricates alembic stills for French brandy distillers. This kind of still is also used to the east of Cognac, where they pick and ferment and distill apples into legendary Calvados. We drove from the parking lot of the modern metal buiilding, across the village of Cognac to an ancient masonry barn secured with a rusty padlock. He led the way to a large dark room. As my eyes adjusted I could see a curious skyline of copper still parts. Most notable was the classic onion configuration of the “helmets” which identify their Moorish origin. (Photo above, some portable pot stills on trailers continue to visit orchards to distill apples to Calvados in the central apple region of southern France. Photo left, the distinctive English Red “helmet” and bulbous “pre-heater” of an old Charante alembic still.)

On the other side of the top of the Italian boot outside Padua, Grappa distillers like Paolo Fratelli of Fratelli Brunella use tall cylindrical towers which bear no resemblance to the elegant French helmet and gooseneck. Grappa stills are utilitarian. They look used; battered copper, industrial in appearance, unpoetic. (Photo right, the new generation of Italian grappa distillers, Paolo Brunello at his desk. Newest among his distilleria’s inventory of grappa is light “young” grappa aged just three months in the bottle. He visits the US regularly preaching the virtues of neuvo grappa.)

There is a national style to distilling in Europe that often reflects the stereotypical national character. The French boil their wine producing brandy, which translates to “burnt wine”. It is run through the still twice then aged in French oak casks for from three to… well there are casks in French warehouses dating to the late 1800s. Tannins leach from the oak and into the distillate, giving it the rich red brown that shows light so wonderfully through a snifter. It is blended with the products of many distilleries to maintain consistency of taste and color. Often it is mixed with mature liquor, passing on its distinctive characteristics from one generation to the next. (Photo left, barrel making in Charante, France. The staves are French oak. The cooper is laying in a putty to seal the top, made of flour and water. The staves are chinked with the fibers of a particular variety of reed which is pounded to create strands then mixed with the flour/water paste. The cooper takes pride in the fact that the only surfaces the liquid comes in contact with are organic. Right, this Hennessy barrel in Cognac is dated 1906.)

Before it was hip, “Grappa” was mostly a workingman’s drink. Hard liquor with a vulgar kick made from the leftovers after grapes had been pressed and before the hogs got to them. Nearly every vineyard had a still or was visited annually by the traveling distiller carting around a portable pot still on a truck. With steam the Italians coax alcohol out of the “mark” that is delivered to them by local wine growers already fermented. The mark comprises all the pulp and skins and meat of grapes squeezed for wine and left with about 30% of the liquid. It is fermented in big bags, containing around 1 – 2% ethyl alcohol when ready. It is spread on the trays in a series of columns. Steam is then put through the columns and lifts the alcohol out of the mark, into condensers and reconstituted as roughly 80% alcohol in solution with water and other trace elements. (Photo above, grappa columns at Fratelli Brunella distillery in northern Italy.)

Both the Italians and the French dilute spirits to 40%, or 80 proof. Grappa is bottled and stored for about three months before sale. Many distilleries in Italy are experimenting with new formulations, shorter aging times and infusions. Some grappa are sold “fresh” after bottling. It is what it is; unlike the French version, which is all about time and oak and tannins and color and evaporation. Cognac, unlike Grappa, is typically a blend; though like single-malt whiskey, single distillery cognac is available. It is hard to find and expensive, but well worth it for the unique and often unpredictable quality of the pure unblended product of a single vineyard. Most of the Grappa available in the US comes in small, elaborate blown bottles costing upwards of $40 a half-bottle (roughly a pint). The best of the unique Italian local hootch is delivered in the plainest bottles with simple labels, found on the shelves of out of the way village grocery stores along the back roads of northern Italy.

There are an unlimited number of still configurations from simple stovetop pot stills manufactured in Sweden and Australia where distillation laws are more liberal, to huge continuous-distillation stills churning out industrial grade alcohol 24 hours a day. Old World eau de vie distillers in Europe and the Balkans prefer the “alembic” still, with its distinctive onion shaped helmet and gooseneck. On the ex-Yugoslavian peninsula, the regional brandy is made from plums, Slivovic (prounouncedSliv-o-vitz-eh”). The Swiss use cherries, Kirsh. The Austrians and Germans enjoy a variety of Schnapps, made variously from apples or grapes or, in some areas beer. None of this true schnapps bears any resemblance to the oversweet, flavored “peppermint schnapps” your mom and dad may have had on the shelf in the kitchen. Local fruit distillates are potent, blood-warming and mind-numbing (in quantity). They are usually clear but may have been fortified with fruit or herbs. They are digestif, to be taken after a meal to “settle the stomach”. I bought the most memorable grappa I have ever tasted in a little Italian groceria just a few miles from the exit of the Mt. Blanc tunnel, in it a branch of anise, the actual stick; I have searched for another bottle of it in vain ever since (but this October I will return to the region, so…….). The alembic still is ideal for these local variations since it does not, as they say, “beat up the mark”, allowing more character to pass through to the condenser and be preserved in the distillate.

Brian and I attended a seminar at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2003, hosted by the Engineering College and attended by forty or so growers and vintners and cider makers and distillers from across the US. The College has a German still, all business, straightforward technology. The pot has glass hatches that allow the distiller to watch the progress of his batch. A perfect cylindrical column rises directly out of the pot in place of the Moorish Mediterranean helmet (Photo, small alembic still. Note the scaled down helmet and the traditional “goose-neck” from the pot to the condenser.) Column stills are best used for such as vodka, which is simply defined as colorless and tasteless and of a particularly high proof. Each time through the still improves purity and taste and quality, but it also costs more to make. The more efficient the still the cheaper the cost and higher the quality. The French and Italians are appalled at the barbarity of it. The alcohol, they insist, must be gently treated to retain quality and flavor. “It is rough treatment,” I was told.

We chose a hybrid solution after our first hand experience with the German column still in Michigan. The alembic helmet is perfect for flavorful brandies from fruits, carrying along many of the impurities to the end product; and it’s the impurities that lend character to the beverage, character we are hoping to retain. But we also want to produce vodka and alcohol for other uses like vinegar, as pure as possible. Our still will include a “rectification column” containing perforated trays that aid in the separation of alcohol from water so that the end product is the highest proof possible. The highest proportion of alcohol to water that is possible in a heat process like a pot still is roughly 93%. This percentage is the “azeotropic” point, beyond which water and alcohol evaporate at the same temperature and cannot be separated by heat. An alembic helmet produces alcohol at about 70% first time through. The trays in a column still sift out the impurities and water as vapor travels up through the plates in the “rectification column” before going to the condenser, more plates more purity out of the spigot. A sixteen-plate column can put out alcohol at around 90 – 92% on the first run. Our still would have both an alembic helmet and a bypass valve that will allow us to divert the vapor into an eight-plate column standing between the pot and the condenser. (Photo, composite shot of various types of stills manufactured at Christain Carl IMG. The Tuthilltown Spirits still will resemble the type on the top right, note the “helmet” and the refracting column standing next to it.)

So this day, this bright beautiful late summer day in the Gunks, our six-plate hybrid-column still was to arrive, in a single crate from Bremen, Germany. The crate was reported to be huge, about ten cubic meters, about the size of my Saab 900, and seven feet high, one ton in weight. We waited, Tom Cuccuro, my son Gable and I, for the truck to arrive, with a plan. We would slide it onto George Smith’s wide hydraulic lift platform in the mill loading area, lower it to the ground and unpack the crate. Easy, right? Unfortunately the height of the truck and the crate made it impossible to use the lift. Plan B, put a new battery in our hibernating, ancient Towmotor forklift, sling the crate and drag it out till it was half on the forks and half on the truck liftgate then lower both with the crate to the ground. Amazing, as it may seem, it worked the first try. We all congratulated ourselves, paid the driver, waved goodbye. Tom picked up a crowbar and handed it to me, “Sir, would you do the honors.” The overseas shipping crate was not meant to be easily opened or even reused; we destroyed it as we dismantled the thing.

Chairs? How civilized, the manufacturer provides the distiller client with a set of chairs upon which we might sit to watch the still. But….six of them? And the sound of wood inside the cardboard packing as we jockeyed the parts off the pallet, strange sounds of cabinetry and glass and it began to appear, like……it was not the still. I checked the bill of lading, “One distillery, consolidated shipment”. I checked the label on the outside of the case. What I thought to be the name of the German expeditor, on closer inspection was actually: “Flora and Fauna Florists”. The contents of our crate were the collected custom display cabinetry of some florist in Jamaica, Queens. (Photo, the wrong crate. Note the chairs stacked on top.)

Phone calls to my partner Brian, to the shipper, to the trucker, to the Customs Expeditor, to the manufacturer, “Where’s our still?” Hours passed, we’re into the Labor Day weekend now; forget getting this resolved before Tuesday next. Late in the afternoon the phone rang. “Well we found it, and don’t worry the mistake won’t cost you anything.” As if….. “Some mook in Jersey musta been still asleep. He loaded the wrong crate in the warehouse”. It would be delivered to us mid week after Labor Day. “Same size, same weight. Who knew?” he said, with a little laugh. (Photo, Eva was not happy that her shop furniture came to Tuthilltown and not to Queens.)

So, a little more time to prepare the granary. And the offloading of the wrong crate, practice for the real thing. As I write, I can hear the tapping in the distance, my son operating a jackhammer in the granary, chopping concrete to expose the drain pipes for the new bathrooms and drains for the winery/distillery floor. Two pallets of red six by six quarry tile sit outside the workshop, which my father and brother will lay on the distillery floor. I will pick up a mason’s hoe for the first time in nearly 40 years since I worked as a helper for my Dad mixing screed and mud and grouting and polishing tile in half finished new homes in Westchester, a job I always hated. He would say, kneeling on a half-tiled floor on his knees, “I don’t ever want you doing this work.” But this week we will do it together, on my distillery floor, for which I will gladly carry the cement.

The universal mystique surrounding the production of alcoholic beverages is artificial. Not unlike the diamond trade: romance and perceived value manufactured by the producers and supported by powerful lobbies and cartels keeps out the riff-raff, newcomers, small low-tech operators. But the distilling itself is easy as pie, easier. Anyone can assemble a crude still with items readily found in almost any kitchen; it is physics, evaporation:condensation plain and simple. And ethyl alcohol is ethyl alcohol, an odorless, colorless liquid. It all looks exactly the same coming out of the still, like water. The stuff exiting a simple still is loaded with a variety of components that are more or less undesirable. The trick in fine distilling is separating out the potable ethyl-alcohol from the water, taking and leaving behind the right balance its impurities to get the desired flavor in your glass. It is called separating the “heads” from the “tails”, referring to the portion of the run which is kept, more or less the middle of the batch. The “heads” containing the most impurities is discarded or sometimes added to the next run, the “tails” are tossed out. The impurities: fusel oils and a combination of other lighter and heavier alcohols are the little demons responsible for hangovers, which have been known to affect some who consume these distillates. The ingredient most sought after is ethyl alcohol and no matter what you distill: honey, molasses, beer, grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, the end result is all exactly the same, ethyl alcohol with the desired impurities. (Photo, a heads and tails separator in a small private cognac distillery. An “alcoholmeter” is floated in the center tube filled with distillate as it comes out of the condenser. When the level of ethyl alcohol rises, the alcoholmeter floats higher and trips a diverter to make the separation.) The treatment of the alcohol after it is distilled is what most determines the final quality.

The real work of starting a “boutique distillery” is in the dreaded application process. Notoriously arcane and complicated, in New York the applications for winery, special farm winery and the A-1 distiller’s licenses are nearly impossible for the layman to sort out. The Federal process is made more complicated by the recent dismemberment of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in response to the terrorism threat. Though I am seldom daunted by “process”, the three inches of State and Federal documentation stopped me cold. It is not easy to find legal counsel experienced with these things but I managed to track down a law firm which whole practice is dealing with things alcoholic. In the main, money and time is what it takes, money and time.

For the small distiller, alcohol is only part of the finished product he must sell. That mystique is the other crucial element. Mystery draws tourists who buy the product and spread the word. Mystery sells. But Mystery ain’t cheap. To take advantage of it, the distiller like the vintner and the brewer, must be able to sell the product at the distillery, to the curious, the tourists looking to bring home a special part of a special place. They return and send friends to the place, the source where the legendary elixir is created. Unfortunately distilleries are not treated like breweries and wineries, their license is a wholesale license and prohibits sale direct to consumers. A fruit grower who sees distilling as an opportunity to increase the value of his product, in some cases by up to one thousand percent, must apply for a variety of licenses in order to sell his product on his fruit stand shelves, a costly adventure into the unknown; or sell it to middlemen, artificially inflating the end price to the consumer without putting any additional revenue in the grower’s pockets. (Photo, French vineyards in July. Hudson Valley farm wineries may also sell distillates made from NY State fruits on their shelves. Fruits distilled into high quality brandy may increase in value by 1000%.) The distiller fights an uphill battle convincing wholesalers with proven sellers to risk valuable shelf space in the retail outlets and take a chance on their new label. If the distiller makes a connection with a sympathic distributor, the unique “neighborhood” product is shipped out of the neighborhood. All touristic value is lost. Last year I proposed an amendment to the State’s A-1 distiller license that would allow the micro-distillery to sell at retail at the source, like wineries and breweries. The bill was sponsored by Kevin Cahill and John Bonicic, has passed both houses and is now in front of the Governor for his signature.

In the meanwhile there are tiles and pipes to lay, insulation and drywall to hang, steam generators to install and a brand spanking new, bright shiny copper and stainless steel German Column Pot-Still to assemble, if ever it arrives.

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