by Dan Wren
When a new distiller wants to learn the business they have several choices. There are books, forums, trade shows, lectures or simply talking with the old neighbor who may have been a moonshiner at one time. All of these are valuable but are certainly enhanced by actual hands-on experience with knowledgeable people to guide you. It was with this in mind that I found myself in Piedmont, SC to participate in the Six and Twenty Distillery Operations and Management Course.
Soon after arriving at the hotel, Farmer Redmond, one of the owners of Six and Twenty Distillery, called and invited me over for a cold drink and a chance to enjoy the hospitality of their growing artisan family.
Started in 2013, the class has grown to include a group of experts from Six and Twenty Distillery, Artisan Still Design, Artisan Resources, Whiskey Resources, B-33 Beverage Marketing and others. The course includes a combination of classwork to hands-on demonstrations. It covers a wide range of topics, ranging from picking a location for your distillery to cutting through the red tape that comes with establishing a business.
All parts of the distilling process were taught and discussed. Attendees learned how to source materials, process the materials, and package the final product. Sales, distribution, and other marketing areas were also part of the class. The seminar left no stone unturned.
The four-day class I attended was filled with future distillers from across the country. Experience levels ranged from hobbyists to crafters who were just a step away from opening.
After introductions we sat down at the tables set up in the distillery. I looked at the 126-page curriculum and agenda and knew we had a very full four days ahead.
The first day was a quick overview of the basics of mashing, fermenting, distilling, aging and bottling. There was also discussion on alternative spirits, trends and some of the creativity seen in the marketplace through the use of new ingredients and modifiers. The interaction of the traditional distillers, the new flavor developers and the business-minded distillers certainly offered good insights and information for all.
For those in the planning stages, the session on locating your distillery was very important. The proper location greatly affects all aspects of the business. Customer access, community acceptance and zoning are all going to be critical. Proper utilities and fire suppression can be a very expensive retrofit, if it’s even possible. These all make a big difference in the ease or even the success of the business. Planning the layout for a safe and efficient workflow will be invaluable as the business grows. Check and recheck everything before committing to a space that is unsuitable in any way.
With a safe space and good workflow in place, a company can then move on to their product. Packaging is the first thing a customer sees and makes your business stand out from the pack. David Rand of Six and Twenty stressed the importance of working with experienced suppliers to assure that the packaging is a good representation of your brand and that all of the pieces of the puzzle (bottles, tops, labels, etc.) work together. Rand also shared a few tips on TTB regulations and COLA (certificate of label approval) that may prove to be real time savers for attendees.
The next day involved developing a five-grain bourbon. The class worked on different aspects of it, starting with learning how to create a grain bill and the role of enzymes in our mash. Instructors discussed how and where to source grain for your recipes. For this bourbon, we used a grain pre-milled from a local supplier. From there, we studied how these ingredients developed into a sweet mash.
Sherman Owen, a presenter for the class, described the conversion from grain to mash as “a mystical process involving chemistry, physics, magic and voodoo.”
Saturday was distilling day. It was time to make some bourbon. After a review of safety and a check of all the equipment, the mash was transferred and the steam applied. Everyone had the opportunity to see the bubbling and feel the heat of the distillate as it moved through the column and onto the condenser.
While Adam Bachman, distiller for Six and Twenty, ran the still, we got back to the desks to go over the theory of yields, proof gallons, proofing and the needed record-keeping – either on paper or with a computer program such as Whiskey Systems Online. Then it was back to the still for some hands-on proofing and blending back some of the heads and tails for the proper flavors. Tasting and smelling the unfinished product is an important part of this process. The importance of dilution and of spitting out when tasting was stressed as a way to protect your palette when tasting.
For more insight on the class and the industry, alumnus Mark Allen of Lazy Guy Distilling offered his knowledge and lessons learned in the few years since he was a student in the class. His very fresh and professional view of production, promotion, distribution and business building was inspiring to everyone.
Sunday was the last day of the class and less hands-on than the previous sessions. Profitably was one of the main topics. Instructors explained that at the end of the day, your product was nothing if it wasn’t providing your businesses with a profit. We as a class were able to look at the costs and work that went into the previous days. By using the real numbers, we were able to determine the cost, pricing, and profitability of the products we had made.
A conversation about distribution provided some good insight on its role in your business. Some ideas on how to work with a distributor to promote your products and brand were shared. It was agreed that in most cases, as a small business, you must do the selling, marketing and follow-up yourself and count on a distributor to handle the delivery.
Tony Bagnulo of B-33 Beverage Marketing shared his years of experience in marketing-both on-premise and off-premise. He was able to break marketing down by segments and what is important to each type of buyer. For example, the retail customer wants to know your story while the bartender is more interested in your flavor profiles.
His recounting of the previous night in a downtown hotel bar showed a textbook marketing effort. It started with a “Do you have any local bourbons?” and ended with a well-educated bar staff, a tasting for the surrounding patrons and several Instagram and Facebook posts.
As the afternoon rolled around everyone exchanged contact information and headed back to their homes with heads and hearts inspired to follow their dreams.
A class like this provides an instant network group for a new distiller and opens up a wide range of experiences and contacts that will be valuable for years to come.
For more information about upcoming classes contact Six and Twenty Distillery at 864-263-8312 or www.letsdistill.com
Pointers for safe and efficient work flow
by Dan Wren