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The Slow Distillation Movement

Hubert Germain-Robin

 

Being an aficionado of the Slow Food Movement since the beginning, I would like to add another antidote to the tyranny of the fast food industry and the frenzied pace of modern culture.

Slow Distillation

By using ancestral methods of distillation, when time was not such a pressing issue, one would conduct the distillation at a slow pace to be able to separate with precision the different components, to make clean cuts and to respect the temperature during the gathering of the distillates. With today’s hurried approach, many of these parameters are undervalued or even ignored by craft distillers.

For centuries, distillers passed down to successive generations the nuances of creating flavors from the materials available. These artisans created good spirits before thermometers were invented, not understanding the molecular difference between methanol and ethanol or even knowing the names and vapor temperatures of any of the compounds they were separating.

Distillers must listen to a spirit coming off the still in order to understand how much time in the barrel it will take for flavors to blossom and come to full beauty. Little thought or teaching is currently given to the understanding of how to ferment and distill a spirit when one intends to age it for 4, 12, or even 20 years. The rapidly made products often seen today have a limited appeal to consumers who pay attention to what they are drinking. This commodity approach to spirits production may produce a few small fortunes, but will no doubt produce many more inferior products that will need the presence of a bartender to bring to full flavor.

Slow Maturation:

By learning from the experience of generations of cellar masters, one realizes that time and patience are factors you cannot fully control, except by having proper levels of humidity and temperature in your cellar. Forcing the aging process by raising temperatures and using smaller barrels (which are usually made of wood of lesser quality) to obtain faster extraction often results in harsh and excessive tannins, which will take many years for the spirit to digest. Balance and harmony are reached by knowing the pace of transformations occurring in the barrels through the periods of oxidation and of rest. This is necessary and elementary to have a quality product.

In the modern distillery age, the distiller is more likely to be flooded with information about saturating their spirit quickly with wood extract to make it marketable than they are presented with information about how to slowly nurture barrels into producing a supple, round, full flavor from the depth of years. Consequently, today’s distiller is more likely to toss their precious water of life into barrels and forget about it for two years, or for six years, and with little regard to maintaining proper maturation conditions, whatever the recipe, like a cake baking in the oven for whatever amount of time.

By making abstraction of, or simply ignoring, either slow distillation or slow maturation, these craftsmen limit themselves in creating true artisan products. The consequences are not always obvious in the short term but appear later, resulting in regrets and disappointments. Remember: In this long journey, you cannot go back in time; you have to live with your decisions—good or bad.

Can a rum or whiskey, after being stored in a barrel for only a year, truly be called mature or aged when, at the same time, a brandy, Cognac, Calvados or Scotch (and many other spirits) have to rest at least 2.5 years in oak (which is still quite young) to get the due appellation?

I urge the distiller to slow down, take a mindful approach and join in the sharing of small details that, when combined together, have the effect of creating a spirit that can be savored.

At the beginning of this revolution—which will go on for years, decades and centuries—the foundation can be laid so that craft will become the designation of quality.

Rules should be put in place—by the craft distilling industry itself—to establish control over the declaration and on the labels for the consumer’s good. The Europeans have put a strict system in place that could be used as an example to make designations fair for everyone. Such a system will also serve to elevate quality, and reinforce appellations and sub-appellations, that will be created in the near future.

 

For more information, email:

Hubert Germain-Robin

hubertgermainrobin@gmail.com

Nancy Fraley

nancylfraley@yahoo.com

Andrew Faulkner

drew@distilling.com

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1 hour ago, Drew said:

Distillers must listen to a spirit coming off the still in order to understand how much time in the barrel it will take for flavors to blossom and come to full beauty.

I just went over to our still and asked the low-wines coming off the parrot how long they thought they needed to be in the barrel for.  Sadly I did not get any response.  Perhaps I will be able to hear them better on a spirit run?  In your experience have you found the spirit speaks louder at a higher proof?  Do your heads and tails ever try to convince you that they are actually hearts?  Like myself, our new make can get a bit snarky at times so I worry they might not always give the best feedback..

Certainly curious to hear what others experience has been in regards to listening to spirits. :)

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Unfortunately, a young distillery/distiller has to work for the quick reward, in order to survive to become a seasoned craftsman.

My goal has been to put away a small amount of every batch...just to find out what it could become.  If you didn't grow up in the industry, it's a slow, steep learning curve.

Quote

"Rules should be put in place- "

It's very hard to have rules for a subjective art, if we are truly craftsman.

At this point, tails lie to me more than heads...

I try not to listen to the spirit coming off the still...it just keeps saying, "You're drunk, aren't ya?"

 

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We are a young very small distillery, yet we have tried to cover all bases as part of our learning process, which very much slows down growth and profitability. For example, we have experimented with a range of small barrel aging (size, time) to determine what can accomplish, and with the same new-make spirit, made a traditional full-barrel straight. Moreover, for another whiskey, we took the time to make a couple small casks (6 month, 1 year), as well as full-barrel straights in various chars (1,3,5) for different maturations (2, 3, 4, and eventually 8-10 year since we are only 5 years old ourselves now). We learned a lot, and produced some wonderful whiskey, but no where near enough. That has only just brought us to the point of the best choices going forward, and the need to scale up.

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Let he who has an ear hear what the spirit has to say. 

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3 hours ago, Falling Rock said:

My goal has been to put away a small amount of every batch...just to find out what it could become.  If you didn't grow up in the industry, it's a slow, steep learning curve.

 

Yes, it is a slow learning curve and there are many mistakes out there to make. If distillers can share knowledge about what happens when you run your still slower, and to explore the subtleties that happen with proper barrel management over time, more of those long awaited experiments will turn out well. 

3 hours ago, Falling Rock said:

It's very hard to have rules for a subjective art, if we are truly craftsman.

The rules would not pertain so much to production as they would to labeling, so that it may be determined what production techniques were used. This is more concerned with truth in labeling, so that a consumer can pick up a bottle and decipher how the spirit was made; where it was distilled, from what ingredients, what size barrel, how much time, presence of any additives... etc.

It would be a voluntary system for those who would like to have a recognized standard of quality on their label. 

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2 hours ago, bluestar said:

For example, we have experimented with a range of small barrel aging (size, time) to determine what can accomplish, and with the same new-make spirit, made a traditional full-barrel straight. Moreover, for another whiskey, we took the time to make a couple small casks (6 month, 1 year), as well as full-barrel straights in various chars (1,3,5) for different maturations (2, 3, 4, and eventually 8-10 year since we are only 5 years old ourselves now). We learned a lot, and produced some wonderful whiskey, but no where near enough. 

Yes, this is the approach and there are many more avenues to explore. It also involves distilling the spirit differently if you intend to harvest the barrel in two years rather than ten. There are many other barrel management techniques -- such as transferring to neutral barrels, slow reduction to bottling proof, marrying blends for six months in cask -- that preserve flavor congeners in the spirit while providing a smoother, subtler final product. 

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On 7/28/2016 at 6:33 AM, Falling Rock said:

Unfortunately, a young distillery/distiller has to work for the quick reward, in order to survive to become a seasoned craftsman.

My goal has been to put away a small amount of every batch...just to find out what it could become.  If you didn't grow up in the industry, it's a slow, steep learning curve.

It's very hard to have rules for a subjective art, if we are truly craftsman.

At this point, tails lie to me more than heads...

I try not to listen to the spirit coming off the still...it just keeps saying, "You're drunk, aren't ya?"

 

This is why apprenticeships used to be a thing.  Now days you're better off working out-right for a distillery (good/bad/big/small - doesn't matter) and learning on the side.  There's plenty of education out there but nothing teaches you what acrolein smells or taste like.  To the OP's credit though, I am sadden seeing startups arrogantly taught "new methods" as the reason their 6 day product is as good as a 6 year and that they've out smarted the system... by using what all their predecessors have already tried. Like that fellow in Ohio making "bourbon" from wood chips acting like he invented the idea.  

I suggest, new brands should find spirits that can be created in little time - liqueurs, vodka, gins, kale - that's still popular mainland right? Instead of trying to find ways to circumvent science. 

Don't get me wrong though, I'm all for innovation.  However, I've yet to see a short cut make a better product than patience (curious about MVH use on minimally aged spirits though). On the flip side, there are plenty of younger spirits out there that are considerably better than their much older competitors.  Point is, age is far less relevant than technique.  [side note, that's not a very good ice breaker..]

On art though, no matter what we produce it isn't art - our booze has a purpose other than just existing :)  

{P.S. not picking on you Falling rock - i just didn't want to drop multiple posts}

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i'm agreement that taking your time is the right way to go.  especially on pot distillation to get really clean fractions but also in terms of fermentation time and yeast selection.

I suggest picking up The Whisky Men by Gavin D. Smith.  It's a series of interviews with retired old boys talking about how everything used to be better in the old days and how modernization in terms of barley variety, mashing technique, yeast varieties, fermentation regime , plant efficiency and the push for yield had led to greater consistency, greater output and less character.

the big issue for a lot of small distilleries is financing long term maturation.  it wouldn't take too much thought to design an instrument to allow for people to make long term investments in barrels.  For security, the investor would have to own the barrel outright (so if your company goes tits up, they still have the asset) but with a management contract and profit share with the distillery (who takes care of bottling, taxes, compliance and sales) at the far end.

The problem you have in the USA is that (in my opinion) long term maturation in new oak leads to the spirit flavors being overwhelmed by the wood.  The only way around that (for Bourbon or Rye) would be to lay down the largest barrels you can as that reduces the relative quantity of wood to spirit.  in Scotland we can age whisky in barrels of a maximum size of 700 litres (184.92 US gallons).  

 

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Yes.  But...

We must always guard against the danger of getting lost in the romanticism of nostalgia.

We can respect the old ways and be thankful that we have the ability to stand on the shoulders of giants, but that doesn't mean that we should not push the limits, leveraging new technologies and new techniques, to create new, unique, and better products than our elders had before us.  Just because they are the old ways, do not mean that they are the best ways.  Don't mistake my words, I'm not saying that a new way is better because it's new, or that an old way isn't the best way.  Just like our elders had the responsibility of growing and enriching their craft, so do we.  If it means an old way must go, it must go.  I believe the old artisans would approve.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who reads this article as being condescending.  I'm sure it wasn't written to come off as condescending, but it is nonetheless.

I admit, it's nice to look back on the good old days.  Everything was better back then, wasn't it?  Men were men, honesty was a virtue, and someone's word actually meant something.  Having studied neuroscience and cognitive psychology for many years, with a focus on emotion, memory, and cognitive bias, I can't help but read these kinds of nostalgic pieces and imagine how much of that retrospection was clouded by biases and flaws (or omissions) in our memories.  There is a well known cognitive bias called Rosy Retrospection.  Despite the cute name, it's the basis for those feelings of romantic nostalgia we have for the past.  However, it also means that perhaps the past was not how we remember.  

I still remember the taste of the champagne that I sipped after toasting with my wife at our wedding reception, or the taste of that whiskey me and the boys sipped when getting the news that there was a little one on the way, god it was so good.

The reality of it is, the good old days weren't.  I'm not complaining that our brains have a propensity to fade unpleasant memories, and retain (and even embellish) the good ones.  Life would be awful otherwise, wouldn't it?  But, the old stories come together, and history is written with these biases.  So when we look back, we need to understand that the negatives were probably omitted, and the positives are certainly more positive than they were.

So, now we get to the truth, let's be realistic here.

Commercial producers, even small ones, have been producing awful spirits for as long as people have been drinking them.  You would be remiss to simply assume just because some producer produced something seventy five years ago, it was absolutely fantastic, magical, unparalleled in quality and without compare.  Because, you know what, most of it was probably pretty bad.  Craft was probably the last thing in many of their minds.  Losing a batch to a raging bacterial infection meant your kids going hungry, so they produced it anyway.  I've tasted lots of very old product, you know, the kind with fancy scores and reviews, when people fawn over names, and was amazed that after dozens of years your could still taste the fact that they didn't bother to take much of a heads cut, hell, any cut at all.  The raw distillate was probably so god awful that it needed 25 years on oak just to be remotely drinkable.

What I don't understand is, why make these overly broad, sweeping assumptions about the new breed of craft producers?  Yet at the same time paying some kind of religious homage to those who came before?

Frankly, neither deserve it.

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" why...paying some kind of religious homage to those who came before? "

Because that's what US "old timers" do! We revile in the past, Rosy Retrospection, to inflate our egos and endear ourselves to the younger generation.:rolleyes:

Most of us CAN produce better quality than the BIG BOYS, and most of us do. The commercial giants of our industry cling to long maturation times...because they are well funded, have an established process, get barrels for a third of what we can and can afford to wait for time to assist in fixing their lack of cuts. Long maturation is part of their story! Just like better cuts and better process is part of the craft story.

Simon13, I've been to several distilleries in the U.S. that pre sell barrels to individuals and organizations. They have a barreling ceremony and set it aside.

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The good 'ol days - when creosote and turpentine and sulfuric acid were the short cuts.  Not that I'm in favor of short cuts, but this whipper-snapper would strongly lean towards the modern restrictions on ethyl carbamate and leave the coloring to caramels instead creosote (I assume it was for color?)..

Feels like we are getting a little off-track.  I believe the OP was just selling his story, same as the rest of us.  Financial restriction is not valid excuse for circumventing excellence but lets be honest, not everybody affords a Ferrari or an Aperilia.  The takeaway?  Stand behind your goods with pride whether its Ecco or Dolce and don't pretend it's something it's not - there is a market for both and you've got to plan accordingly. Fireball isn't $50 a fifth but they sure make hella money off of it. 

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I've been excessively spoilt when it comes to old bottlings of Single Malt.  With the case of single malts, in the past, generally the best stock was used single malts that accounted for a fraction of a percentage of whisky sales, with blends being the backbone of the industry.  I rarely find any modern production that comes close to the quality of the 1970's and before.

My experience of the older styles (1800's to 1970's) is that there is greater inconsistency than today but the peaks are higher.  There are flavours which have been sacrificed in order to obtain greater yield, year on year.  Distilleries today produce a consistently good quality but can't reach those peaks.

Have a read through the Malt Maniacs Malt Monitor.  16,488 bottlings of whiskey with 52,573 scores.  Almost no 1980's+ production gets the top scores.

 

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I think there are two fast approaches to the market... One is to have a smaller heartcut, age in a warm environment with good airflow and  decent humidity for a younger (2-3) year spirit. The second is to make wide cuts and age for a long time. In my opinion the latter approach invariably  yields a more complex tasting spirit.

Some try to bypass both approaches by using very small barrels, or other "oaking" solutions that respect the integration of oak and spirit but not the chemistry behind how they interact once mixed.

I think this is what Hubert is trying to convey with this post - there is no substitute for decently wide, but not too wide cuts, and a good long aging time, when it comes to flavor.

I trust his opinion based on what I've tasted from GR distillery in the past.

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On 01/09/2016 at 11:19 PM, MDH said:

I think there are two fast approaches to the market... One is to have a smaller heartcut, age in a warm environment with good airflow and  decent humidity for a younger (2-3) year spirit. The second is to make wide cuts and age for a long time. In my opinion the latter approach invariably  yields a more complex tasting spirit.

Some try to bypass both approaches by using very small barrels, or other "oaking" solutions that respect the integration of oak and spirit but not the chemistry behind how they interact once mixed.

I think this is what Hubert is trying to convey with this post - there is no substitute for decently wide, but not too wide cuts, and a good long aging time, when it comes to flavor.

I trust his opinion based on what I've tasted from GR distillery in the past.

Ah! "but not the chemistry behind how they interact once mixed."....

Along similar lines to "What is the meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything?"

As the Japanese distillers have pursued (to their definite and large advantage), modern chemistry allows PRECISE discovery of "what is in it?" for any liquid. Down to parts-per-billion precision and with total knowledge of component identification.

There are NO components in - for example - a Great malt whisky which cannot be acquired in pure form so that a duplicate "recipe" of ingredients can be made.

The Great Mystery is how these form over time in the environment inside an ageing barrel. And even that is no longer much of a mystery to the Chemistry Detectives.

Techniques have been available for DECADES to relatively mundane laboratories not only to identify and quantify ALL such components, and to also to TRACK whence they came.

Time-spanned repeat studies even show up "intermediates" along the way.

So, the scientifically inclined follow their path, sometimes with a quiet chuckle for the Traditionalists who insist that a good malt only develops if the right number of old bones are thrown into the air, at the right height and with the correct incantation.......

And the Traditionalists laugh in (near) total disbelief at the complete analysis of the Big Picture  suggested by their opponents.

The big question is who, over time, makes the best product in terms of Customer acceptance AND preparedness to pay.

And PROFIT of course!

Which US Distilleries get $100 per 70cl bottle of single malt made on a COFFEY STILL (and know that even some in Scotland have done for many decades....https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Nevis_distillery )?

How many posters herein are actively and currently discussing and debating such progressive options to Process Improvement, compared to those promoting "same old" methodologies?

Sure ALL distilleries have seen gradual incorporation of newer ideas and technologies over the centuries.

What many seem to fail to grasp is the rate of ACCELERATION of such adoptions, and the rapid demise of those failing to see the "train" heading their way in their tunnel!

Cast your minds back to how impregnable DEC seemed with their super-mini computers in 1985. Or Compaq did with their PC's in 1995.

Both GONE. Extinct as the dinosaurs.

And all they did was to fall behind "the Curve" SET BY THEIR CUSTOMERS' NEEDS.

They both thought they owned their market. Both were seriously mistaken!

Just my $0.02

 

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