distilling learning

Note: Last week I was traveling, bouncing from one experience to another and all the while trying to stuff them all into my head. This week I want to get at least a quick entry about each of these, before I leave town again. This is the first in a series of five very distinct settings I got to experience on this trip.


I took a day-long, immersive, whiskey making class last week.

Before I describe anything further, I should highlight a couple of disclaimers:

  1. I paid for this class with my own money. While I have some funds from an award that are meant to further my education and projects, I couldn’t be sure that this wouldn’t draw too much extra scrutiny. Also, even if I could justify it, it just sounded like too much effort. Also, I was happy to pay for a whiskey making class with my own money because, well, it was a whiskey making class.
  2. Whiskey making, or any distilling, is clearly not legal as a hobby. The point of this class is really to introduce potential commercial, licensed distillers to the craft. Most of the people I was with had something ranging from a glimmer to a dream to an aspiration to start their own distillery. I was the most tourist of the bunch, really taking the class because I was interested in the process, and because it fit well into this whole project of teaching and learning. And, also, whiskey.

New Deal Distillery is a warehouse-like space in southeast Portland, Oregon, located among the collection of “Distillery Row” establishments that flourish in this neighborhood. In large part, the beer brewery culture of Portland has established both a model and some resources for up-and-coming distillers. I suppose there’s also something to be said about the community reception of these going hand in hand. All things culinary are celebrated in Portland, but I think the coffee, beer, and spirits are top among these.

Walking into New Deal, one is met by a simple reception and tasting area: a bar counter to your left with some descriptions of various products behind, and an annex tasting table that is the only barrier between this area and the rest of the distillery. Peering just beyond, you can become quickly enamored with the hardware. It’s not that the place is huge or that the equipment is so industrial, but that what’s there is so functional and real. Take just four steps from the place where someone could be introducing you to a finished product — a chocolate infused vodka or a ginger liqueur or a particularly junipery gin — and you could stumble upon the place where a mash is stirred or fermentation is bubbling or the still is running. It’s right there in the open, and that’s right where the table that hosted our class discussions was situated. This is the first impressive and obvious feature of the whiskey making class. I’m surrounded by the oak barrels and the still and the mash, all out in the open, standing upright and proud to fill the space in such a practical manner.

The second important and impressive feature of the class is Tom, the proprietor of New Deal and our instructor. He personifies the whiskey making tradition, describing his own trials and processes. “Don’t try to solve a problem before you have one,” he advises. He describes whiskey both as “delicious” and as a mysterious product that you have to usher into the world gently and patiently. Tom leads the course as a conversationalist, inviting us to ask questions all along the way. It’s an admission that he can’t possibly tackle all things whiskey in the day, so he might as well cater the course to what we already bring to it and what occurs to us along the way. While there’s a handout with reference materials and an outline of what we cover through the day, the sitting down at the table conversation that starts with “What is whiskey?” drives the course.

And, there’s the whiskey itself. All around us, there are the barrels and the hardware, the giant vats and the stills. Although that conversation could have been around any table in any room, it takes on a different meaning in that space. It also takes on a distinct shape with the students who are there. Most, unlike me, have some kind of aspiration or at least imagination that they could work within or even create for themselves a space like this one. (As for myself, I’m there to understand the process of the course, but also that mystery of “where does whiskey come from?” I ask this in the same way I’d ask “where do babies come from?” They’re both miraculous and unbelievable acts of nature.) We all come to the class with some background made up of motivation and some set of experiences, and that collection of ideas has this fertile space to ferment within. It’s a comfortable group in a compelling space.

But the most noteable appeal of the course is what it provides for the sensory. This is described as a “hands-on” course, but it’s more than this. We got to pour fifty pound bags of grist and flakes into the vat of hot water, creating what would seem to be a 1000 gallon pot of steaming oatmeal. We got to feel the resistance as we stirred or whisked this grog. And we got to feel it start to release as Tom added small doses of enzymes that he claimed was breaking starches into shorter chains — and clearly this happened, as we felt the contents of the pot give in to the tools at hand.

The experience is especially salient in the aromas. The hot steam coming from our mash is comforting in its raw graininess; the bubbled fermented batch that’s a few days ahead of this one has a whole other essence that you could describe (yeasty, bready), but doesn’t make sense until you’ve actually smelled it for yourself. The same thing goes for the distillation process.


Rye whiskey pours out of the still.

There are things that I know and things that I really know. The fact that rye whiskey should come out of a distillation process as a crystal clear liquid is something I could know in a theoretical kind of way before this class. During this class, though, I get to realize it first hand, feeling the surprise of that liquid first trickling, then pouring from a humble spout and into an unassuming plastic bucket. And how do you know what parts to separate out for aging, and how do you adjust the still during the process? It’s all science, of course, something I teach in classes all the time. Different stuff evaporates at different rates, and as the mix of alcohol and water changes, the temperature of that boiling mixture of liquids will change. You can change out distillation plates, fine tune the heat, keep careful records of temperatures, densities, and time. All that is important, but you don’t actually know exactly what is coming out of the harvest end of the still unless you put your finger into the stream and taste it. (It feels like you’re getting away with something when you do this, as if you just put your mouth under the spigot of an ice cream dispenser. It was my favorite part of the class.)

I can now tell you what the “head,” “heart,” and “tail” of the distilled whiskey refers to. More important, I have a sense for the fruity flavor of the head and the vegetative flavor of the tail. Over the time of distillation, you can sample an entire flight of flavors from a single distilling run. You probably don’t know what I’m talking about, and I could explain a little more, emphasizing that the tail is kind of a steeped, astringent grass essence. And that still doesn’t help, except maybe to make the point that you don’t want to include the tail in your final product. As for myself, I have a better sense of this because I put my finger in that spiritual fountain.

This basic idea also applied to understand the aging process of whiskey, the importance of charred oak (the oak is used simply because it has always worked to seal liquids in; the charcoal is essential because it’s a natural filter), and what happens over time. Of course, you have to taste this, too.


Tom pulls a sample out of a barrel for tasting.

I came to this workshop knowing that I wanted to better understand the science and engineering of whiskey making. What I came away with was partly this, but also a much clearer sense of the artistry involved. I don’t think you can adequately describe this in a book, and I suspect that it’s for these reasons that so many crafts are taught through some kind of apprenticeship. Within the art and craft, there are decisions you can’t have a real feel for unless you’re there to be a part of that decision; and you can’t really get a sense for what’s important in these processes unless there’s a mentor.

It just now occurred to me that there’s probably an online tutorial on whiskey making, but I already know that it’s a hollow barrel. You couldn’t write about this unless you put it into verse, and even then you might not get the true feel for it. How do you write about the smell or the taste or the heft or the seemingly mysterious? Some things, I think, you just have to be a part of, so you can distill it down for yourself.