Distillation is an age old technique for extracting either an aroma, essential oil or alcohol by manipulating temperature to play between phases changes; liquid to gas then back to liquid. Because different compounds have varying boiling points (alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water), they can be separated to form high concentrations. Perfume, beverage alcohol and petroleum industries rely on distillation to manufacture their products.
I have to admit that I’m not really interested in perfume or petroleum. I’ve always been curious however on the notion of concentrating aromas and how spirits are made, from basic vodka to a complex eau de vie of wild raspberries.
In theory, it seems quite simple; you can take fruit or grain, mix it with water, add yeast, allow it to ferment, where the yeast eats natural sugars and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol, then get rid of the water part to concentrate the alcohol. I think that if you dreamt of operating a small craft distillery, you might picture yourself leading a quite, bucolic country life, with rocking chair, blues music and hound dog, whittling away while your copper still eaks out lovely bourbon drop by drop. You would not want to consider the reams of paperwork, excise taxes, packaging, delivery logistics, bottling line foul-ups or the endless lifting and moving of heavy boxes. But then that is a good part of any occupation, we never want to dwell on that in our dreams, even though we know it is part of the deal.
I was recently granted access to a small craft distillery in Niagara’s Beamsville, in the heart of the local wine and fruit production zone. Only in operation since 2012, Dillon’s has quickly become a mainstay of every moustache-ode hip bartender’s arsenal of key ingredients. Yes, they have beautiful packaging but there has to be more to it as everyone is on board. Quality is something that is easy to talk about but difficult to establish and they have clearly set the course for producing top-notch spirits. Part of my sabbatical plan was intent on getting my feet wet in a distillery as our college will begin its’ own distilling program within two years and I want to at least have some base knowledge so that I can teach a food component of the curriculum. Yes, many people ask if they can job shadow here, but I was fortunate to be able to observe and participate due to the nature of collaboration between Niagara College and local industry partners (and I am a hell of a good guy too, ok I offered to make lunch, truth be told).
The Dillon’s story can be found on their website but basically it is run by Geoff Dillon, with guidance from both his father and father-in-law, experts in engineering, chemistry and business. Geoff has a team of young devotees, each with their area of strength of also the ability to jump into any number of tasks to get the job done. The place is clean and well run with a good balance of serious work and fun. And yes, they actually do have high values in terms of producing great stuff like the mission statement says. Let me digress a bit before we look at the operation.
Since moving to Niagara over twenty years ago, I have encountered many moments of true culinary inspiration, instances where aroma played a part in searing memory of time, emotion and place into my noggin. Being able to deal directly with farmers, I was often in the actual production site or backroom of many of Niagara’s ubiquitous food products; walking into a gigantic refrigerated room filled to the ceiling with 30 or more tonnes of peaches is one of those moments. The air was so thick with peach aroma that if you had to give it a colour it would be golden, each breathe like drinking a glass of peach juice. Or being with Louis Rottier on his wonderful Allberry raspberry farm, in the sorting room and cooler, where the aroma of summer berries was as close to eating them as you can imagine. Ripe, sun soaked sweet fruits, each yielding a burst of aroma, a fragrant smile to make you happy. I often thought of how that could be shared with people so they could appreciate that rare sensory overload of a single solitary wonderful aroma. And at other times, I would look at how many tonnes of fruit would be cast away from the sorting table because of a bruise or slight skin blemish, maybe they were the wrong size or misshapen – all tossed into a compost pile or plowed back into the field. Where were the plum brandies, the eau de vie, the marc, the grappa, you know – all that stuff? This is what I really like about the potential of places like Dillon’s, the ability to capture that aroma, that moment in time, that invisible snapshot of Niagara.
Okay, let’s get to work here. Stop dreaming and start lifting heavy boxes, Olson.
The key to distillation is the still. This is a device that warms up liquid to the point where alcohol will evaporate away from the water then get cooled, condensing back into a liquid, basically high proof alcohol. There are heads, hearts and tails, the heart being the most desired and the starting head, and finishing tail having compounds from the base liquid that are either rough or kind of smelly. Sulfur, in many natural things, is stripped away by the copper in the still so you don’t ever get that nasty burnt match rotten egg smell. The distiller uses tech to monitor pressure and temperature but his or her own palate to determine the heart, this is where science and art come together in the craft aspect. The liquid is clear and a quick brush of your finger through the stream then a rub on the back of your hand is the way to check aroma and taste. For base spirits, the goal is to not have any distinctive aroma, just clean. In this high proof form, it evaporates so quickly on your tongue that it gives the sensation of heat. This base spirit is either made from grape (wine made from crop thinnings) or from a grain (they make a mash of local flaked rye that ferments like beer). The base can then be redistilled to make it more pure and also flavoured by ageing in barrel to make whiskey or vapour distilled through botanicals to make gin. Look at it this way; vodka has no flavor, gin does. Or they can add fruit concentrate or botanicals to make liqueur.
A weak “wine” is made either from grapes or rye mash (boiled with water to convert starch into fermentable sugar). That wine is then heated to separate the alcohol into a concentrated form. That base spirit is then cleaned further by redistilling or flavoured by barrel or botanical. At the end, the concentration is very high, so it is “proofed” by adding pure water to make it palatable. Most beverage spirits would be bottled at the 40% alcohol to volume ratio.
Dillon’s makes excellent gin through the process of vapour distillation, where the spirit is distilled through a “spice bag” of natural botanicals so that the alcohol in gas form picks up the aromas. The clear spirit has a wonderful citrus spice smell. A truck driver was watching me with interest as I ran my finger through the spirit pipe, rubbed it on my hand, then smelled and tasted like I owned the place and exclaimed “that is God pissing”- he beamed, I guess I was convincing, like I knew what I was doing.
I was happy to see that there was constant attention to detail and selection of the best possible ingredients, including a mind bending array of spices, woods and other botanicals. I was happy to give Geoff my contact for the best raspberries I know of and he is right around the corner.
I’m on the road for a while but hope to be able to spend more time with the crew at Dillon’s. What I am really appreciating on this journey of professional development (I know that sounds like total BS but it is true) is that new guy, first day on the job feeling. When you’re 19 and you start a job, you are excited to be part of something but scared witless that you are going to mess up, embarrass yourself or ruin something. That was me on day one. Geoff and Dave were rattling off directions, using equipment and terms that were all new to me and I was stone cold nodding and looking like I understood everything that was going by me. Inside I kept repeating “don’t blow anything up, please” and moved as fast and effectively as I could. Yet, within a couple of hours, it honestly did start to make sense and I felt as thought I was quickly getting a handle on things. At the end of the day, it is this sense of learning and the satisfaction of a job well done that drives us, not cash or glory of any other nonsense, it is simply part of our nature, our spirit to be actively productive at accomplishing tasks. All good. I’m a grokker.