Getting Started With Cardinal Spirits

April 21, 2014

Cardinal Spirits: A fresh new face

As you may have already sorted out, we here at Distiller are fascinated by just about every aspect of whiskey. From making sure that you can find the right bottle, to the business behind the barrel – all of it is of interest.

When we discovered Cardinal Spirits of Bloomington, Indiana just a few days ago, we also discovered a marvelous opportunity. As Cardinal is just getting started in creating their new craft spirits, we have a unique chance to shed some insight into the literal years of work that go into a new craft whiskey, at every step of the way.

Welcome to the first installment of a new series here on the Distiller Blog – The Long Haul.

What was it that first drew you to starting your own craft distillery?

I’ve been making infusions at home for ten years or so, and I’ve always been interested in flavor and smell. I cooked my way through college – although I didn’t graduate so maybe I should have spent less time in the kitchen and more in the classroom. Working in restaurants taught me a bit about mixing flavors, and how to produce consistent quality. All along the way I’ve read books, lots of them. I’ve read about the history of gin, traditional liqueurs, and mostly I’ve noticed and tried to remember the spirits and cocktail habits in fiction. Hunter Thompson introduced me to Wild Turkey and rum, and from there I explored those spirits as best I could within the selections available in Muncie, Indiana (where I attended Ball State). Hemingway introduced me to gin and Campari, Tom Robbins introduced me to tequila, and so on.

I began thinking about starting a distillery in 2006, started researching it in 2009, met my business partner Jeff and started planning a distillery in 2010, wrote a business plan in 2012, raised money in 2013, and we’ll open in 2014. It’s been a long and circuitous path, but it feels right. I’m glad we didn’t just buy a little 10-gallon still and say “let’s wing it”, which is generally my approach to projects coming from the fast-moving world of internet media. I think this is going to be a long-term part of my life, so I’m glad we’ve taken the time to think through as many elements of the business as possible.

Is there a specific spirit that you’re drawn to both personally and professionally? (eg: vodka, gin, whiskey)

This changes pretty much constantly, and at this point I think all have been favorites at one point. I’d say the spirit I gravitate to most often though is gin. I was excited when Hendricks arrived, because gin was due for some innovation. I love all the new flavors being produced nowadays, especially the floral versions like Nolet’s Silver and G’Vine Floraison. I’ve been working on my own floral gin recipe for a while now, and can’t wait to produce it on a larger scale.

As you’re beginning to build momentum, what types of ‘experimentation’ are you doing in-house with your distillation processes?

We have chosen a different system than almost every other craft distiller in the country. We’re using a small-scale continuous distillation system. Many of the best whiskeys, vodkas, gins, and liqueurs in the world are made in continuous systems, but until very recently the technology has not been scaled down to “craft” size. Our system has three columns, a feed rate of 2.4GPM (gallons per minute), and four extraction chambers.

We can set our temperature at exactly 162.5ºF to extract valencia orange peel, extract all the flavor, flip the valves and pull that out, stick in something else, and extract those at the exact temp that best pulls flavor for whatever botanical or fruit we’re working with. This is quite a leap from the pot still method of throwing a bucket of mixed spices into the spirit and crossing your fingers. Of course that’s an exaggeration – some of the best gins in the world are made in pot stills. But we’re very excited with the level of precision, quality, and consistency we’ll be able to achieve at such a small scale.

What hints can you share about your approach specifically to the whiskey(s) you’d like to create?

Using a continuous still for whiskey is not a new idea – John Coffey patented the technology in the late 1800s. But our approach to whiskey will be a bit different than some of our contemporaries. First of all, we’re not pot distilling, so that might be a dividing line for some traditionalists. Our plan is to do a lot of experimentation at all stages of the process. We’ve partnered up with Indiana University’s Chemistry department on a project called Better Spirits Through Science™. The goal being to determine exactly what makes the best tasting whiskey in the world.

We are examining samples of the highest quality spirits in the world across multiple categories (vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, liqueur) and analyzing their compositions. Our goal here is discovering, for example, what quantities and ratios of compounds comprise the taste profiles of the best rye whiskeys. What levels of a certain compound, for instance, makes a certain rye whiskey taste more “spicy” than the next?

We will then determine where the compound comes from using existing research. Is it from the yeast during fermentation? Then it should be in the wash we ferment prior to distillation. We would then analyze our wash as it goes into the still. Conceivably we could look at what it takes to get yeast to make the compound in question (specific growth temperatures, trace nutrients in the wort, specific grains or grain mixtures, length of time spent fermenting, %ABV at which one stops the fermentation, specific strain of yeast, etc). It could also be a function of the distillation, so the impact of the distillation temperature or the temperature gradient in the column could be considered. If the compound is coming from the barrel, then we would look at charring procedures (temperature, length of burn, amount of air blown through, fuel for igniting the wood, etc), species of wood for making staves (white oak from different parts of the world), curing procedures for the wood prior to making staves, whether turning/agitating the barrel improves extraction, etc.

There’s something to be said for tradition, and we don’t want to forget that we’re entering a very traditional industry. Our neighbors to the South in Kentucky have been making the best bourbon on Earth for a long long time, and we can learn a lot from them. We just want to avoid any faux nostalgia, saying our recipe was found in an oil can in grandpappy’s sugar shack, and it’s made in a 200 yr old copper still in the middle of the woods, and the whiskey is proofed with the dew from butterfly wings and filtered through a hillbilly’s overalls. That kind of story is interesting and valid, but it’s not our story.

As for what we plan to make – bourbon and single malt to start. We’ll also likely do some rarer grain bills like millet and oat in small batches.

We’ll keep checking in the the folks at Cardinal as they grow, test, blend, and in time – bottle a brand new whiskey.

Cheers, to your health.

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