Sister Stills...

As some of you know, this year’s ADI conference (American Distilling Institute) took us to Baltimore for a week. In addition to the outstanding bars and restaurants, a very educational Gin workshop at the Jos. Magnus distillery in DC and some great talks by presenting speakers one thing in particular stood out during the trip.Perusing the preceding edition of Distiller magazine, and checking out what distilleries were in the area to visit, something stood out on one page. There, in the background of a picture at Baltimore Whiskey Company, stood a very familiar sight. A quick glance up from the magazine reassured me that our still had not gone missing but, there it was. Now, for a lot of distilleries, this isn’t all that uncommon. Many small distilleries use one of a few variants from the same small group of still builders. Many are some sort of hybrid Pot still/column still setup. From everything I’ve heard they work great, however, I knew they wouldn’t produce the kind of spirit I wanted to produce. My personal view is that many still designs strip out entirely too much flavor from the distillate in exchange for making cuts easier to make. You end up sacrificing flavor for ease and consistency. The only other stills I have seen that resemble ours up until this point are the ones responsible for producing the world renowned Lagavulin single malt in Scotland.I directly ripped off their shape when having our still designed.The reasoning was simple. Distillation is merely a matter of separating your spirit from the water and other by products of fermentation, some good, some bad. The taller your still is or if it has a column with plates in it, the more congeners (or byproducts) it will remove in the process. However, it doesn’t make a distinction between desirable and undesirable so what you’re left with is a clean, but sometimes unremarkable spirit. Our still on the other hand is relatively squat with a short top and easy sloping sides. This allows some of the congeners and oils from fermentation to carry over with the distillate creating a heavy, weighty spirit. It’s a much more lush and rich whiskey than can be produced in a more efficient still design but I feel the tradeoff is worth it… and apparently, I wasn’t alone.I did a little more research online about Baltimore Whiskey Company and found that not only did they indeed have the same person build their still, Craftsman Copper in Washington State, but they also had a product produced in a very similar manner as ours. Our Dear Johnny whiskey is double distilled and then a portion is distilled a third time over smoked apples. These guys, I soon learned, had Charles Street Apple Brandy. Unlike most apple brandies, they include smoked apple pomace in the fermentation and then distill down to bottling proof (instead of cutting high and adding water) much like Mezcal.Now, naturally I started connecting dots in my head and thought that for sure they had gotten the idea for their still shape and the smoked apple idea just in casual discussion with Jimmi Davies when designing their still. Our still after all had been built a good year before theirs. Unlike some people, I wouldn’t have been offended if this was the case, I would’ve considered it a compliment that someone appreciated what I was doing enough to emulate it.This was not the case I would later learn.So much for my ego.I reached out to Max Lents, one of the founders of the distillery and setup a time to meet him and see their space while I was in town. So, Monday morning I set out on foot from the hotel, caught the light rail to the north end of town and hoofed it over to their space. Tucked away, just off a main road they sat in an old brick building that once was the city incinerator (Our building used to be a car wash). I met Max, their distiller Ian Newton, Eli Breitburg-Smith and their newest team member whose name escapes me at the moment (rad dude nonetheless). I chatted with Max and Ian as they showed me around, poured some samples and we exchanged bits of info on how we run the still and where we make our cuts and such. What I learned? Same still, same philosophies, same goals. Max told me how he had sent pictures of Lagavulin’s stills to James because he wanted a “heavier and oilier” spirit. Literally verbatim what I tell people about our still. He had apparently not even seen ours while designing theirs. As for the smoked apples? Totally their idea as well. So, seems we had two unicorns borrowing from multiple distilling cultures to create something wholly unique in the world of distilling. Breaking rules and taking the path less travelled to push the movement forward.Long story short, I consider myself lucky to have crossed paths with likeminded people and was stoked to see our “Sister Still” in Baltimore, trickling out innovative spirits in small batches, the way craft distilling is supposed to be! Be sure to check them out if you're in the area or online www.thebaltimorewhiskeycompany.com