I am a serious bourbon fan. So, when I heard that Kramer Engineers was hired to design the mechanical systems for another Columbus distillery, my ears perked up. After all, it’s always fun to add another stop to our city’s whiskey tour.
Regardless of whether your spirit of choice is bourbon, vodka, gin, rum, etc. it’s cooked up at a distillery. And although the general mechanics are the same, the art of commercial liquor production has come a long way from the old-time backwoods stills.
In early American history, moonshiners used to hide their stills deep in the woods, not only to keep the process on the down low, but also for safety reasons. Alcohol in vapor form is exceedingly volatile, so if there was an equipment malfunction, the whole thing could explode. And since burning alcohol can flow like lava, you wouldn’t want the system up on a hill.
Fast forward to today, and you’ll inevitably find private stills tucked away in areas throughout the United States. But not because laws have changed. Federal law continues to make it illegal to distill your own booze at home in the US. And although some states have their own laws intended to supersede the government mandate, the Code of Federal Regulations, CFR § 19.51 – Home Production of Distilled Spirits Prohibited, looks like it might still trump state legislation: “…all distilled spirits produced in the United States are subject to the tax imposed by 26 U.S.C. 5001”. But don’t take my word for it, check with your local law makers before you consider diving in.
TODAYS COMMERCIAL DISTILLERIES
Luckily, we don’t have to rely on homemade hooch. Commercial distilleries crank out enough product to keep our home shelves well stocked. And if you have ever taken a tour of a distillery, you’d see why. Today’s liquor production facilities are a large complex maze of sophisticated machinery. Massive distillation systems of vats and pots tied together by a network of piping, reminiscent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but for adult beverage creation.
Some of these establishments are practically the size of small towns. Jack Daniels for instance, spans 3,000 acres (4.68 square miles). To put that into perspective, a football field is 1.32 acres, so that would mean the JD production complex is the size of 2,272+ football fields, and over four times the size of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California (1.06 square miles).
Prior to the 1980’s a trip to a distillery would have taken you to Kentucky or Tennessee. But then came the craft upstarts that changed the spirit producing landscape. Small independents like St Georges Spirits in California, Stranahan’s in Colorado and countless others across the nation decided it was time to innovate the small batch market. The micro and craft distillery era exploded, and today you’ll find new whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, and specialty spirit producers thriving in all 50 states with California leading the pack in number of operating craft distillers.
What designates a craft distiller? ENTREPRENEUR.COM gave the simplest definition, “independent licensed distillers annually producing fewer than 750,000 proof gallons of spirit”. That’s a fraction compared to an established distillery like Buffalo Trace, home of Pappy Van Winkle, whose overall production according to Wikipedia is 2,650,000 US gallons. Or Jack Daniels at 16.1 million cases per year. And although some “newbies” also get so big that they grow out of their craft designation, like Tito’s Handmade Vodka, many choose to keep a compact footprint and maintain their specialty status.
NATIONWIDE DISTILLERY TRAILS
While many of the most revered names in adult spirits reside along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you can now find new gems right in your backyard. DISTILLERYTRAIL.COM is a great place to start. All you need to do is click on your state and the website will show you a map and the names of all the registered distilleries in your area. So, now with this kind of data in hand, you can blaze your own trail.
In our backyard we have: