Welcome back to the epic Hausgemacht interview. In part 2, I ask Ian Smiley and Mike McCaw how they got their start building, selling, and reselling distilling equipment. Ian’s up first, so enjoy:
Ian Smiley: I have always been fascinated and intensely interested in the making of beverage alcohol in general and in particular, distilling. I even had little experimental stills that I made when I was a teenager.
And as the years went on, after I had gotten out of the university and things like that and got settled in to a job, I started getting into home brewing and winemaking. And then I got into some fairly advanced distilling processes, almost as an extension of the brewing and winemaking hobby. But I found that there was a significant lack of information.
I could look up in encyclopedias, I could look up how distilleries advertised, how they did their things, but there wasn’t a lot of solid how-to information, so I got into experimenting very heavily and for years I experimented and developed processes that emulated the commercial processes. I solved the problems and actually got some good process going.
I learned how to make much better stills than I had been making before and eventually I got active on the Internet, and I started getting so many emails that I was pumping out multiple seven, eight, ten, eleven page emails every day, and I got to the point where I was saving the emails in a Draft folder where people would ask familiar questions and I would take out a ten-page email and just tweak it into the response and send it out.
And at that point, I decided to write a book because I realized I am in effect writing a book in bits and pieces and giving the information away, and I developed a website to sell the book. And then on my website, I started selling other distilling equipment.
I had a partner named John Stone. He’s dead now, but we made a glass still together, and we were selling the glass still. And eventually, I got to know the Amphora Society—the Mikes, as they’re called in the world—and they had the PDA-1, which in my opinion is the best hobby still you can buy out there. And I got into selling those, and those were selling well.
Further to that, I became involved with Brewhaus America, in Fort Worth, Texas. And they have a reflux still that they sell. A very popular style of still, but in my opinion, not an optimum technology. But I must say that that type of reflux still is probably the singularly most popular design of still among home distillers. So now that I’m the Canadian distributor of the Brewhaus line of products in general—Brewhaus and Gert Strand—I am now selling the Brewhaus Essential Extractor as they call it.
Dietsch: Yeah, I saw some of that equipment on your site earlier. Now, Mike, do you mind answering that question, too? How did you get involved in building and distributing distillation equipment?
Mike McCaw: I’ve been operating for the past 20 years as a process-optimization scientist for a big manufacturing company. I’m not a chemical engineer by background, but I’ve sort of become one through experience.
I used to be a brewer of pretty significant proportions. I would have five or six different things on tap, in my basement, at any one time. But I tended to like my beers big and chewy. And as I aged I started to have to watch my blood sugar a little bit, so I pretty much had to quit brewing those beers because if I brewed them I’d drink them. I don’t get invited to nearly as many parties anymore.
Anyway, at about the time I realized I was going to have to give up the brewing—I really enjoyed the process and had done a lot of work on processing it. I did all my brewing from grain, had a pretty sophisticated process down, and enjoyed running the process and tinkering with it.
So at that point, I was casting about for, gee, what can I do? And I remembered having read the Foxfire books a number of years previously and one of them—I forget which one it is now—is basically devoted to bootlegging arts from the Appalachian region from back around the turn of the century. So I pulled that out and read it, and as I was rereading it, I said, “No, I couldn’t practice this. This is too big and covert.” I suddenly had a flash–this would have been about 1998, I guess—“Gee, I ought to see what’s out there on the Internet.”
So I went out and did some Internet searching and came across this little book called How to Make Your Own Gin and Vodka. And John Stone and Mike Nixon were the authors of that. So I downloaded a copy for five dollars and read it; it was interesting, but it was a little, “Build exactly this, and do exactly this, and you’ll turn out alcohol.” And the process part was pretty interesting, but their fermentation technology stunk.
So I wrote the two authors and said, basically, “Gee, I liked your little book, but as a brewer of 15 years’ experience, I’ve gotta tell you guys that the fermentation process you give isn’t going to work the way you say it will.” And I got a rather terse note back from one author, saying, “I’m a Ph.D. chemist, shut up and do what I tell you.” And got a note back from the other one, saying, “Tell me more, I’m hearing from our customers this doesn’t work.”
So, at any rate, that started an Internet conversation, and six to eight months later, Mike Nixon proposed that we write a new book. And I said, “Yeah.” I was honored but I didn’t want to do just another version of “Do exactly this…”. So we spent the next two years writing The Compleat Distiller. And I don’t know if you’ve seen that book or not, but it really digs down into the science and somewhat into the art of distilling, but tries to give the person who reads it the tools they would need to actually design an optimal still for themselves, should they choose to do so.
Dietsch: So it’s not so much a recipe book or a follow-these-instructions-and-you-will-get-this-product as much as it is an introduction to the theory and science behind the art of distilling?
McCaw: Right, we have a couple of chapters on the same things for the fermentation process, and we cover distilling in the broad sense, so it’s distilling of essential oils, it’s steam distillation, but 80 percent of the book is devoted to distilling to make alcohol, but it is a general text on the whole subject. And that book is now in its fifth printing and second edition.
But somewhere after a couple of years of selling the book, we started to get a lot of calls back from people, saying, “Yeah, I liked it, but I don’t have the time or skills to design and make my own.” And we designed the PDA-1 and started to sell that…. We call the PDA-1 a laboratory-scale still, and then designed the PDA-2, which we call a pilot-scale still, which would be pilot scale for a real commercial distillery, but is actually an ideal start-out size for somebody setting up a microdistillery. And that’s something that’s starting to sweep the country right now just like microbreweries did about 20 years ago.
In fact it turned out that my primary interest is in designing and tweaking the design of the equipment. For me, watching a still run is a lot like watching paint dry. I’m much happier down in the workshop tweaking the designs. There’s so many different aspects to a hobby like this. Some people get involved for economic reasons, some people get involved for quality reasons, some people just want the biggest and best equipment in their basement.
Dietsch: As fascinated as I was by reading the description of building a still in Matt’s book, I’m a person who can barely put together a coffee table that I picked up from Ikea. So the idea of building something like that at home is extremely intimidating. Do you find that that’s the case with a lot of your customers?
McCaw: With some. I don’t know a lot, because I think most of the people who come and buy the book are people who feel handy are looking to see, What does it take to do this?
We certainly get hits on our website from people who will state flat out, I do not work with my hands. I say, Okay, fine. And those are the people that we design the equipment for, those who want the highest quality and either don’t have the interest or the time in making it.
But in both the home brewing community and in the distilling community that we’ve served with our business, I divide people into three broad categories, and I’m sure there’s more, or you could divide it up differently, but there’s one group of hobbyists who really are all about economics. And in home brewing I would say these are the British brewers, where beer is expensive, it’s highly taxed, and if you read the British brewing websites, almost all the recipes involve copious amounts of sugar because what they’re really trying to do is make beer cheaper. In the States, it was all about making a quality product that at the time you couldn’t buy in the store. So recipes were all about malt and people were spending a lot more money on equipment. But so there’s the pure economic person and they’re not our customer because they don’t want to spend up for a high-quality still; they’re all about, What can I do the cheapest?
Then there’s the group that I call the tinkerers, and I would probably put myself in that group. These are the people who are primarily interested in the equipment and the process and they’re always tweaking their equipment and trying to make it better. Frequently they get caught up in the wrong cycle and instead of making it better they get caught up in making it bigger and faster. So if you scan the Yahoo distillers groups’ archives, you find all sorts of messages from people saying, “Gee, I’ve been doing this for six months, and suddenly I find that I’ve got 50 gallons of vodka in my basement. What am I going to do with it?”
And then there are the people who are really into and all about trying to make a better quality product. And some of them will tinker and build their own and some want to just buy the equipment, but they’re focused on the product and not the process. That’s just the way I see it dividing out.
Next up, gateway drugs, and Rowley gets a turn!