I love gin. I’ve loved it for a long time, longer probably than is appropriate for someone my age. As a child, I have fond memories of my grandpa preparing his afternoon gin on the rocks, cracking ice cubes in the palm of his hand with a firm slap from the back of a large spoon. Like my grandpa, gin was smart. It was cultured. And the ritual of gin (if not its actual consumption) usually meant we were going to have a fun afternoon – talking, laughing, playing cribbage, or trying to complete the New York Times crossword puzzle together (in pen, of course).
I’ve always loved gin, but it wasn’t until we began to research opening a distillery to make gin that I realized my gin had been lying to me.
In 2011, when we first started to get serious about our distillery plan, we took a trip to a region of the Pacific Northwest that is home to several distilleries in a fairly concentrated area to better acquaint ourselves with the business of running a distillery.
Having worked at a craft brewery in an earlier life, I was excited to see the entire process of making gin – mashes, ferments, bubbling stills, milled grain coming in and spent grain going out. But what we saw was something quite different. There were no fermenters to be seen. Nor a mash tun. There were, however, several industrial style plastic drums of clear liquid.
This was my first insight into the way that many, if not most, gins are actually made – “craft” ones included (and vodka is even worse, if you can believe it). Here’s how the model works: you purchase drums of “grain neutral spirits” – essentially high proof ethanol at 96% ABV – from an industrial supplier. You run your botanicals through it, proof it down, and voila – you have gin. It’s shockingly inexpensive to make gin this way, and it’s quick, easy and efficient.
Simply stated, these distilleries aren’t creating the alcohol they’re selling – and in some cases, they’re barely even modifying it. Imagine paying top dollar for a cake from a high-end bakery. You assume they cracked the eggs and mixed the flour and sugar, and baked it – only to discover they bought the cake frozen and merely frosted it and boxed it up for you.
In subsequent discussions with distilling consultants, we learned that this process we had seen, or small variations on it, was not an anomaly, but rather industry standard. Even more depressing, we were told that this was quite possibly the only way to make a gin that would be price competitive with other “craft” products on the market.
Perhaps more than any other industry, distilleries rely heavily on lore – telling a compelling story to sway consumers. Read the back of a bottle of craft spirits and you’ll hear tales of idyllic, pure water sources and vague hints of a distant bootlegging family tradition. One story you won’t typically hear from distilleries engaged in the practice of purchasing industrial alcohol, however, is any acknowledgement that they’ve effectively sidestepped the vast majority of the process of creating a craft spirit.
Needless to say, this was a thoroughly depressing realization for us. We had envisioned a grain-to-glass operation where we were involved in every aspect of production, from working with the farmer to source the grains, to grinding and mashing them, to fermenting and distillation. Was our business model even going to be viable given the nature of the industry?
After some soul searching and intense discussion, we decided to stay the course and follow the plan we had envisioned from the outset. As a result, it took us quite a bit of time to introduce our first spirits. Our capital investment to get started was also much higher, since we needed several pieces of equipment that simply aren’t necessary if you’re taking shortcuts: a grinder, a mash tun, fermenters – not to mention a still capable of taking spirits all the way from 4-5% alcohol by volume to above 96%.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. I love both of the gins we make at Chuckanut Bay Distillery – our traditional gin made from wheat grown just up the road from the distillery, and our potato gin made from whole Yukon Gold potatoes grown on a family farm in Skagit Valley. I also love some of the other delicious grain-to-glass gins made by authentic craft distillers here in Washington. But I’m a little more cautious now when someone introduces me to a new gin. Fool me once…