A Day in the Life of a Distiller
Everything that goes on during a typical whiskey making shift.
Dream jobs are rarely as dreamy as they appear. The sobering reality is that most of them come saddled with a series of menial, often tedious tasks that are rarely relayed on an Instagram feed. You know, like actual work. Actors are up at 4 A.M. for grueling shoot days. Anthony Bourdain spends much of his life huddled with producers in non-air conditioned airport terminals, belaboring how to make small snippets of dialogue seem weighty. Frankly, dream jobs can be exhausting. Another case in point: craft distillers. They are frequently associated with glamorous escapades. And sure, they do oversee the production of a beautiful liquid that makes many people very happy. But there’s a daunting degree of unceremonious routine required to fill every bottle. So if you’re thinking of cashing it all in pursuit of your life goal as whiskey maker, consider what goes into each day on the job. Think this is some magical, carefree existence? Dream on.
It’s 6 A.M. at Stranahan’s Distillery, just south of downtown Denver, and Owen Martin is wide awake working the brewhouse. The sun has yet to rise, relegating the front range of snowcapped Rocky peaks outside the warehouse to the persistence of memory. The facility currently produces its brand of American single malt whiskey around the clock, five days a week. Martin’s on the morning shift, tasked with brewing a labor-intensive wash, which will go on to be distilled and matured in barrels before meeting the bottle, at least two years from this very morning.
As their name suggests, grain spirits like whiskey are built around cereal grains: corn, wheat, rye, or in the case of single malt, barley. So the first part of Owen’s day involves loading the malted barley into a large steel vessel (the mash tun) where it will be steeped in water, and prepped for fermentation. Unfortunately for Owen, his employer’s recipe also calls for the addition of specialty roasted malts, which must be dumped—one 50 pound bag at a time—into a mill, which will eventually feed it into the mash.
Martin then tends to a complex array of monitoring systems, insuring that the proper weight and blend of grain is steeping within a precise temperature range and for a precise amount of time before the resulting tea (or, wort) is ready to be moved, along with active yeast cells, into a series of lofty, conical fermenters. Most of the shift is spent waiting for sugars to slowly extract into their surrounding liquid. This isn’t downtime. Martin allocates it to cleaning lines with caustic solvents to avoid contamination. He’ll sweep out tanks with a long broom, loading spent grain onto a conveyor belt to an outdoor dump, where it’s carted out several times a day to feed local livestock.
But even as he’s doing other tasks, the whiskey-to-be requires meticulous observation. Martin has an extra set of eyes in Andrew Garcia, a distillery manager who makes sure the yeast, which actually does the dirty work of turning sugar into alcohol, is happy, healthy, and well-fed. Most of his day is dedicated to collecting measurements from the fermenters, and logging those readings into computers. If the alcohol content is too high or too low, for example it can significantly impact the output of spirit as it moves over to the stills. Garcia’s due diligence insures a steady flow between brewery and distillery. When irregularities arise—and they do—he needs to be able to quickly isolate their source.
Because yeast has a shelf life—it typically loses its effectiveness after four cycles of fermentation—Garcia must constantly collect samples from the fermenters and bring them into the lab for analysis. Under a microscope, he counts the active cells on a slide, logging them down in the parts per million. Abnormalities, even seemingly small ones, maybe ten parts per million, can translate into tens of gallons worth of alcohol lost. It’s up to Garcia to propagate new yeast, and to keep them happy by continually sterilizing all valves, vessels, and lines to minimize the risk of bacterial infection.
When everything’s up to snuff, fermentation, that is, what comes out of the brewing process before distillation, results in a finished beer (or wash) of around seven percent alcohol, which is ready to be passed along to Eric Quintero, the distiller on duty. It takes approximately 10 gallons of the wash to generate one gallon of distillate, in an elaborate process Quintero jokingly refers to as ‘glorified evaporation.’ He works near a couple of fifteen foot copper stills, which he heats up near the boiling point of water. Because alcohol boils at a lower temperature, it begins to vaporize and separate itself from the water, re-condensing as it cools at a higher proof. Quintero monitors what comes off the still, collecting a liquid that is around 40 percent alcohol, before it is run through a separate, smaller copper vessel which he transfers over to a holding tank when it works its way up to 70 percent. He then cuts that down with mountain water from nearby Eldorado Springs leaving the finished product at exactly 55 percent alcohol when its ready to fill 53 gallon American oak barrels.
Just another eight-hour shift at Stranahan’s. And yet, after all that work these three, tireless souls won’t get to enjoy the fruits of their labor for at least a couple more years. That’s the minimum age of the brand’s flagship Colorado Whiskey—all of which matures on-site here, within city limits. Its newest release, in fact, slumbers for four years before it’s transferred into Spanish sherry casks for an additional several months. If the liquid produced today is destined for that particular bottle, you won’t see it on shelves until midway through 2022.
Contrary to any romanticized conception, crafting quality spirits requires some decidedly unglamorous stuff. Any one day in the life of a distiller can likely include early mornings and long nights—and it takes thousands of days to produce an exceptional barrel of whiskey. Make no mistake, the folks making this stuff love what they do. But a labor of love, by definition, can’t possibly be a dream job if you don’t have time to sleep.