Alcohol – now a commodity item

This week I had the distinct pleasure of touring the North West Bio Energy ethanol plant in Unity, Saskatchewan.

The raw material used is wheat and the wheat is ground in a disc mill to a fineness not too far different from what any craft distiller would use. But, that was where the similarities ended. The plant employs 4 mash / fermentation vessels that are each about 400,000 Liters in volume (yes you read that number correctly !!). The yeast used is a specially cultured strain of S. Cerevisiae similar in many ways to what craft distillers use, except this stuff spins off daughter cells faster than normal which means a 36 hour ferment will consume all available fermentable sugars in the mash tank. The contents of a completed mash are transferred to a beer well holding tank which feeds the distillation process. The distilling is accomplished by way of 8 columns and the net result is 96% ethanol. In fact, some 75,000 Liters a day of ethanol. The vast majority of this product gets sent to gas refineries. The next time you pull up at the pump and the label on the pump says this gasoline may contain up to 10% ethanol, now you know where the ethanol comes from. To produce fuel grade ethanol, the 96% stuff is passed through a molecular sieve to remove water and make it 99% ethanol. More and more, North West Bio Energy is sending 96% ethanol to custom blending and bottling plants in the USA where it is proofed to 40% and bottled under the guise of “craft distilled” Vodka. There is one plant in the USA that is doing work similar to the one in Unity and it is owned by MGP Products in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. You like Tito’s Vodka? Well, it is just 96% ethanol from Indiana. You like Ketel One? Yep – Lawrenceburg, Indiana. In Canada, you like Banff Ice Vodka? Yep – Unity, Saskatchewan. You like Highwood Rye Whisky? – which Highwood proudly says is based on Wheat distillate with Rye blended in. Yep – Unity, Saskatchewan.

We have now crossed the rubicon as it were, the point of no return. Alcohol is now a commodity and the spoils of victory will go to he who can make it cheapest. Want to be a craft distiller? Go ahead…bust your ass grinding grain and cooking mash. Some guy down the street is going to start making Vodka using the distillate from Unity, Saskatchewan. While you are too busy to get out and sell your product because you are enslaved to a mash tank, the guy down the road who is using Unity’s distillate will have plenty of time to get out and sell his product. In this commoditized game, he wins, you lose.

For the past several years, I have taken a hard stance against craft people who use NGS. But, even crusty old stalwarts like me can soften up. Thanks to this week’s tour of Unity, Saskatchewan I have now come to accept the commoditization of alcoholic spirits. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I now accept it.

Each month I hear the same mis-guided enthusiasm from people in our Distillery workshops. They say ” yep – gotta make Whisky, Gin and Vodka!!”. My message to them is now going to be made more clear. Whisky, Gin and Vodka are commodities. If you want to be a craft distiller, you need to make variations of these products that are not currently and may never be commoditized. And that is fodder for a future blog post…

Barley – 2 Row and 6 Row

Brewers and distillers will find themselves most likely using 2-Row malted Barley in their beer or spirits making efforts. But there is another type of barley called 6-Row and it is still available to use, although it is sometimes difficult to source.The question that then arises is, what is the difference between 2-Row and 6-Row barley? The answer can be found by learning about the plant physiology of barley. As the barley plant begins to sprout and emerge from the soil, it starts to develop a stalk from which leaves form. This formation then leads to the ear structure forming. The central component in the ear is the rachis. Along the shaft of the rachis are nodes. From each nodal point, 3 spikelets emerge. The nodes behave such that if a grouping of 3 spikelets form on the right side of the rachis, then the next group of 3 will form on the left side. And so on, and so on. Generally the middle node is the fertile one and will produce a fruit (called a barleycorn). This means that at each grouping of 3 spikelets there will be one kernel of grain. Due to the alternating pattern of the spikelets, this will give a kernel on the left and right side of the rachis. This is a 2 row barley. If all 3 spikelets are fertile, then you will get clusters of 3 kernels on each side of the rachis. This is what is termed a 6 row barley. The following diagram taken from the Powerpoint slides I use when delivering Distilling Workshops illustrates the above concepts. If you can find some 6 row barley, give it a try in some beer or in a mash for spirits distillation. It has a slightly different taste profile than 2 row owing to slightly different lipids (fatty acids) in the outer layers of the kernel.

The American 3-Tier Alcohol System

Here in Canada, craft distillers are lucky in that in most jurisdictions you can hand-deliver a case of your product to pubs, bars and restaurants. Not so in America where the 3 Tier system dictates that the craft distiller must pass his product to a wholesaler who in turn places the product with retail end users.

Buy why? Where did this all come from? I recently stumbled upon a white paper that explained all that to me. In a nutshell – it goes like this.

In the 1930s, when it became apparent that President Roosevelt was intending to repeal Prohibition, one John D. Rockefeller moved swiftly. Rockefeller was a tee-totaller and very opposed to the evils of drink. He used a sum of his own money and hired two people to compile a report on how to control alcohol. The report was ultimately titled “Toward Liquor Control”. The two people whom he hired to write the study were Raymond Fosdick and Albert Scott. Together they traveled across the USA, across Canada and through Europe talking to Governments about alcohol.

Rockefeller then used his influence in Washington to make sure politicians read the report. What emerged from his efforts was the 3-Tier system of liquor distribution. Such is the Rockefeller influence.

Throughout the ensuing decades, this report has come under fire and the 3-Tier system has been challenged in law courts. The argument most often used in courts was the Commerce Clause in the US Constitution. However, in the case of alcohol, the social bias adopted by the judges on benches was one of – let’s not treat alcohol as a commodity that is freely and openly traded. The Commerce Clause was regarded as “dormant” in the case of alcohol. All of this came to a head in the 2005 case of Granholm v. Heald. The Supreme Court ruled that individual States cannot offer special treatment to craft wineries. This line of legal thought has now been extended to craft distilleries by the look of it. In other words – if it is good enough for ABC Craft Distilling then it also applies to Jack Daniels and Smirnoff and all the other big boys. This explains why some States are so reticent to ease up on arcane restrictions that are hobbling craft distillers. They can’t ease up and give special treatment to craft for fear of being off-side re: Granholm v. Heald.

Get set for more challenges though. The big commercial distillers are intent on getting their product into big box stores (Wal Mart, Costco etc..) without going through the 3-Tier wholesaler middleman. The big boys want distilled alcohol to trade like a commodity item, not like the socially abhorent demon drug that it is made out to be now.

You can be rest assured that right now some lobbyist is having dinner with some politician in Washington and the 3-Tier system is being discussed. I am not sure what will happen to craft distillers if the big boys can somehow sidestep around the 3-Tier system and get product into big box stores cheaper. The Wal Mart model for everything from floor cleaner to cans of tomato sauce says that when things trade like commodities usually the small maker of said products gets squeezed pretty hard.

Booze-Infused Ice Cream – update

Just a quick update to advise that I am now several iterations into this grand experiment. What I can now tell you is that there is a major textural difference once you start to ease away from coconut milk and move towards Coffee Creamer (18% milk fat) and Whipping Cream (35% milk fat). I am now using higher milk fat product in my ice creams (and no more coconut milk) and am quite enjoying the texture and flavor. You will never get the texture as good as a store bought ice-cream because…remember…you are adding booze which contains water. All too often we forget that a bottle of spirits is 40% alcohol and 60% water. The water content does make for some ice crystals in the ice cream.

Booze-Infused Ice Cream

Looking for a unique treat to see you through the rest of Summer? How about booze-infused ice cream?

Here is the procedure I followed recently to make my own.

In a small bowl, collect the yolks of 3 eggs. Add some sugar to this bowl. I used 3/4 of a cup, but you can reduce that if you wish. Mix/whisk the contents of this bowl together.

At my local grocery store, there was coconut milk in cans from Thailand. In the refrigerated section they also had larger containers of what they were calling Coconut Beverage – which to me looked like coconut milk, so that’s what a bought. Besides it was cheaper in price…

In a saucepan on the stove, add 2 cups of Coconut Milk/Coconut Beverage.

To the saucepan add 1 cup of Half & Half cream.

Add 1/2 tsp Vanilla

Toss in a wee pinch of salt.

Slowly heat the saucepan. As the liquid gets warmer, take a few Tablespoons of it and add it to the egg/sugar bowl. This is called “tempering” and serves to slowly raise the temperature of the yolk/sugar mix to prevent the yolk from cooking.

Slowly dribble the warmed, tempered yolk/sugar mix into the heating contents of the saucepan. All you are looking to do is bring the saucepan to a low simmer (not a boil). Stir frequently as the saucepan heats.

At the simmer point, turn off the heat and place the saucepan in the fridge to cool.

Once cooled, add 5 Tablespoons of your favorite booze. I used some coffee / maple syrup Moonshine I had sitting on my shelf. Stir well.

Now, place the saucepan in the freezer. Every 30-45 minutes, open the freezer and stir the contents of the saucepan. After a couple hours, you will notice that the liquid is starting to set and firm up.

After several more hours, it will indeed have set up and you have booze-infused ice cream. No fancy ice cream making machine. Just a bowl, a saucepan and a freezer. That’s all !

If you are looking for a creamier version, consider using more cream and less coconut milk.

Enjoy !!

Gluten Free Spirits – Are They Really Gluten Free?

The stuff that we call Gluten is actually 2 proteins – gliadin and glutelin. Gluten is the stuff that gives fresh baked bread its wonderful elasticity. But, Gluten can also attack the lining of the small intestine causing nausea-like symptoms in some people.

In theory, any distillate coming off a still should be gluten free because the gliadin and glutelin molecules are of such a size and of such a low vapor pressure that they should not be able to travel through the distillation columns in a distillery operation.

So why then do some gluten-sensitive people claim that certain Vodkas cause them to feel ill? This is a question that the scientific community is grappling with. In our 5-Day Distilling Workshops we have had a number of Celliac sufferers who have made themselves ill by sampling Vodkas – so I have seen this phenomenon in real time. Evidently, some small bits of gliadin or glutelin are managing to get through the distillation process by hitching a ride on the back of an ethanol molecule. But how? And why do only some Vodkas present a problem to Celliac sufferers?

Gluten content in distilled alcohol is measured by the ELISA Test ( Enzyme-Linked Immuno-Sorbent Assay). In this test, a sample of the solution (ie Vodka) to be tested is exposed to an enzyme which causes a color change in the solution being tested. The extent of the color change is proportional to the amount if gluten present. The problem is, this test is generally regarded by authorities ( ie Canada Food Inspection Agency) to be inaccurate. Hence, in Canada it is the duty of the alcohol maker to ensure his product does not pose a health risk to people. In other words, label your Vodka gluten free, but be sure to tell each and every purchaser that there still is a chance for them to have an adverse reaction if they are a Celliac sufferer. Apparently about 10% of Celliac sufferers will experience a reaction if they consume even tiny amounts of gluten. In the USA, the TTB states that in order to be gluten free, a spirit must have less than 20 ppm gluten. But, with the ELISA test being subject to inaccuracy, it is not possible for a distiller to know with certainty what his gluten levels are.

To this end, there is now something called the R5 competitive ELISA test being advanced as a more accurate way of determining gluten. Apparently the R5 test can detect down to 3 ppm gluten.

So, if you are a Celliac sufferer, and you are shopping around for craft distilled products and find some that are labelled gluten free, just remember, that claim of gluten free has not been ELISA test verified. You may experience an adverse reaction. Sample the spirit in small quantity. If you do not encounter symptoms, then that spirit is one for you. If you do feel poorly, then that spirit is not the one for you.