Learn what equipment should top your list - and how much you should expect to pay.
Example of a whiskey still.
The number of craft distilleries is booming in the US at a rate of 16 percent annually between 2007-2005. If you hope to join those numbers, it's important to know where to start - and how much to expect to pay. Between purchasing distillery equipment and supplies and navigating the myriad of legal paperwork, it can be a daunting task. Learn what it really takes to put it all together - and avoid landing back at square one.It all Starts with a Still
When planning to open a distillery, the equipment list begins with a still. Until the recent craft distilling boom, options were limited to large, expensive, towering copper vessels manufactured in Germany or the U.S., or, for smaller startups, self-designed and built DIY stills and distillation systems. However, over the past five years or so, demand for smaller and cheaper systems to supply the growing number of distilleries has resulted in an increase of U.S. - and China- made manufacturers of stills.
Gus Haik, founder of Cajun Spirits Distillery in New Orleans, decided to go with a traditional copper still from Arnold Holstein based in Germany. Holstein has been making stills for more than 50 years and emphasizes quality, technical support, and customer service in providing its products to clients. “Holstein has everything you need,” Haik says. “I trust them, and I’m totally comfortable with spending the money it costs. When problems come up, they spring into action. And when you buy that kind of quality product you know you can depend on it forever,” added Haik. Cajun Spirits invested approximately $400,000 in its still system, which includes the boiler and refrigeration unit.
While currently Cajun Spirits makes vodka, their still will enable them flexibility in the future to make rum and whiskey. In Thibodaux, Louisiana, Donner-Peltier Distillers makes vodka, gin, whiskey, and rum, and uses three different stills to keep up with production. The first is a 300-liter vodka still from German manufacturer Kothe. “We knew we’d make a number of different things,” master distiller Tom Donner says, “and this can configure also to distill rum or whiskey.” The second is a 750-gallon whiskey still made in Louisville, Kentucky by Vendome Copper and Brass Works, and the third is a small 50-gallon Kothe used still Donner was able to acquire from someone who’d defaulted on payments for it.Buy, Borrow and Barter for Parts
Donner reports that when pricing stills, especially on a larger basis, it’s important to know that the cost is influenced by more than the still itself. "In order to run a still you need all of the add-ons too. Boiler, mash tun, numerous fermenters, cooling system, pumps, tanks and installation. All of that will run you over a million dollars easy."
Another New Orleans distillery, Atelier Vie, didn’t have that kind of cash flow when Jedd Haas started the company in 2011. Back then, options were more limited for small distilleries. Haas says that due to budget and availability, he decided on a DIY approach to still making. His resources for parts were a combination of local providers, Amazon, the McMaster-Carr manufacturing equipment catalog, and used equipment from Craigslist and eBay. “Develop your eBay-foo,” Haas says, advising that in order to get exactly what you need, the proper terminology and combinations of terms is crucial.
When looking for used equipment online, keep in mind that equipment dealers in the beer, wine, and dairy industries will have much of what a distillery needs. For example, Allied Beverage Tanks out of Chicago, started out as a brewing equipment maker and has moved easily into manufacturing distilling equipment.
Of particular value is used pharmacology equipment, Haas says. Because the standards in the pharmaceutical industry require some equipment to be replaced after a certain amount of time per regulations, very high quality materials can be found barely used and for very cheap.
Celebration Distillation, makers of Old New Orleans Rum for 20 years, also has a still and distilling system built in house. According the head distiller Mike Kelly, the double pot still setup consists of modified, customized dairy containers - one is 1,800 gallons and the second is 1,200 gallons. They also have a tall, old fashioned column still, which was originally built in the 1930s in France for making perfumes and essential oils, and later used in the pharmaceutical industry.
In addition to a still, distillers also need a boiler and mash tun to create the fermented liquid which will eventually be processed through the still. Haik says, “Mash tuns can definitely be expensive, as well as the boiler to run it, the costs of installation and inspection, and the related equipment costs from chilling equipment, and bottling tanks for diluting the final product.” Donner-Peltier has a 60 horsepower Fulton boiler hooked up to two stills and a mash tun. The boiler cost $58,000 and it cost $35,000 to install.
Fermenters and tanks are also important for holding liquid either before or after the distillation process. Donner-Peltier has 10 fermenters of various sizes from 750 to 3,000 gallons. Cajun Spirits’ Haik warns that if the seller doesn’t include the calibration certification of the tank’s volumetric indicator, it takes considerable time and expense to get them certified after the sale.
Other important equipment includes having high quality industrial and portable pumps. According to Haik, spending a little more money at the start will be worth it because it’s used all the time. Donner agrees. “We tore up 4-5 pumps before biting the bullet and investing in a high quality pump. You can’t be cheap with pumps. If you lose your pumps, you’re out of business until you get a new one, and that usually doesn’t happen within a day.” Kelly notes that having a food grade air pump is indispensable - “they need to take a beating.” Celebration Distillation orders pumps commonly used in the oil and gas industry from Ingersoll Rand.
Another thing to consider is how to treat the municipal water where all the distilling begins. Public water can vary wildly in mineral and chemical composition, so using a charcoal filter, UV sterilizer, and/or a reverse osmosis unit can be useful in creating a consistent product. On that note, it’s important to coordinate with any municipal government regarding water pressure and water drainage in order for both sides to get what they need.
All four distillers advise keeping an eye towards growth with every decision made, even if it’s far off on the horizon. Haas notes that as a distiller, every day you’re striving to improve your system.
Kelly advises to not fear creative solutions, and if you have a solid grasp of the mechanics, you will be able to develop the systems best for your needs. He cautions, “every time you ramp up, everything changes, and a whole new reality comes into play with all new challenges.”
Haik adds, “don’t get too far ahead of yourself, because there are going to be delays. It can take 7-8 months to get your still from the time you order it. But it’s good to make sure that once you’ve got the equipment, you’re ready to go.”
Donner says, “You don’t know until you open. We discovered that we had nowhere near the floor space we needed once we started distilling. Haas adds, “different parts are difficult to plan for, but you figure it out pretty quick. You have to.”
Depending on if you’re handy enough to put your own system together, or prefer the experience, products, and shine of established still and tank manufacturers, start up costs can vary wildly. Always have enough for contingencies, be they equipment or environment related, and always, always, have a reliable pump nearby to clean up the inevitable mess.
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