Sustainable Brooklyn distillery whets America's appetite for high-proof and superior taste.
Note to readers: This Q&A is part of a series of peer interviews from The Equipped Brewer. Installments will share the key experiences, lessons learned, and advice of owners, operators, and other key contacts at young craft beverage companies as they’ve tackled the challenges of growth.
Industry City Distillery started off like many small craft distilleries—with no space, no equipment, and no distilling experience to speak of.
The small company “started out as people who had very little idea what [we] were doing, but [wanted to build] a sustainable urban distillery,” said Zac Bruner, a machinist and one of Industry City Distillery’s original founders.
Today, Industry City Distillery is successfully up and running in Industry City, an industrial complex on the East River in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where they are producing their flagship Industry Standard Vodka and the new, 191.2 proof Technical Reserve neutral spirit, by way of their very own handcrafted facility and recipe, from the sugar used (beet) to the eight-foot stills.
But according to Bruner, the challenges of building a distillery in an urban landscape were many. Among them, the lack of space, sugar source, and running water were initial hurdles—but with skilled handiwork, a few years of amateur chemistry research, and the juggling of many hats, Industry City Distillery came into fruition.
The nearly six-year-old distillery, founded in 2011, built their business from scratch, from a company standpoint as well as by constructing an entirely bespoke distilling system, complete with a custom-made fermenter and two stills. Bruner and his partner, Dave Kyrejko also founded a unique way of making vodka that fit both their physical limitations and their sustainability-minded desires, utilizing beet sugar to make their flagship Industry Standard Vodka.
With their profit made primarily on wholesale of Industry Standard, Industry City Distillery is currently helmed by Bruner, who heads up production and operations; Ronak Parikh, who handles sales; and Kyrejko, who has “moved into more of a consulting role” as he grows a separate business, Arcane Distilling, Bruner said.
Coming soon in 2017, Industry City Distillery will also be sharing its taproom with two new beer companies, Wartega and Lineup Brewing, which share a small space at the Industry City Distillery address. But regardless of leadership structure or other brands, Industry City Distillery is focused on one thing: Making New York City’s only vodka.
Q: How did Industry City Distillery get its start?
Dave and I met before college, at a summer camp. [Years later], Dave was looking around for a business somewhere in the field of sustainability—although he would never put it that way—to combine the creative use of technology, awareness of resource utilizations, and something [that] could bring people together.
He had been building self-sustaining fish tanks and while trying to create CO2 for those, he ended up with a waste product of ethanol, and realized he could do something with that. He wanted to buy a building, put a greenhouse on the roof, feed the fish with spent grain, [and] make booze with the ethanol...It ended up being more ambitious than we could get to.
Q: How did that original ideal of a completely closed-loop structure carry into your current business model?
In a very simplified way. We wanted to find a way of making alcohol in an urban setting that made sense from a financial standpoint and a resources used standpoint.
Q: Why did you need to ‘find a way’? What’s different about distilling in a city versus in a rural area?
Craft distilling was predicated on the idea that you have running water, fields [of barley, corn or other grain], and animals to dispose of that spent grain and have [fresh] grain nearby as a source of fuel. In Brooklyn, we have none of those.
Space is at a premium, energy costs three times more than the national average, [and] water is pumped in from reservoirs upstate. Spent grain is categorized as a hazardous waste product, so disposal costs as much as it does to buy the grain. So, those things start to make a little less sense when you try to do [this] in the city.
Q: How did you make sense of it? In what ways is ICD more sustainable than a traditional distillery?
[We use] one quarter of the water, one half of the power, and less space. Distilling in the U.S. developed in rural settings because that was all there was at that time; it was a way for farmers to take a bulk commodity and make something more durable and easy to transport, that would last for years, and get better along the way. The basic still design and fermentation processes haven’t changed for hundreds of years. Someone who was making spirits at the turn of the century was basically using same equipment [as distilleries today].
We wanted to make vodka but didn’t have 30 foot ceilings.
Q: How were you able to build your own equipment?
We looked at how other industries were dealing with microorganisms, fermentation, [and] separating chemicals, [and found] that there are other still designs that work really well. We put all of those together with a healthy serving of ingenuity, a strange interest in design, and deep geekery about things like thermal transfer.
I started off as chief machinist and fabricator, building out both the space and the distillery equipment.
Q: If not in distilling, what is your background?
My background is in set design. My dad had a machine shop when I was growing up, and that was something I kept doing on the side in high school and college. After college [at Wesleyan in Connecticut], I went on to do architectural ironwork and custom fabrication.
Q: What is Dave’s background?
Dave went to Cooper Union for art and audited some science classes, and mostly got into [chemistry and fermentation] as a very dedicated amateur scientist. He picked things up from time working in the distillery, with probably a year and a half of research beforehand.
Q: How did your skills in designing sets transfer to designing a distillery?
There’s a good bit of overlap between set design and creating both work spaces and public spaces. Doing the design and buildout of the distillery fit surprisingly well [with those skills]—except in theater, the set only has to look good from 10 or 20 feet away—with [the distillery and taproom], it has to work well, you have to be able to interact with it, and it has to look good.
Q: Tell me more about the equipment you built for Industry City Distillery.
We have two stills. One is a steam-powered stripping still—it has no boiler and feeds about 10 gallons an hour of raw 14 percent alcohol from our fermentation system. It separates the alcohol from the water for ‘high wines’ that are 70 percent alcohol, or 140 proof. It’s a three-and-a-half inch column that’s six feet tall—the design comes from more industrial uses, but works very efficiently [for distilling vodka].
The second is a fractional still, a batch fractional reflux still, named Junior. It has a 50 gallon capacity, and is a six inch column that’s eight feet high.
Both are covered in insulation. You may have noticed that most distillers have beautiful copper stills—but copper is a great conductor of heat, and the problem with that is, we’re trying to create a vessel in which we’re doing work with heat. So [the traditional copper still] is a great space heater but not a particularly efficient still.
Q: With your unique equipment, is the vodka making process any different?
[Having] a packed column versus a plated column means we can take out compounds that don’t taste good. Instead of calling our cuts on the fly, we collect them into sequential gallon jugs. That lets us edit our vodka in post, to use a film analogy—we can actually let everything get collected and say, ‘this bottle is good, this bottle is not.’
[For example, we learned that] right smack in the middle of the run, [the vodka] tastes terrible—it’s the essence of cheap vodka, where it starts burning in your mouth and burns all the way down. We take that out each time. We don’t filter or use charcoal, we can actually remove the chemicals rather than trying to remove the smell, because we know they’re in bottle 15.
Q: What are you producing now and what can you serve on-site?
The Industry Standard Vodka production is around 200 cases per month.
Technical Reserve is a high proof neutral spirit made from New York State grain. The production of that is fairly low, something like 30 cases per month. We can sell cocktails with Technical Reserve [on premise] since it’s made with New York State grain [and ICD has a farm distillery license]. Industry Standard is distilled from [beet] sugar, and we can’t confirm that all of it comes from New York State, [so it can’t be served on site].”
Q: What were some of the initial challenges of producing and selling Industry Standard Vodka?
We’re a small company, so it’s a lot of jugging of hats. The first three years or so were a whirlwind of trying to juggle [research and development] with production and making enough vodka to sell. We managed to do enough to stay afloat.
We had our vodka on market, and were getting projections and requests for vastly greater increase in production…[And] those demands were for ten times more than we were making. There was a disconnect [between] the production side and the marketing side. [Eventually] we realized we had to focus on one thing: Making and selling vodka.
Now, my role has shifted to supervising the production of vodka; Dave is moving into more of a consulting role [as he grows his own brand]; and Ronak handles sales and business.
Q: With several changes to the company structure since ICD was founded in 2011, what have you learned from a Human Resources standpoint?
One of the things we came to realize over the first four years was that you’ve got to be very sure people can deliver on their promises. Good intentions aren’t everything. People you hire are not going to bring the same dedication [to the company] as the founders, so you can’t base projections for growth on the effort and initiative that the founders put in.
If your operations are predicated on 10 hours a day, six days a week, while that’s reasonable for founders, it’s not for employees. That was something that took us a while to figure out.
Q: What about from a legal standpoint?
Be very careful about who you give equity to, and do your investing based on performance milestones and benchmarks rather than time.
Q: Any other advice for first-time distillers or startup beverage companies?
Try to maintain some kind of work life balance, because burnout is a very real thing. In retrospect—and lots of studies show this—working above 60 hours a week gets you diminishing returns and burnout, which we have confirmed [to be true].
Employees help, but make sure they are people you can trust. And as one of our advisors said, ‘hire people who let you sleep better at night, don’t hire people that keep you up.’
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