At Long Island Spirits, Distillation is an Artful Science

“Kelsey, do you want something to drink?”

Music to my ears as I walk around the sunny tasting room of Long Island Spirits. The lovely tasting room manager, Carolyn, is giving me a tour of the facilities on a beautiful Sunday morning. The production space is all gleaming fermenters and neatly stacked whisky barrels.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, LI Spirits is the first craft liquor producer on Long Island founded and currently owned by Richard Stabile, an electrical engineer turned craft distiller. When asked how he made the switch to the craft beverage world, he spoke of traveling constantly for work all over the world as the spark that lit the passion. Rich could spend time appreciating wineries and distilleries—single malt whisky in Japan, brandies in France, breweries in Germany, and bourbon in Kentucky to name a few. At the time, “craft spirits weren’t really a thing,” he says. He was able to tour facilities and call on those he met during his travels as resources. After taking a class at Cornell to learn the hands-on basics of the distillation process, LI Spirits was born.

One of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle for Rich when opening the business was in the complex method of distillation. The distillation process is considered both an art and a science. Getting a consistent product and ensuring top-notch quality is often not as easy as boiling it down to chemistry (pun intended). The working definition we use for distillation is the process using heat to separate and concentrate ethanol (alcohol) from water and other components from a fermented grain, fruit, or vegetable mash. Basically, we’ll boil a mess of a mixture after fermentation to get to the good stuff—alcohol.

Let’s start from the beginning. First, we combine the starting product of our liquor—for example, barley, corn, potato, rye, etc. with yeast. The yeast gets to work breaking the carbohydrates down into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Once we have the fermented mash, it’s time for the distillation. The basic underlying theory of the process is that we can take advantage of characteristics in the mixture like boiling point to separate what we want from what we don’t want. Specifically, we can separate volatile substances (with a low boiling point) from those substances that have a higher boiling point.

The simple set-up is this: A boiling vessel with some type of reflux column attached. When you boil the filtered mash, the more volatile components in the mixture, like alcohol, will boil and transition to vapor. This is where the rather technical-sounding reflux column comes in. As certain parts of the mixture begin to boil and become vapor, they move up the column. When the vapor gets farther away from the heat, it changes back to liquid and falls back down the column. I bet you can guess what happens now. As the once-vapor-now-liquid droplets fall down the column and get closer to the heat, the most volatile parts of that liquid droplet (it is still a mixture) turns back into vapor and moves up the column. This leaves us with a gradient of the most volatile substances at the top and the least volatile substances at the bottom of the apparatus. It’s the more volatile components that we’re interested in collecting—think alcohol versus water.

The goal is to collect the alcohol and get rid of excess water and other harmful substances like acids. After going through the process once, the collected mixture goes through again fur further purification. This is repeated as desired by the distiller. The more times you distill the liquid, the smoother it gets in terms of drinking quality, but the more it loses its inherent flavor of the mash. LI Spirits performs triple distillation on its vodka and double distillation on its whisky and brandy liquors.

The art of distillation comes in when the operator must make decisions on which parts of mixture to keep during the process. This is called “heads and tails” management. Remember the gradient from the distillation process? Well as the mixture is condensing and you collect it, you generally want the sweet spot in the middle of that. There are rather foul things such as sulfur compounds and potentially harmful substances that you need to remove from the mixture. The cuts that you make during the run are called heart cuts—you’re cutting into the gradient at the heart to get the good stuff.

Each distiller has a different way of monitoring, but you can use a few tools to judge when the mixture is okay to start collecting. The most popular way on a small scale is to use a hydrometer. This small tool gives a reading of density which can give a measure of alcohol percentage. A higher alcohol percentage means you’re at the head of the run with the most volatile components, and vice versa for a lower alcohol percentage. The readings are important, but an experienced distiller also knows what they’re looking for in terms of the physical characteristics of the mixture. When I asked Rich what type of method they use to make their heart cuts, he said “We monitor using sensory (smell & taste) as well as the hydrometer which determines the proof…Of course the person doing it is critical to the determinations.” He also noted that the LI Spirit protocol is that they “go deep into the cuts before changing over.” “The craft is making the decision,” he added. This allows them to have a very smooth tasting product while also maintaining more characteristic flavor of the mash because further distillation is not necessary to get rid of harsh notes.

LI Spirits is uniquely placed in the booming craft spirits market partly because of the location. Long Island’s abundant and varied agriculture has allowed Rich and his team to create premium products and innovate with other producers in the area. Business is booming, and Richard is traveling more than ever selling LI Spirits products in over 35 states. They’ve added 4 new fermenters recently and a barrel house to store the whisky during aging. His goal is to continue this growth, but in a smart way. They are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, and Rich made it clear that he never wants to be one thing: “An industrial producer of alcohol.”