When size does not matter

Henk Stuurman is starting up a micro distillery. It may well be Holland’s smallest distillery. But that is not what matters. What matters is that Henk is pursuing quality, not quantity. Who is Henk Stuurman? And what are his goals? What does he want to obtain with “Artisan Distillery Nes”? Let’s find out!

First, let me be so bald to give a first introduction. Why? Because I know Henk for a few years now. Does that make me the right person for a first introduction? Maybe not, but I will give you my impressions anyhow!

Henk is about my age and full of energy. How I know? Because we manage the Dutch homedistiller forum together. And that’s how I got to know Henk. He started the Dutch forum, I started investigating our beautiful art and found my way to the Dutch forum. That’s how we got to know each other. And since we are in contact for a few years now, we decided it was about time we met and talked. The interview below is a resume of what we talked about. And a resume only, because when distillers meet, there seems to be an instant bond and friendship.

In short: we talked about many things, but in this post I will limit myself to Henk’s plans to start up Distillery Nes. Well, I will try to limit myself to that.

Okay, here we go. Just imagine the scenery. Henk and Odin meeting in Amsterdam. In a restaurant on the water front. Henk traveled all the way from the small northern island of Ameland, where he lives. By boat over the Waddenzee  and then by car through the province of Friesland, over the longest dyke we have (Afsluitdijk) and the province of Northern Holland. I just took the train.

First impressions when Henk stepped in: “Hey, this is the older/bigger brother of Captain Jack Sparrow!” More mature, less uptight & dramatic. Even though Henk was born and raised in central Amsterdam, I can’t imagine him living anywhere but on the island of Ameland. Pirate blood running through his veins? Just by the look of him, I am sure there is. Pirate blood and salty sea water mixed with rum. It almost surprised me he didn’t wear a dagger!

So he came in, we ordered some food, we exchanged formalities (but not too many), and I asked:

Odin: “Henk, how did you ever get into distilling?”

Henk: “My former father in law gave me a book a long time ago. A book with a video. “Distilled Images”. He gave it to me, because I had been brewing beer for years. It must have been somewhere around 1998. It was only after reading the book and watching the video, that I realized homedistilling is even possible. Now imagine, internet wasn’t around yet, and it was very difficult to find information on distilling, but I managed to build me some distillers. And I even taught myself how to distill. Luckily a lot has changed since then. Nowadays a lot of distilling equipment can be bought and information on distilling can be found easily. Still, my wish would be that we would be able to change Dutch legislation in such a way that, just as with wine and beer making, it would be legal to distill your own drinks.”

Odin: “When did you decide to start up your own distillery?”

Henk: “Some 5 years ago, I moved from an apartment in Amsterdam (the “Jordaan” to be more specific) to the island of Ameland. Here, I could both start working as an independent construction consultant and focus on getting my artisan distillery up and running. Because I mostly work at home, I saw the opportunity to combine my profession with my hobby of distilling. As I work at home on construction projects, I can fire up my stills and distill at the same time. By the time my wife was expecting our fourth child, we decided to move my office to the barn and build a micro distillery there at the same time.”

Odin: “Artisan Distillery Nes is now about to be launched. What were the greatest challenges during start-up? What were the biggest problems you encountered?”

Henk: “Well, one might expect the government to be the biggest challenge, but that wasn’t the case. Permits are normally a crime to get, but the island of Ameland decided to rule the size of my boilers as “hobby scale”, and made an exception. The biggest challenge was that I live on an island and not all materials for still building were available. I had to travel to the mainland often, just to find the right materials and parts. And sometimes I had to order things and that meant I had to wait for weeks before I could resume building. Another thing I underestimated, was my family situation. Working, raising four kids, being married … and starting up a microdistillery at the same time … Sometimes something had to give. I remember having to replace the kitchen one year. Now, that didn’t speed up the process of building my stills. And by the time the kitchen was done, we faced a very long and cold winter where working on the stills was hardly possible. It was just too cold to work in the barn. No distilling equipment up and running to keep me warm.”

Odin: “How was it, having to deal with the taxation office and customs department?”

Henk: “They were actually very cooperative! For sure, what you read on the internet scares you. Especially what I found on moonshining in the USA. But over here, in The Netherlands, both the taxation office and the customs department were very eager to help out. They actually seemed to like the idea of such a small distillery initiative!”

Odin: “What kind of drinks do you plan to start making, Henk?”

Henk: “Maybe not the “usual suspects”. I am aiming to make drinks that stand out from the crowd. With “artisan” at the heart of whatever I will make. In Holland most distilleries focus on Genever (Dutch Gin) and whiskey. That won’t be the road I am taking. I will start with a barrel aged rum, a spiced rum and a cranberry rum. After that, I will start producing a Genever. Not an old styler, but a young style Genever. Why? Because I want to show that this variety is underestimated. There is nobility to be found in making young Genever and I intend to do just that. And after that a UJSSM style moonshine and an espresso liqueur. Maybe a rye whiskey later. If for nothing else, because the soil on the island of Ameland is not the most fertile. And that means rye is grown all over Ameland.

Odin: “How do you intend to market your products?”
Henk: “A am a small manufacturer and the market for my products will be small as well. But Ameland is a tourist hot spot, and many of those tourists love local products. To try, to buy, to take with them as souvenirs. So my marketing will be aimed at local liquor stores and restaurants.”
Odin: “What kind of distilling equipment do you have?”
Henk: “I have a 40 liter pot still, made out of an old heating boiler, with a 22 millimeter bridge and worm cooler in an old rain water barrel. Very artisan. The pot still will be used for stripping rums and UJSSM’s. For the production of young style Genever and espresso liqueur I need to be able to make a neutral. I have a LM/VM combo still with a primary boiler and a secundairy boiler, very much like Mike Nixon and you proposed it. The LM/VM combo sits on top of the secundairy boiler. This secundairy boiler is fed from the primary boiler. The column has a feed forward line from the top to the base of the second boiler to feed stronger and stronger ABV to the base of the LM/VM column. The packing of SS scrubbers will be replaced with the SPP that is now for sale in Holland too.”
Odin: “How does the LM/VM combo with positive feedback work?”
Henk: “It is too soon to tell. I read about the designs and built the still, but so far, I haven’t been able to test it. The idea behind the design is that strong alcoholic vapour is redirected from the top of the column to the bottom to enrich and augment ABV. But I feel that active reflux will always be needed, so only part of the gasses at the top are fed into the feed forward line. Another portion is returned as reflux. I think it is a matter of starting to play with the set up, to find out just how much reflux and how much feedback is needed for an optimal run. And for sure I will let you know, once I have got her all dialed in.”
Odin: “Now that you are going pro, does this mean you will stop working as a construction consultant?”
Henk: “That would be fun. Like a dream come true. But I don’t think it would be a realistic goal. With my relatively small set up, I just can’t produce enough to make a living. Just imagine what kind of taxes a distiller has to pay, and how much ageing and bottling cost … On the other hand … I like my job. Then again, who knows, in the future it may be the other way around? And I make most of my money on distilling?”
Odin: “Henk, any advice you can give to others who are in the process of (thinking of) starting up a micro distillery?
Henk: “Yes! Do not underestimate the time it takes to build your stills. To get the permits. Especially when you want to do everything yourself, without loans. For sure lending money and buying equipment will go a lot faster, but financial risks are also much bigger that way. With  my approach, financial risk is at a minimum. And in the end I may end up making some money with what is still basically my biggest hobby. Now, how can live get any better than that?”
I tried, as accurately as possible, to translate Henk’s answers to my questions. Any faults are mine and mine only. I don’t seem to be able to get the paragraphs aligned well. Sorry for that.
Picture below: close up on Henk’s dual boiler LM/VM combo
Henk

7 thoughts on “When size does not matter

  1. Henk is correct. He does need that reflux.In fact he will find that as he starts to remove product he will be unable to feed high abv to the bottom of the column any more as it will be needed for reflux to maintain stability. My prediction is that after testing he will revert to one boiler and have a standard LM/VM combo system.Mike Nixon’s positive feedback idea sounds great ih theory,but in practice it cannot be implemented without adversely affecting the counter current flow of vapour and liquid so essential to maintain thermodynamic equilibrium and stability.
    Cheers,
    Jungle Jim

    • Hi Jim,

      Thanks for joining and thank you for sharing your opinion! I read Mike’s paper on VRS with great interest. It got my mind running on higher octane. And then I gave it some thought and I came up with a slightly different approacht to VRS.

      Instead of a seperate boiler, my suggestion was to add a boiling ball (bubble cap or perf plate) on top of the primary boiler. On top of that the column would sit. The column would have both an LM and VM opening. The LM could, after heads removal, be used as the feedforward system, where the positive feedback would be fed into the bubble ball, just under liquid levels … What would you think of that approach?

  2. The problem is that the reflux is needed at the TOP of the column.As soon as you start reducing the quantity of reflux fed back to the TOP of the column by removing product or as we are trying to do, reinsert it somewhere else, the thermodynamic equilibrium is affected and the temperature gradient starts moving up the column…..we all know we can only remove so much product before things start going crazy, why contribute to the problem
    ?…Riku and his boys are trying out your bubble cap idea.Meanwhile I will just sit and wait until all the testing has been carried out and the columns returned to normal……….

    • On reflection I did not address your question. I think the bubble cap on top of the boiler is a bloody good idea! BUT feed it with reflux from the packed column. The actual HETP of the first stage in the packed column could well be upwards of 300 to 400mm and replacing this with a bubble plate and leaving the packed column with a bit more to play with…

      • I think it is a good idea too. That’s why I designed it that way, Jim. What I am looking for is where I can find Riku testing “my” set-up! Thanks for the great book on New Zealand Homedistilling, by the way! Great read up!

  3. So Riku is trying out my ideas, right? That’s okay, since I posted them on a forum, but what I would really like was … if I would know about it. Do you know where I can find his posts? I would love to chime in and see if the non plus ultra turbo design works as I intended it to do!

    Odin.

  4. It is on his ARC site where you have to have bought his book to join the forum.I had a look to see if I could find it but not a current topic. I’ll send you a url when I find it.

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