So my son is getting married and and our youngest daughter is baking the wedding cake. I am tremendously proud of him, taking that step towards commitment, and of her, taking on the responsibility of baking that cake. The try-out baking session of the cake, that she did last week, showed that she could do it. The cake looked great, was perfectly baked, and tasted deliciously. And that got me thinking on how she learned that skill, what tooling and mindset she needed to become successful at baking cakes at such a young age. Guess what? There are a lot of similarities with distilling!
To be able to bake a cake you need an oven. The oven is installed in a kitchen. The kitchen that is installed in your house, probably. Years ago, someone came by and build the kitchen and installed the oven. He knew how to build kitchens and he knew how to install ovens.
My wife was the first one to use the oven. It was quite modern and not exactly like the gas-fired oven she was used to working with. The first thing she did, was read the manual. Following the instructions in that manual, she became quite good at using the oven quickly. The instructions helped, but what helped even more was that she had been cooking and baking for many, many years.
That bids the question: “Is the oven the tool or is it the experience that counts?” A weird question, you probably think, because the answer is obvious: the oven and the experience are both equally important.
Learning how to bake a cake
If you are new to cooking and baking, there is no experience-base to draw from. And however good the manual of the oven is, well, if you don’t understand an oven, simply because you never worked with an oven, it may feel daunting to use one for the first time.
So now imagine my youngest daughter wanting to learn how to bake cakes. Without experience in baking or oven-use. How would she go about this? How did she go about it?
Here is what she did: she took a baking class. At the baking class, she learned the basics. The basics of how to use an oven and how to bake a cake. With the added knowledge and experience, she started to bake her first cakes, replicating what she’d learned at baking class. Building-up experience, this soon proved to be less and less of a challenge. And as she became better and better at baking the teacher’s cakes, she took an huge step forward and decided she was going to try a new recipe!
The first thing she did, was buy a book with cake recipes. She choose a recipe to her liking, and started making that cake. The result? An okay cake. Not spectacular in looks or flavor, but okay. A pretty descent first attempt.
Now, if you know my daughter, you’ll understand that “pretty descent” is, in her dictionary, simply not good enough. How did she go about her business? How did she learn to make this new recipe to perfection?
The first thing she did, was sign up for an online forum on baking cakes. The second thing she did was make the same recipe again. Based on her (modest) experience and with some tips from fellow cake bakers, the second attempt came out looking and tasting good. The third attempt, again helped by forum members and her deepened experience and understanding, was perfect. She now shifted her attention to new recipes, different cooking books, and – finally – to writing and making her own recipes.
Learning how to distill
As I mentioned before, seeing my daughter become more and more professional at baking cakes, taught me a lot about how we learn to distill. In fact, it opened my eyes as to why some learn the craft faster than others. And why some seem to never learn anything ever at all.
The ingredients you need for baking successfully are pretty much mirrored by distilling. On a superficial level and on a deeper, existential level. Let’s start out with the obvious. A baker needs an oven and a basic understanding of that oven. He or she also needs a basic understanding of and experience with baking, a recipe, and ingredients.
Just like the distiller needs a still and a basic understanding of that still. He or she also needs a basic understanding of and experience with distilling, a recipe, and ingredients.
But that is not all. It isn’t just like this, that the baker follows the recipe and becomes successful. The recipe gives clues and advice but baking a cake is much more than following the recipe. The baker – and the distiller – need a standard operating procedure, based on his ever growing experience. Like placing the baking paper and flowering it with a certain technique, like buttering the cake-form, or working with a specific blender, and purchasing specific ingredients, that may or may not need additional work processes before they can be incorporated. It’s not the oven that bakes the cake, no, the baker bakes the cake! The oven is merely the tool (or even better: one of the tools) or instrument the baker uses. And so is the recipe.
Equally, the distiller needs to understand that a recipe is only the basis for the development of a spirit- and distillery-specific Standard Operating Procedure. Like what mill do you use to crack your grain? What size do you crack what grain? How (and how fast) do I add the grains to the mash water? Do I put the gin herbs in the boiler directly or do I bag ‘m first? How do I clean my still after a run? How and where do I discard the spent grains and herbs? What yeast do I use? At what temperature? Do I follow the instruction of – for example – one gram per liter, or do I deviate? And for what reason? To achieve what goal? It is not the still that makes your whiskey or gin, it is you, the distiller, that makes the spirit! The still is merely a tool that the distiller uses. And so is the recipe.
Looking into the kitchen
And there is more. The oven is situated in the kitchen. The kitchen must be well laid-out for the baker to be able to successfully make his or her cakes. The kitchen must be located in a house (or restaurant or bakery) that provides gas, electricity, ventilation, water, a draft-free, dry, and comfortable working environment.
Just like a still is situated in the still room, and that still room must be well laid-out for the distiller to be able to successfully produce his spirits. The still room is located in a distillery that provides gas, electricity, ventilation, water, and a draft-free, dry, and comfortable working environment.
A well laid-out kitchen or distillery helps with the production of better cakes and spirits, but it is important to understand two things here. First, the more experience you gain, the better you will be able to design the kitchen or distillery that you need. Secondly, it is not the kitchen that bakes the cakes. It is not the distillery that produces the spirits. The distillery or still room provide you with the equipment and environment for you to produce your spirits!
What made my daughter successful at baking
Was it the recipe? Was it the oven or kitchen? Was it her ever growing experience? Even though all of the above plays a role, there were basically three reasons why she became successful:
- Willingness to learn;
She was (and is) passionate about baking cakes. Without passion for baking cakes, why bother? Why put in all those hours? How to deal with all those times when you failed, when it isn’t from a perspective of passion?
But passion alone doesn’t cut it. Passion needs to translate into the willingness to learn. To make mistakes and dissect them and learn, in order to grow into a better baker. Or equally: a better distiller. You become better at doing something when you allow yourself to make mistakes. But mistakes are only good as long as you learn from them.
Ownership is the last critical element to success. If you make a mistake, own it. If something does not go well, own it. If somebody else made a mistake, own it by realizing your instructions should have been clearer. You need to own your distillery, your still room, your still, your recipe, your SOP and – especially! – your mistakes.
What makes a successful distiller
The same critical success factors that applied to my daughter, are relevant to distillers. The ones that get it, the ones that learn, the ones that become real craft distillers … are the ones that are passionate about spirits and distilling, that are willing to learn, and that own their operation.
“Operation” is the key word, here. “Operational competence” is all the space in between the recipe, the still, the ingredients, your distillery, and the spirits you produce. The sum of all experience, of your failures, the learning and turning points in your professional life. And here it comes: operational competence is the one and only thing that nobody can teach you.
People can advise you, others may consult you, some may correct or inform you, but you, as the person responsible for the spirits you make, are the only one who can own this “space in between”. Operational competence is like the stuff that glues it all together. It’s what makes your venture more than the sum of the parts.
Do you agree with me that, without passion, without the willingness to learn, without a complete sense of ownership over your operation, running a successful bakery or distillery is impossible? Do you agree with me, when I state that passion, willingness to learn, and ownership are not things that can be taught or trained? I strongly feel that these come from within. And I see time and again, that people that are passionate about distilling, that have the ability and willingness to learn, and that own and understand every aspect of their craft and business, including each and every fault anyone ever made, are the ones that progress, that have a steep learning curve, and that become successful.
The ones that fail, all too often show a different attitude. Yes, they may have visited all the courses. Yes, they may have had a famous consultant write them a recipe, Yes, they may have bought the best stills and hired the best master distiller money could buy. But if they themselves have no passion, no ability or wish to learn and understand … then it is that attitude that prevents them from learning, growing, and becoming successful.
Examples for growth and decline
When my daughter made that new cake for the first time, the result wasn’t perfect. I asked her if it were the oven. “No,” she said, “it didn’t give any alarms, so it must have worked fine.” So I asked if it was the recipe. She denied that the recipe was flawed. She had spoken to many other bakers on the forum and the recipe was fine. I asked about the kitchen, the electricity, the water, and the ingredients. But this is the answer she gave me: “In the end I just needed to learn how to bake this specific cake. It is okay now. I made one or two mistakes, that I now know how to do differently. No worries. I can make this recipe over and over again, now!”
Passion, the willingness to learn, and ownership over the process as well as the mistakes she made, created operational competence. And over time this operational competence transformed into operational excellence. As in: she just looks at a new cake, maybe reads the recipe once, and then makes it to perfection. She doesn’t even have to consult the oven manual anymore. She grew her hobby, her experience, her talents. As she got rewarded by success, she grew as a person. Isn’t that an amazing recipe for growth?
Now for a recipe for decline, let’s take an imaginary distiller. He buys a top-of-the-line still. He hires a consultant to write his recipes. He buys in the best (or at least most expensive) grains and yeast and barrels. His spirits, though, suck.
Because it is a business (and not a passion), his distillery needs to make money asap. He didn’t allow himself time to learn and grow. He needed to hit the market running! Best still plus best recipe consultant plus best grains, yeast, and barrels equals spirit quality equals commercial success, right? Wrong.
Too often the above approach lacks in passion, does not create the time or culture to learn from mistakes, and when something goes wrong there is a lack of ownership and understanding, that makes the owner lash out at the everyone else: the still, the recipe, the grains, the yeast, the economy, or the barrels. And probably a combination of the above. Too often, the lack of passion, learning, and owning are compensated by a feeling of entitlement that blinds the distillery owner for his own mistakes.
Imagine that my son asked our youngest daughter to bake their wedding cake, knowing that she had never baked before, that she didn’t particularly like it, and that she was interested in anything but wedding cakes. Do you think the wedding cake project would have become a success? Do you think that it would have become a success if my son had offered her a lot of money to do it anyhow?
Even though we all know the answer to both questions is negative, why – upon entering the craft distilling industry – do so many people forget that it isn’t about the oven, the recipe or the ingredients? The oven, the recipe, and the ingredients only help the baker with the right attitude. Success favors those that are doing what they love to do. Success favors those that are willing to sacrifice many, many hours, making many, many mistakes. Success favors those that own their business, and every detail of it.
Success is a result of your operational excellence, and the oven, recipe, and ingredients (for the baker) or still, distillery, and grains (for the distiller) are just the tools that you work with. Better tools or recipes matter only to better bakers and better distillers. Put differently: those that do not aim to improve their craft cannot be saved by any tool or recipe.
How we help
Phew! This Sunday Musing shit is hard work! One thought led to another. My daughter’s baking adventures led me to think about how her learning applies to craft distillers, especially new market entries. And now, a logical and inescapable follow-up question springs to mind: “Having learned all this, how does iStill translate this into making the craft distilling industry better and stronger?” Let’s look at what we offer and analyse what’s missing or what we should do or explain better.
First and foremost, we build ovens. Well, stills, actually, but you get what I mean. Tools to help you bake that imaginary cake, stills that help you produce amazing spirits. We do not sell you the kitchen, nor the house or restaurant or bakery that the oven is placed in. In other words: our stills (or better: your iStill) need water and electricity and space. They don’t come with it, so you’ll have to provide it. Or do you think that baking cakes in an oven outside, in the pouring rain is a good idea? Or that running a wood oven in-house without a chimney is?
Secondly, we have an amazing educational facility for you to take part in. The iStill Distilling University is considered the best training program in the distilling industry by both iStill customers and other distillers. We teach you about the still, the grains, the yeast, the barrels, and more. But we cannot fill the empty space in between, where you develop your operational competence. Mind you: we have an iStill Mini for you to train with, but you need to put in the hours, the miles, the mistakes, the runs. You, not us. And the iMini is just that: a mini still. How about cracking your grains, transporting them into the still, cleaning afterwards, bottling, labelling, corking, selling, book-keeping, mashing, fermenting, improving, etcetera? Operational excellence is needed everywhere and it is your biggest task, challenge, and responsibility to develop it.
We provide you with a recipe, if you purchase iStill recipe development. But a recipe is not a Standard Operating Procedure. You are responsible for your own SOP. And, yes, you can use the iStill University Facebook Group to help you out there. To get other people’s advise. Most recipes have been made before. Most mistakes too. But participating and giving back – next to taking advise offered by others – is a responsibility that lays with you.
It is our passion, our willingness to learn, and the fact that we own topics like still design, recipe development, spirits production, as well as all the associated mistakes we make, that has made iStill into the industry leading technology powerhouse that it is. But the above has also taught me that there is a limit to what we can do for you. As there is a minimum to what you, as a (future) craft distiller need to do.
We’ll design and manufacture the best metaphorical ovens in the world. We can help create amazing recipes. We provide a community of “bakers” that are willing to share and help. We teach you the fundamentals of cake baking at the iStill University. But if your first recipe, your first cake does not come out of the oven as good as it could be, see it as a challenge that you own and as a situation from which you can learn and grow. Only call the oven manufacturer if there is an alarm triggered. Only criticize the recipe after you did your due diligence and achieved operational excellence.
Here is what we don’t do and cannot do. And – with all the support we give you – this is where we should have done a better job at explaining our abilities and inabilities to help. You need to be passionate, willing to learn, and have a sense of complete ownership over your distillery and the spirit production processes involved. You need to develop your own operational excellence. Not because we do not want to help you, but simply because on these topics we cannot help you. The only person that can help you is yourself. You, who wants to become a craft distiller.
At your service …