Odin’s Opinion (9): Legacy Still Manufacturers BS!

Introduction

What inspired me to write this post, is the horrific “advice” that many distillers get, when considering to purchase new equipment. Advice offered by still manufacturers and their consultants alike. Advice that sucks and that needs to stop. Advice I hear more and more about, over the last few months, as I speak to leads and potential customers myself. Advice that favors the equipment manufacturer and their “consultants”, and earns them money at your expense.

Maybe the Corona crisis has something to do with it? Are legacy still manufacturers so desperate that they need to resort to more aggressive approaches, in order to sell? I know the market for new still sales is hit by a 40% downturn, but screwing over your customers is not the way forward. And since it isn’t, here are six ways in which their advice screws you over. Six ways in which they promote their own business at the expense of yours.

“Buy a copper still because it will help create better flavor!” (1)

Copper tastes horrible, but it does catalyze sulfuric flavor compounds that may have developed during fermentation. Legacy still manufacturers rather have you spend your money on their stills than on better fermentation equipment.

As a bonus, copper stills oxidize. They have a short and predictable shelf-life. As one of the legacy still manufacturers told me, when we launched iStill: “Stainless steel is a bad business model! My columns are eaten away gradually. I exactly know when a customer needs to order again. Copper stills make for returning business!”

“Buy a still for every product you make!” (2)

Modern technology and the application of state-of-the-art materials allow a still to make multiple products. But that’s not what legacy still manufacturers want you to know. They rather sell you multiple stills. One for whiskey, one for gin, and one for vodka.

That their stills are mostly made from copper helps a lot. Since copper rusts, it traps flavors and needs extensive cleaning protocols before another product can be produced with it. But it is self-serving advice. Selling you more stills makes them more money.

“Buy a small still so you can run faster!” (3)

Smaller stills don’t run faster. If the ratio of boiler to column is too small, yes, your run will be faster, but your total production volume will actually be lower. Smaller stills that lead to shorter runs simply lead to more downtime, related to filling, emptying, cleaning, and heating-up between those short runs.

There are three real reasons for the promotion of smaller still purchases. The first has to do with smaller stills being more affordable. In todays difficult market, selling a small still is better than selling nothing.

Secondly, buying too small a still is a very common practice in the craft distilling industry. It usually leads to a follow-up purchase of a bigger still within one to two years of the first one.

Thirdly, copper stills produce ethyl carbamate, which is carcinogenic (meaning that it can cause cancer). Due to stricter regulations on the amount of ethyl carbamate found in spirits, shorter runs are needed. Shorter runs translate into less ethyl carbamate formation, where as stainless steel stills prevent ethyl carbamate formation!

“Buy a plated still because it is a much more modern technology than potstills!” (4)

Yeah, if you consider 1870 to be “modern”! Plated stills aren’t modern. Not by a stretch. And potstills are amazing, if you find the right one for the product(s) you want to make.

The real reason why many legacy still manufacturers want to sell you plates is twofold. First, their business model – and the way in which they compensate their sales force – centers around selling plates. More is better. For their bottom-line, not necessarily for yours.

Secondly, potstills (at least the column / riser part) are cheap to manufacture and do not sell with a whole lot of margin. Plates are much more complex and offer better margins to the legacy still manufacturers that push them.

What they don’t say is maybe even more important: plates were designed as tails traps in fruit brandy production. They prevent the distillation of complex whiskies, rums or gins for the same reason they are good at making fruit brandy: the prevention of early tails smearing.

“Fast heat-up times are good!” (5)

If you promote short runs (see above), than shorter heat-up times are critical. But short run times come at the expense of flavor composition. Longer heat-up times allow for more taste formation, where shorter heat-up times generate a less flavor full product.

“Indirect heating is great, for instance via Au Bain Marie! double boilers!” (6)

What they mean is that indirect heating is great for them. A double boiler still holds more material and asks for more labor input. In general, indirectly fired stills are more expensive and provide the manufacturer higher margins.

The other reason why so many legacy still manufacturers push indirectly fired stills is because you now need to purchase a steam generator. If you go for an indirectly fired still, the whole associated power and steam and electricity certification process all of a sudden falls on your shoulders. On yours, not on theirs!

Nota bene!

Now that you know, you can counteract the strategies applied by legacy still manufacturers and make decisions that favor your business, not theirs. But be aware! This opinion article is written by a guy that manufactures stills himself. For sure iStill benefits. For sure this blog post is self-serving as well?

Yes, you are darn right that it is! But there is a major difference, a major distinction with what legacy still manufacturers¬† are doing. Here it is: our benefits align with yours, where the “benefits” they promote are at your expense.

Examples? iStills are build from stainless steel (and at double specification), that does not rust. They do not deteriorate, which is good for you. It is good for us as far that it shows – with each and every iStill we sell – how amazing and reliable the quality is of what we offer. But we do not get business automatically, like copper still manufacturers do.

We make stills that help you produce any drink you want to make. For sure we’d make more money telling you that you need multiple stills for multiple drinks, but if you can keep that money in your pocket, maybe you can spend it on your bar or marketing? On those places that make you money? Self-serving? Yes! Customer-serving and self-serving. If you become successful you’ll come back for more.

We do not produce double boiler design, indirectly heated stills. We do not dodge responsibility or find ways to artificially raise prices. Instead, we build according to the certification you need. Everything. The whole still. CE, UL, ULC, ATEX, IECEx, and more.

This makes us aligned instead of opposed, and I find alignment important, if we want to move forward together, as one craft distilling industry, taking market share away from Big Alcohol. So … legacy still manufacturers, could you please stop spreading this kind of nonsense? It hurts craft distillers and it hurts the industry and – even though it might create you some additional income short-term – mis-information is not a viable, long-term survival strategy.

Legacy still manufacturers, stop the …

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Manufacturing Process iStills!

Producing iStills consist of two basic steps. First, we manufacture the boiler and column. Then, as the next step, we electrify the unit with cables, heaters, valves, PLC, touchscreen, etc. This second step is called “assembly”. Here are a few pictures of the manufacturing process:

Sheets are cut and rolled …

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New iStill 200 being welded …

This iStill 500 boiler has just been acid bath cleaned …

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Adding the insulation is the last manufacturing step …

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After manufacturing comes assembly …

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StillControl!

iStill – a mission of innovation

Our mission is to help craft distillers compete with big alcohol producers. Our pay-off is “distilling made easy”. Combine one with the other, and you understand that innovating isn’t something we do on a project basis. No, instead, innovating is what we do on a continuous basis!

We are proud to inform you about our newest innovation. We believe it will make distilling easier and we are convinced it will arm craft distillers with the tools needed to take the battle to Big Alcohol. How? With StillControl.

StillControl – what is it?

StillControl is our newest innovation. It combines a Bluetooth thermometer probe with an app.

StillControl – what does it do?

The probe measures the temperature in your distillation column or riser and relays the signal to the StillControl app.

In the StillControl app you dial in your cut-points for heads, hearts, and tails. As the temperature rises during your distillation run, the app warns you when to cut.

StillControl – what does it achieve?

StillControl achieves control over your distillation run. It creates consistency and reproducibility.

StillControl – for whom is it?

First, StillControl will be released to iStill customers that run the R&D iStill Mini, or that run or order one of the manual iStills:

  • iStill Mini
  • iStill Manual Potstill 100, 200, and 500
  • iStill Manual Plated Still 100 and 200
  • iStill Manual Hybrid 100 and 200

New orders for our manual stills, from now onwards, come with StillControl included. On a later date, probably in about a year from now, we’ll release StillControl to the craft distilling industry at large, so that distilleries that do not run iStill equipment can also benefit.

StillControl – wanna see how easy it is to use?

Here is a short start-up movie of an actual test run that’s being performed as this iStill Blog post is released:

StillControl – pictures

StillControl app …

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StillControl probe currently being tested on the iStill 100 Hybrid Manual …

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Sunday Musings!

Introduction

On the craft distiller section of a hobby distiller forum, Odin got asked a question that we think is worth sharing. And if not the question, well, the answer certainly is. Some Sunday musing with our CEO …

Question by GWizard

Hey Odin, not a dig, but a serious question. Everybody here seems to be telling people not to run by temperatures, but this is exactly what iStill does. You do auto cuts based on temp, right?

So, how do you explain the discrepancy between what you do, which obviously works great, and the “sage” advice of many on this forum?

Odin’s answer

Excellent question! Here’s my motivation and explanation of the direction we took.

There is a difference between home-distilling and craft or professional distilling. From the hobby perspective, many take the road of attempting many recipes and going for something they like, which in the end (if you do not use an objective model) is pretty subjective. From a professional perspective (and this is posted in the “craft distillers section”) most producers make a few recipes only, but make them all the time.

Another difference is that most home-distillers are their own consumers. But for a professional distilling operation to succeed, the goal is to attract first buyers and turn them into returning customers. For this to happen the product must be good (or at least the story must be), and it must be of consistent quality. Where I, as a home-distiller may enjoy one of my rums and think it is pretty good, I might then make another batch and – even though it is different – still like that one as well and contemplate how/where/why it is different. But from a professional stand-point that experience and those thoughts would mainly be part of recipe development and never of actual production runs. Recipe development leads to standard operating procedures that allow me to make good quality product consistently and reproducibly.

How do we get to consistency and reproducibility? Via control of the process. Alcohol production and (for the craft distiller even more important:) flavor production follow a set of rules. Stress out the yeast in certain directions and you’ll get different flavors. Cut later or sooner, and you’ll end up with a different product. Just two examples.

My goal now became to find those rules, find ways to measure them, and finally find ways to control them. Finding the rules, measuring them, and being able to control them allows the distiller to gain total control over both the alcohol production and flavor production processes. He or she can now design any product with its desired flavor profile and make it over and over again consistently. As an example, we have learned that temperature of fermentation can have a tremendous impact on esterification. How much and where. What temp is optimal now depends on how much esters you want and where you want them to shine. Think fruity, sweet flavors vs. rooty, earthy flavors for instance.

For distillation, there are basically five ways to “measure” and gain control and reach reproducible objectivity in spirits production. More or less. The first method is to go by taste and cut where you like. It is not objective and not easy to reach consistency this way (which is not an issue on a hobby scale). The second method is to go by ABV and use a parrot. More objective than taste, if you control not just distillation but the steps prior to that as well. The third method is to use temperatures. I like to use temperature because it is the most objective one. ABV shows alcohol percentage and output, where temperature indicates alcohol make-up and it can be measured during the run phase, so it is still open to manipulation. But both still suffer from influences of air pressure changes (think weather) that have a huge impact on boiling points and cuts. A professional run done on a traditional still can – depending on air pressure – easily take 20 minutes longer or stop 20 minutes earlier. Imagine that you run by ABV alone: you now collect maybe 40 minutes of tails in your run. Or you stop 40 minutes too early and miss out on certain flavors and production potential.

This is why most professional stills, on a craft distilling scale, are ran via a fourth method, where ABV and tasting are combined. The distiller now uses two sets of tools to end up with a better guess at where his cut needs to be. Taste experience and the flavor library in his head tells him one thing, and the ABV tells another thing. Hopefully they give affirmative confirmation, so the distiller knows what to do.

I want to take the guessing out of craft distilling. I think it is essential for craft distillers to achieve that in order to take the battle to big alcohol. As a craft distiller you do not have the economies of scale the big boys have. This means your pricing will be higher (and/or your margins will be lower). That means the fight needs to be wan via taste and flavor. Good and consistent, where “consistency” is a prerogative to quality. How to achieve this? Measuring by temperature gives me the solution I was looking for. But it was not easy. You need temperature measurement that is 0.1 degree accurate. Now many probes claim they can do this, but they often forget to mention the systemic variance that easily adds 1.0 degree. So it is “accurate” to 0.1 degree if you accept that systemically it is still off by 1 degree, but at least by 1 degree plus 0.1 all the time. First set of solutions meant that calibration (multiple point) is needed.

Second issue was air pressure. We had to invent and then build a digital air pressure sensor that automatically and on a per second basis measures air pressure and compensates the cut points that are dialed in. Imagine that developing such an air pressure sensor is a +100k project. And developing a computer with probes and automation and software for automatically executed cuts is a +1m kinda project. But on a pro scale it pays out. Especially if we migrate to the fifth way to gain control over the distillation process: a combination of tasting and the above mentioned innovative temperature control. If fermenting is done in a controlled manner, if you follow a standard operating procedure, on a test run you can decide on your cut points using both tasting and temperature. If you now dial in those temperatures in your – say – whiskey program or gin program, you can, from this moment onwards, if you use the same SOP, make the same product over and over again. Objectively and without having to continuously taste it (even though you still off course can). Next-level stuff, because it brings quality and consistency and reproducibility to the craft distilling scene.

More Sunday Musings?

Are you musing over something? Contemplating things, issues, topics, related to distilling? Feel free to reach out to Odin@iStillmail.com and maybe your musings make it to the iStill Blog.

Temperature control …

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The Golden Ratio!

Things designed with the Golden Ratio, appear beautiful to us. Leg, arm, torso, and body length all follow this ratio. Not just in human beings, but in all creatures. Cats, dogs, horses … Can it be that what we perceive as beauty, is in fact a design optimized for functionality and performance?

And if this is the case, well, shouldn’t the Golden Ratio (or Devine Ratio, as it is also called) be a guiding principle when designing the best stills and the best distilleries in the world? Yes, it should. And, yes, it is!

In our stills and in our logo …

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