Meet The Man Distilling Louisville Craft Beer Into Whiskey
Brandon O’Daniel pours 10 barrels of craft beer into a 750-gallon copper-pot still that he calls "Magdalena." It is one of three on the distillation floor -- there’s also "Sara," a 50-gallon still, and "Isis," a 1,000-gallon pot still.
“They are all named after women in Bob Dylan songs off the ‘Desire’ album,” he says.
O’Daniel is the head distiller at Copper & Kings, a Butchertown distillery that specializes in brandy. But today, he’s dealing with a different sort of spirit: whiskey, specifically the kind that he’ll be distilling from a batch of Goodwood Brewing Company’s honey ale.
While the concept seems unexpected, several other distillers across the nation have had success with similar products, like San Francisco’s Seven Stills or Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling in San Antonio.
However, O’Daniel says that by applying the process of brandy distillation to craft beer -- rather than traditional whiskey distillation -- the more subtle flavors of the brew will be concentrated into a flavorful whiskey, especially because the starting point of both beverages is similar.
“Whiskey in general is, you know, distilled from distiller’s beer,” O’Daniel says.
Distiller’s beer is the liquid that results from a fermented mash of cooked grains, water and yeast. Many whiskey distillers stick this mix in column stills, with the focus on extracting the alcohol rather than the more subtle flavors of the mash, so that the resulting liquid can take on the taste of the barrel.
But brandy distillation is all about “retention and concentration of flavors,” says O’Daniel.
“So our whole idea was to take a really nice craft beer and, instead of trying to get rid of those flavors and just capture the alcohol, not only do we want to capture out the alcohol, we wanted to capture those true beer notes as well,” he says.
The distillation process begins at 9 a.m., after Magdalena is filled with about 550 gallons of beer. It looks like normal beer at the start, of course. But when it comes out, it will be clear.
The still is heated by steam while the beer is spun by an agitator in the pot. Once the liquid reaches about 170 degrees, vapor rises from the pot and enters a cool copper column. Then, as the vapor cools, it condenses into liquid ethanol, which begins dripping into a collection vessel. This entire process takes seven hours.
At Copper & Kings, they double-distill their spirits, meaning no cuts will be made to the batch because the process will be repeated the following day. So for now, O’Daniel gauges the product.
“I’m getting a little bit of honey, a little bit of the oats from the beer," he says. "I pick up a little bit of the barrel characteristics. What I’m smelling right now is really the backbone of the spirit.”
The next day, after the second distillation, Joel Halbleib, the brewmaster at Goodwood, checks in on the spirit. By this point, the 550 gallons of beer have been distilled into about 65 gallons of whiskey, a portion of which is now being run through the 50-gallon still.
“I’m enjoying the aromas very much,” Halbleib says. “You can get some of the orange peel we put in that’s coming out, and the honey notes are still coming through.”
O’Daniel says he and Halbleib will spend the day periodically tasting to figure out what portion of the whiskey they want to keep for aging and determine how they want to mix it.
“For coming right off the pot, especially for a whiskey, it’s extremely palatable,” O’Daniel says.
From here, the spirit’s fate is uncertain. There are several barreling options they are considering -- it could go back into the original beer barrel, be stored in a brandy barrel or even a new American Oak barrel. Also, the Copper & Kings team isn’t sure how long the spirit will be aged.
O’Daniel says they'll taste the spirit once it has been barreled for about eight weeks and then make that determination. It could then age anywhere from one year to several years.
“But that uncertainty is all a part of the job,” O’Daniel says. “And it makes it pretty fun.”