Distillation: Turning Lead into Gold?

Eastern Winery Exposition workshop looks at issues involved with distilling

by Linda Jones McKee
These Macrobins may look like they’re full of wine grapes, but they are actually currants being readied for distillation at Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery in Warwick, N.Y. The company's co-owner and master distiller spoke about distilling following the Eastern Winery Exposition.
Lancaster, Pa.—Can a winemaker take a flawed wine and make it into a product the winery can sell?
Denise Gardner, extension associate in enology for Penn State University, addressed the issue head on while speaking at the Distillation Workshop following the Eastern Winery Exposition in Lancaster, Pa., on March 6. Gardner noted that unpleasant, undesirable aromas and tastes in wine are usually the result of poor viticultural practices, winemaking issues or storage problems. “Flaws related to key impact compounds and odor-related chemicals can be identified,” she stated, “and some of those flaws are fixable.”

The first step is to identify the flaw using sensory analysis, the results of which can then be confirmed by analytical testing. Gardner identified oxidation and high levels of volatile acidity as two problems that usually can be remedied by distillation, while cork taint and green, unripe flavors cannot be totally removed from the final product. Sorbate problems also are difficult to fix, and a geraniol taint may be retained in the distilled product. On the “maybe” list of problems that can sometimes be cured are reduced wines, those with high free sulfur levels and wines with too much Brettanomyces. 

In the past few years, more farm wineries in the East and across the country have turned to distillation not only to turn flawed wines into a saleable products but also to create new products such as fruit brandies, liqueurs, fortified wines, grappa and Eau de Vie, or to convert pomace into a value-added product rather than being recycled as compost or just thrown away. Gardner identified that another situation where distillation may be an alternative is during years when there is a wine surplus. The distilling process can be used to turn wine that might not be sold into another product for which there is a market.

Gardner stressed that many distilled or fortified products have global benchmarks or standards, and that winemakers need to be aware of those standards. Sensory evaluation for aroma, mouthfeel and ethanol concentration is important in the distillate as well as in the final product. That product must meet objective criteria for appearance, aroma and taste, but also the more subjective criteria of meeting expectations for the type of product.

Distillers discuss techniques
While Gardner examined the challenges of making distilled products from less than ideal starting materials, the three panelists at the workshop all emphasized that the best way to create a quality distilled spirit is to begin with the best fruit. Thomas Earl McKenzie, co-owner of Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett, N.Y., on the east side of Seneca Lake, told the audience (via telephone) that he prefers to use hand-picked fruit with no sulfites added to the picking bins. He uses Catawba, Niagara, Delaware and Cayuga grapes as well as vinifera varieties such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Traminette and Valvin Muscat, and processes them by crushing, destemming and sending them directly to the fermentor. He adds yeast appropriate for the varietal and nutrients, then ferments at about 80° F.

When using fruit such as pears, McKenzie looks for blemish-free fruit and may leave the pears to “sweat” for several months until they are soft. At that point, they are ground into a mash and either fermented immediately or frozen for future use. He also has frozen apple and peach mash. While a cold fermentation of the mash is one option, he prefers a warm (90° F) fast fermentation that may be finished in three days. On the fourth day, the pear wine goes to the still for one pass. Fruit-based liqueurs are made by soaking the fruit in a neutral spirit, then adding sugar or fruit concentrate and sugar as well as acid if necessary.

Finger Lakes Distilling makes vodka, whiskey and grappa as well as brandy and liqueurs.

Jason Grizzanti, co-owner and master distiller at Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery in Warwick, N.Y., and Black Dirt Distillery in Pine Island, N.Y., has been making hard cider and fruit-based distillates and liqueurs for 13 years. Warwick Valley opened as a winery in 1994 and in 2002 became the first licensed distillery in the Hudson Valley since Prohibition. It produces six hard ciders in addition to apple and pear brandies, four liqueurs, port and gin. Black Dirt Distilling Co., formed in 2012, is a spin-off of Warwick Valley Winery and Distilling. The distillery In Pine Island has a 60-foot distillation column and has added Black Dirt bourbon and applejack to the product portfolio.

In making fruit brandy, Grizzanti prefers to pulverize the fruit, as he finds that pressing is difficult to do and the fruit loses some flavor. Grinding may be difficult to ferment and difficult to clean up, but the fruit retains its flavor. He avoids adding pectic enzymes, as they increase the methanol in the final distillate. He uses a pot still with a reflux column and puts the product through in a single pass as he doesn’t want to heat the product twice.

Mike Fiore, co-owner and winemaker at Fiore Winery in Pylesville, Md., added a still to his winery in 2005, when the state passed legislation that permitted wineries to produce 200 gallons of spirits. Legislation passed in 2010 raised the production of pomace brandy to 1,900 gallons. Currently, Fiore makes grappa and limoncello based on a recipe from his wife Rose’s family in Italy; he plans to add bourbon and a brandy made from Catawba.

In his presentation, Fiore addressed two other topics of importance to distillers. He noted that one of the most important actions a potential distillery can take is to set up a working relationship with the federal regulators from the start of their business. “Don’t wait until you have a problem,” Fiore emphasized. In addition, new distilleries need to check on zoning and local regulations as well as state regulations.

Fiore also noted in a discussion of factors to consider in purchasing a still that the major consideration should be how much energy the still uses. This is most important if the still is being used to make a flawed wine into a useful product, and several passes are required. “You need to know how many passes you can make before the energy costs make it not worth the effort,” Fiore said.

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