As brewers of all size think about growth, diversification of offerings, and creativity, the idea of opening a distillery component has crossed most minds. While beer and spirits share a lot of the same space, there are a lot of practical, financial, and logistical issues to overcome with distilling that just do not exist in beer.
If you are a small brewery thinking about starting a distillery component, there are a few basic things to know and questions to ask before letting the spirits move you.
Scott Vaccaro knows this firsthand. As the brewer and founder of Captain Lawrence Brewing in Elmsford, New York, he added Current Spirits to the portfolio in 2019 after a long flirtation with the idea and jumping through legal and local red tape. The process was harder than he imagined.
“There is a tremendous difference between making alcohol and making beer,” he says. “It’s not just process. The reporting requirements are different, and the TTB paperwork is so different and more complicated than beer that it is mind blowing.”
The first thing he suggests is checking with local zoning laws. Many areas might not be set up for distilling and if a brewery plans to add distilling to an existing property, there might be the need to change zoning or ordinances. Attorney and permit fees can add up quickly.
“There were a lot of attorneys and we had public hearings too,” he said. “So, number one, check zoning and get an idea of what might be to come.” He also suggests checking to see if a town or city has a limit to abv produced.
If approvals are granted, then there is the matter of construction. There is an explosion risk with distilling and building codes are tight and strictly enforced. From wall thickness, to sprinklers, proper ventilation, and explosion proof electrical, and explosion-proof smoke heads (which cost thousands more than normal versions) are all needed, and costs can quickly rise.
Having a plan for the long-term is important. If brown spirits area goal, they need time to mature in barrels, so creating gin, vodka, and other quick spirits can help the bottom line, or even contribute to creating ready to drink (RTD) cocktails. He also suggests hiring a professional distiller with experience.
Equipment matters as well. Distilling equipment is expensive and large and plotting out space in an existing building for a proper fit and flow should be considered early.
“This equipment doesn’t just fit in a closet,” he notes. Also make sure a brewery, if it will be host to distilling operations, has the capacity to handle the utilities.
“We had a steam boiler that could handle both,” Vaccaro says. “But make sure you have enough electrical, and enough cold water to handle the distilling process.”
“These bills get very expensive, so look into it before making the plunge,” he says noting that insurance rates taxes also skyrocket when adding a distilling component, a financial hit he was not prepared for at the onset.
Vaccaro suggests if there is a way to incorporate existing brewery equipment into distilling operations – like a canning line for RTD offerings – making sure the permits are in place.
“It’s definitely a fun and exciting bolt on for a brewery,” he says. “You just need the right team, equipment, and understanding in place before you start.”