Koval Distillery's Sonat Birnecker on the Booze Biz

People love alcohol, so it follows that you might've kicked around the idea of starting your own micro distillery. But just because it's got the word "micro" in it doesn't mean it's necessarily an easy task: It's an expensive and extremely confusing industry for a wide variety of reasons. With the Indy Spirits Expo taking place Sept. 28 at the Bottom Lounge, and plenty of distillers on hand to meet with interested parties and anyone who's thirsty, you might find yourself inspired afterwards to get into the boozing business.

To get a better idea of what's involved with that, I gave Koval Distillery President Sonat Birnecker a call. Koval is famously the first distillery in city limits since Prohibition, and Sonat, along with husband Robert, have been producing all of their spirits from scratch since 2008.

If you're afraid of even a little hard work, you'll quickly find this isn't an industry to hop into lackadaisically -- maybe you should just stick to drinking instead. But you know, responsibly.

What's involved with getting a micro distillery off the ground?

Sonat Birnecker: There is a simple answer: grit. [Laughs.]

And elbow grease?

Sonat Birnecker: Yeah. [Laughs.] We do a lot of consulting all over the United States, Mexico, Canada, and even have people flying in sometimes from Europe that come to our workshops and want to learn how to do this from us. You can always sorta tell who has what it takes to make it. A lot of what it is is really grit. It's being able to recognize what it takes.

What it takes is just putting in the time and effort. We're happy to help everyone set up, but a lot of people are just looking for, the phrase is, a "turn-key system." Or they want something that is going to run itself. It's true, there is some automation you can buy for distilleries and they're very helpful. But ultimately these things are not Snow Cone machines. They don't necessarily run themselves with minimal effort. One has to really be willing to put in the time.

I can remember when we first started -- you never know exactly how much time it's going to take as an individual or whoever you employ to get certain tasks done. Certainly with the micro distilling industry, just like the micro brewing industry, I don't know anyone that starts off with a full bottling line. It's not like that. We started out with a one-bottle filler. Every bottle was filled one at a time, and we would watch it filling up. It'd be three in the morning, and we did this with an infant at our side. We were at the distillery, before our first shipment, for 72 hours straight. Working. We took one 15-minute nap on the couch.

And you had an infant with you?

Sonat Birnecker: Starting a business is the perfect schedule if you have a baby, because they can just hang out with you and it's fine. It was really intense, and it still is. Robert, for example, lived at the distillery for 48 hours straight last week just working on stuff. If you imagine what it's like to get amazing grades in college in a really difficult class, and it might take all-nighters, and it might take that extra effort, and it might take eating at your desk, and it might take eating at your desk, and not going at that date that you wanted, and not seeing that movie that you wanted to see with all your friends. It's like that, but it's 200 times more difficult.

How much more patience is required if you want to make some high-quality product? Like, isn't some of this stuff aged for 15 years?

Sonat Birnecker: Yeah. I think that there's patience all the way through. There are a lot of people in this industry that cut corners all the time. They're always looking for ways to cut corners. And there are plenty of other companies who are there to support the corner-cutting. For example, a lot of alcohol that's on the market -- even alcohol that claims to be craft or small-batched -- is actually made in large factories. The smaller companies will buy this in drums, and then they'll flavor it. They'll call it craft or small-batched, because they flavored it in small batches. [Laughs.] But the alcohol itself was made in huge factories that make Smirnoff and who knows what else.

I don't think you make an incredibly premium product that way. There are other people who will disagree with me, but what we believe is if you're going to make an artisanal product or an incredibly craft product, you're going to go start from finish. You're going to start with the grain, and you're going to mash it, and then you're going to do the fermentation yourself, the distilling yourself, and then you're going to bottle it.

That's not to say that doing it differently or doing it where you buy alcohol -- there's an art to flavoring, that's totally true. There's an art to making a product that people like. However you get there is also an art.

But if you're doing this in a truly craft way, then the craft begins with the fruit, the grain, or the raw materials. To get it right takes an incredible amount of patience, and that's even before you get to the barrel. [Laughs.] If you're making a whiskey, you start with the grain and you do your mashing and then you do your distilling and then you do the barrel. Then, there's a lot of time in waiting for that to age and be right. There are many different ways to age products, and there's a whole art to that, and that can be a lot of fun as well. It can be a lot of fun and you can get a lot of satisfaction in doing it. Even if you jump in the middle and don't do everything yourself, you can still take pride in doing things very well from wherever you start.

But if I'm hearing your tone correctly, it sounds like you personally don't approve of cutting corners.

Sonat Birnecker: We wouldn't do it. Robert comes from a long, traditional distilling family. They have their own orchards. We would ultimately love that model but you have to start somewhere.

Do people cut corners because they're impatient, or because there are so many mistakes that can happen in the process? Or both?

Sonat Birnecker: Both, and then in addition, I would say that people want to make money. It's cheaper. Some people want to make more money that way. If it's a cheaper product they can market as a premium product by buying out alcohol? There are plenty of companies who do that for such purposes. They even right now are making this grain-neutral spirit, and these companies are barrel-aging it for other companies. So all they have to do is buy the finished whiskey and just bottle it and sell it. [Laughs.] There's a lot on the horizon for corner-cutters.

It's gonna be up to the consumer, really, to figure out who is doing things the way they want to support. Ultimately, it's all up to the consumer. Unfortunately, a lot of consumers in the liquor industry don't inform themselves about the companies that they buy the alcohol from, because there's a lot of hype and advertising involved. It makes it very difficult for the consumer to necessarily be interested in getting involved. But people are getting more interested in where their cheese is coming from, and how it's made. Or their meat: Was it made from chemicals? Was it fed organic grass?

Just as people are becoming more interested in that, I think that they are becoming more interested in how their spirits are being made. These are things we do in jest, but quite frankly I'd be a little suspect that's a little fluorescent. [Laughs.] We personally just don't like to use coloring, or artificial flavoring, or even caramel coloring, which is very common in the whiskey industry. And you don't even need to write that on the whiskey bottle! There are plenty of whiskeys that are beautiful colors or whatever, but they weren't originally that color.

As a whiskey drinker, I have to ask: Are people just getting away with that because this stuff isn't regulated? They can just misrepresent their product and there are no repercussions?

Sonat Birnecker: Yeah! [Laughs.] You don't have to say if something has caramel coloring on it. You don't have to have a disclaimer on the bottle. Believe me. You don't have to have say that you added sugar or citric acid to the vodka. A lot of people do that. They'll have an inferior product and to mellow out the -- you know how when you get bottom-shelf vodka, and you're like, "Woah?" Or like what you had in college that you wanna forget. Well, that's usually alcohol that hasn't been filtered incredibly well -- filtering costs a lot of money -- so what they'll do is instead of a lot of filtering to make it comfortably clean and get rid of those weird aromas or flavors, is add sugar and citric acid. And the government allows a certain amount of sugar and citric acid to be added to vodka, for example, without a disclaimer on the bottle. These are all things that the consumer doesn't know. They're tricks of the industry.

I'm sure every industry has these shortcuts. But with alcohol, it's crazy. Only because the industry has been run by huge multinational companies for a very long time that has had it in their interest to keep these things on the down-low. Only now, when you have small craft companies that are actually doing things the way they used to 300 years ago, completely from scratch, are the producers and manufacturers are realizing, "Hey, wait a minute! We're doing it like this, what is this guy doing?" It's up to the craft industry to make the consumers more aware of what's going on, and that's more difficult because the craft guys are the ones without the money. [Laughs.] It's an uphill battle.

Another difficult side of the liquor industry is after you've worked hard, shown you have grit, and done it all, then you have to compete with a lot of companies that have way more money than you do.

Speaking of money, you mentioned filtering, but I'm curious: What are some of the start-up costs involved with getting into this industry?

Sonat Birnecker: A small distillery, and I mean a small one with a really small still, and all the additional equipment? You could probably be up and running, and it depends on your location and rent, for about $250,000. But that's very, very small. And it goes up from there. That is a number that takes into consideration that you've got a one-bottle filler. That you're doing things very old-school, and don't even necessarily have a big-mash tun.

What are some common oversights or mistakes you've found that people make time and time again in your consulting work?

Sonat Birnecker: Oftentimes we find people making mistakes in how they make the product. We're like a 24-hour troubleshooting hotline. We have people from all over the country being like, "My mash has this weird color and it smells like bubble gum, and it's got a weird foam on it." Then we have to figure out what they did wrong so they don't do it again. A lot of people in this industry have no experience making alcohol, and then, all of a sudden, here they are in their expensive distillery that they've invested their life savings in and they have to essentially produce. It's like somebody saying one day, "I'm gonna be a baker." [Laughs.] "I'm gonna produce an awesome bread." It takes a while.

It reminds me of the restaurant business, where people just sink their money into it and have no idea what they're doing.

Sonat Birnecker: Well, you do need licenses. But it's more like licenses to make sure you're not going to be bootlegging like a criminal. You're incredibly regulated. But, you do have the health department coming. You get checked for stuff like that. But in the same way, it's like you can have a bad chef in a legal kitchen. Or a good chef in a legal kitchen. You know? How do you make sure someone improves on their craft?

We've had a lot of people who started, and they've gotten better and better and now they're doing awesome. A lot of the people that we've consulted have won awards already. If it's something that you're passionate and you really wanna learn -- and it's great when people make mistakes. Because that's how people learn, and that's how they're sure to not make them again. Any mistake that you make in this industry is expensive, so you wanna learn.

It's different from a restaurant because there's way more at stake than a dinner service. If you produce a really poor dinner service and you lose all those customers for that night, you can be like, "Oh, that did not work out." You might've lost a few thousand dollars, but you haven't lost $30,000. [Laughs.] Whereas, if you're doing a huge mash, you might have $10,000 of grain in your mash tank. It's a way bigger, bigger mistake. And then it becomes an even more mistake because it gets turned into alcohol. And if that alcohol doesn't taste great or if it's not filtered well, then nobody's going to buy it, and then it's an even bigger mistake.

It ripples out.

Sonat Birnecker: It ripples out, and it's very expensive. You don't want to do anything lightly. Which is why when people are starting in this industry and they don't know what they're doing, they almost always get consultants like us or they go and take lots of classes. We have people who have been distilling for a while that want to improve who come to our workshop to learn something that they've never done before. If you're making a brandy, you want to know what you're doing before you order 7 tons of apples and mess it up.

I think it's really valuable, not just for people in this industry, to go and ask for help from everybody and anybody that is willing to give you advice and their perspective. I think that it helps so much. If they treat every detail like a final exam, then they'll end up doing well. Even if they were something else first.

So, again, it all comes down to grit.

Sonat Birnecker: It does. [Laughs.]

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