Switchgrass Spirits co-founder Sarah Miller shares their unique approach to making whiskey and why patience pays off
Switchgrass Spirits co-founder Sarah Miller possesses several attributes that make her ideally suited to helping run a distillery. A moonshine recipe handed down by a grandparent is not one, but patience and a gift – an appreciation, even – for paperwork are. Thanks to the legacy of Prohibition (and taxes), spirits are highly regulated – meaning, lots of paperwork to do. “We thought, ‘Well, if we're patient and can do paperwork, this distilling and selling spirits that need to age might be for us,’” Miller said. This year, that patience paid off: Switchgrass’ whiskey turned 4, meaning it’s now officially bonded. Here, Miller explains what that special designation means, as well as some other basics of whiskey-making and Switchgrass’ unique approach to the process.
“If you ever send a message to our website, it goes to me. And if people buy anything on our store, I'm the one that coordinates that. I'm kind of like the frontline communication.”
“I also do all our bookkeeping … and then also coordinating events off-site. Now we have people in Kansas City, so if a bar or a store in Kansas City wants to do a tasting, I'm coordinating people that we have in K.C., to make sure they have everything they need.”
“We do a lot of tastings – we did over 300 events outside of our distillery last year. Just doing tastings and meeting people and introducing them to usually a variety of things; it's fun to taste the difference between bourbon and rye or an apple brandy.”
“This year our whiskey turns 4, so that means it'll be bonded, which is a special designation. I guess there was a lot of shenanigans in the world of whiskey back in the day; people were adding color and doing things in order to sell to the consumer, but it wasn't real whiskey.”
“So, if it's aged four years, made by the same distiller in the same season and kept on site, and 100 proof, then you can label your whiskey as bonded.”
“Bonded means that you didn’t just buy it from someone else; you made it. … And that's where our patience paid off; we just didn't sell someone else's stuff, we just waited for ours to get older.”
“You might see some bottles of whiskey that are advertised that they're sour mash; that means they take a bit of the old bacteria, and they put it in with the new batch, and that’s how they do their fermentation. So, it's kind of like sourdough bread or sour beer. It's just a very different flavor than when you use yeast.”
“We wanted to have a sweeter product and more control. So, we pitch new yeast every time. And that is more expensive; it takes more time, you have to clean more because you don't want bacteria everywhere like sour mash. It is worth it though. It's like how the flavor of an ale as opposed to a sour beer is just a huge difference.”
“We also decided to do a high-wheat mash bill. So that gives it notes of honey. We do that for our bourbon and our rye.”
“We are in the Japanese style of distilling, where we don't just feel a certain way because it’s an old tradition … we do things because we see it makes a difference and makes better products. In Japan, they'll take some old traditions and some new ones to make things good.”
“For example, we did experiments with smaller barrels and bigger barrels. We found that the bigger, more traditional 53-gallon barrels, we'd like the flavor more. So, we went with that even though sometimes craft distilleries will use smaller barrels to get their products ready sooner. We were like, ‘No, it’s not worth it. We like the way this one tastes.’”
“We strive to reduce our water usage. We're efficient with our waste. … We recycle water through our floor, for radiant heating, so that we have heat in the winter, and we don't waste water. And then we have the waste from distilling – we can give the [spent] grain to farmers, their animals really enjoy it. And then we're getting solar panels. It's more work, all of this stuff is more work; but it's totally what we love doing, and so it's worth it to us.”
6100 Idadale Ave., St. Louis, 314.203.6539, switchgrassspirits.com
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