The Art + Science of Distilling

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My Craft Distillery: Gary Russell’s Cheers to 60 Years

What better way is there to celebrate a company milestone than by creating your own bourbon? Thanks to the My Craft Distillery program, RussTech Owner Gary Russell was able to do just that.

In September 2019, Gary joined us at our on-campus distillery to spend the week as a distiller. From choosing his mash bill to assembling the staves in his barrel, Gary asked for a hands-on experience and that’s what Moonshine University delivered. Here’s what he had to say about the program:

What brought you to Moonshine University?

Well, I typically will buy my bourbon at Westport Wine & Whiskey from Co-Owners Chris Zebrowski and Rich Splan. They’re the ones who mentioned to me that Moonshine University not only does classes, but that they also offer the chance to distill and fill your own barrel. They introduced me to Colin, and I came down and met him and Clay, talked about the My Craft Distillery experience, and set it up.

Why did you want to participate in the My Craft Distillery experience?

RussTech the company I work for and own, did a 50th anniversary barrel where we went to Woodford Reserve and picked out a single barrel. For our 60th anniversary, which is 8 years from now, I wanted the opportunity to go through the experience of crafting our own barrel of bourbon and make it a more unique part of our celebration. Naturally, bourbon needs time to age, so here I am!

Why did you decide on a bourbon?

Being a Kentucky corporation, we wanted to do a bourbon specifically. And again, we wanted to have something special to celebrate our 60th anniversary.

What’s the plan for your bourbon?

From talking to the educators and mentors here and using their experience, we picked out a mash bill and decided to target about 115 proof in the barrel, aged 8 years. We’ll see how it works out, but at the very least we’ll be getting something all our own!

Overall, what did you think about the My Craft Distillery experience?

I never really understood the distilling process and what goes into making a bourbon. When you get the educational component and then physically go through the process, it gives you a newfound respect for bourbon manufacturing and the distilling industry, and how much is really involved in making a good product.

What I liked about Moonshine University is they discuss beforehand what you want your experience to be like, and how hands-on you’d like to get. I’m a very hands-on person and RussTech is in the manufacturing business, so I enjoyed that I was able to be involved at every step in the process – to go from dumping the grains into the mill, to cooking the mash and adding the yeast and enzymes, conducting daily checks on the fermentation, starting the stripping run, and running the final distillation.

You get a balance of education and mentorship, but I think the hands-on aspect of the experience is very special and one of the reasons why this is such a great experience for anyone who wants to be involved in making bourbon – or any other spirit you’re passionate about.

What was your favorite part?

The other thing I thought was really neat was the visit to Kelvin Cooperage. Again, just being able to get in there in the heat and smoke, experience choosing and building your barrel, meeting the people who work there every day, and seeing how they toast and char every barrel – you just don’t understand that kind of wonder until you experience it in person.

What was most surprising to you?

I had heard the term beer – or distiller’s beer – before, but I never realized that when the fermentation process is over, what’s left is only 9 to 10% alcohol. Knowing that bourbon is typically 90 to 110 proof – at least the brands I like – you realize how much you have to process that beer just to get the alcohol level where you want it.

I really enjoyed the stripping run and the final distillation process, because I never realized how much the heads and tails could affect the taste, and how much of the bourbon is in the hearts (the middle cut). And even with all the sensory training and practice the master distiller goes through to learn how to make the right cuts and put out a good product, it’s still really just a guess!

What would you tell someone exploring the prospect of doing a My Craft Distillery experience or taking a class at Moonshine University?

If you want the best, hands-on experience from people who are experts in the industry and can keep you from making a big mistake, then come to Moonshine University.

At the very least, take a class; but if you’re up for it, make your own barrel of bourbon. I’ve never experienced anything like it – and I’m very impressed. The My Craft Distillery program is executed the way something like this should be – the experience, education, environment – everything is thought out and catered to you and your journey crafting your own signature spirit.

Thumbs up!

Interested in a My Craft Distillery experience of your own? Learn more about the program and how you can get started here.

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