How to start building a distillery
Starting a distillery is a dream that more and more people share, but it’s not something you should take lightly or go into unprepared. There are many questions you need to ask and answers you need to know before you drop a wad of cash on a property and a bunch of equipment. Think if you were buying a house. There are certain things you want in a house and certain things you can live without. You’ve got to decide what you need and what you can afford, right?
This article won’t tell you everything you need to know to start a distillery and launch a brand (we’d need a few books to do that), but it should at least give you a solid starting point to start your research. It should give you the right questions to ask and point you in the right direction. If it doesn’t, then it’s probably your fault and you should think twice about making something that could easily turn out to be poisonous.
The basic setup
Okay, the basic still setup is just that. It’s pretty much the bare minimum and depending upon what you’re distilling and how much you want to distill, you’ll need to adjust as needed. That being said, here’s what you’ll need.
A source of water
You can’t make alcohol without water. So you’ll need a good source of water for your still. In Kentucky, the water source is usually limestone rich water from streams or aquifers, but you can use tap water if that’s what you want, but some high quality H2O never hurts.
Basically, a cooker is something your put your grain in along with some H2O to bring everything up to a certain temperature for a designated amount of time. It helps to have some plumbing in the cooker that will then send the cooked mixture to a fermenter, but a pump will suffice.
A fermenter will be a large vessel where you can ferment (duh) a grain, yeast, and water slurry. Basically, the yeast eats the sugars and poops out alcohol and after a few days you can take all that and distill it.
This should go without saying, but in the interest of being thorough-ish, you’re going to need a still to actually make drinkable alcohol. I know, shocker, right?
It also might not hurt to have drains in your floors, no distillery has ever said, “I just put too many floor drains in.”
How much does a distillery cost?
Distilleries, like cars, come in all shapes and sizes. Do you want a high-end sports car with all the bells and whistles or do you want a used Mini Cooper? The difference in cost between these two choices are huge and it’s the same with a distillery. It depends on what you want to make, how much you want to make, where you are located, along with a myriad of other factors. The one thing we can say as far as money, it’s going to take more than you initially think. Plan on somewhere between $300K-$500K as a bare minimum.
What you need to ask yourself
The two main questions you’ll need to answer before you get started are 1) What are you going to make and 2) How much of it do you want to produce? You won’t even be able to start looking at a building without knowing the answer to those two questions. Everything in your distillery will be based off of those two factors. And “everything” and “as much as possible” aren’t acceptable answers. Do some research so you can define your market and know what that market will support. A business plan is a must.
Why should I go to your distilling workshops?
They are intensive workshops taught by experts in the field. All of our classes are taught by people who have decades of experience on whatever subject they are teaching, not only to you
get exposed to the most knowledgeable people in the field, you get networking opportunities that you can’t get anywhere else. Plus, our primary goal is distillery education, we’re not an operating distillery adding on a class to fill time or generate a second form of revenue, our primary focus is education, and we’ve helped over 130 distillers around the world open their doors. We recommend our 5-Day Distiller Course as a starting point.
Don’t forget branding
There are a lot of things that people overlook, but one of the big ones is the branding. A lot of people think that after you make a good product that people will be beating down the doors to get it. And that is not the case. You’ll need good packaging and branding to stand up, and out from, your competition. And also think of who is going to be out selling the brand. If you have a distiller that is short on words and doesn’t like to talk to crowds, that’s probably not going to be the person who is out selling your product. So think about who is going to be selling your brand too. Keep in mind, this will be additional cost on top of actually opening the distillery.
We’ve been asked what it takes to open a distillery countless times and usually there are follow up questions, so we’re going to go ahead and answer some of the most common:
What do I have to take to become a master distiller?
In short, earn it. There is no test or certification to become a master distiller, anyone can use the title if they want. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, or release a bad product, prepare to be mocked endlessly. There is nothing wrong with a title like Head Distiller. Spend some time making various products and mastering making one or two, then take the step up to the grander title. For a longer answer, read our article “How to become a master distiller.”
Is it too late to open a distillery, isn’t the market saturated?
Not at all. There is huge boom right now, but that’s not to say there isn’t room for more. Just look at craft beer, there are new places opening up every week, numbers are still growing, it will be the same with craft spirits.
Is this much more difficult than opening a brewery?
Yes. Opening a distillery not only costs more than opening a brewery, you’ll have to adhere to more codes, which means more inspections. And because of the higher proof of spirits, opposed to beer, everything in and about your building will be held to a higher standard of safety, which translates to more time and capital. Not to mention you’re going to be paying way more taxes on spirits than you would for beer.
Is there a place I can buy used equipment?
Used equipment doesn’t come on the market that often, but as distilleries start to scale up their operations more and more will be up for sale. American Distilling Institute (ADI) is a good source for used equipment.
Can I start distilling at home?
No. It’s 100% illegal. I don’t care what your state law says, or what someone in your county government told you, it’s is illegal to distill at home and that will not likely change in the near future. Mainly for two main reasons. Firstly, safety. Unlike beer and wine, it’s possible to make poison if you don’t know what you’re doing. Not to mention you’ll have high proof alcohol in vapor form in a pressurized vessel (AKA a bomb), again, not very safe if you don’t know what you’re doing. Secondly, taxes.
Should I cash in my retirement to do this?
No. Don’t do it. Don’t think about it. Don’t cash in your retirement, don’t take it out of Johnny’s college fund, and don’t take out a second mortgage to pay for it. The process of opening a distillery and building a brand is a very stressful endeavor and the last thing you need it to add the stress of keeping up your lifestyle, keeping your family happy and fed, and not working until
the day you die is added stress and pressure you, and your family, don’t need.
Get some help
There are plenty of great resources out there and we’re one of them. We cannot recommend highly enough that you talk to some experts, take some distillery tours, and even talk to your local liquor retailers. And if you’re dead serious about starting your own distillery, we also highly recommend that you start with our 5-Day Distiller Course. It gives you an in-depth overview of the distillation process, access to over 130 industry experts, and ongoing support as you start living your distillery dream. Plus, you’ll get discounts on other classes that you may need along the way. You can register here.