The Art + Science of Distilling

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What I Learned This Summer… with Chris Cassaro, 2019 Distillery Intern

Every summer, Moonshine University is proud to offer a competitive internship at our on-campus distillery and spirits education center. For 2019, this opportunity went to the talented Chris Cassaro, a 25-year-old spirits enthusiast and aspiring flavorist. Before his last day on August 30, we asked Chris for feedback on the experience, what he learned this summer, and what he plans to do next.

Here’s what he had to say:

What led you to this internship?

When I was getting my degree in Chemistry at Bellarmine University, my professor, Dr. Patrick Holt, told me that MoonU was looking for a Distillery Intern. That sounded right up my alley, so I applied and was lucky enough to get the job.

What motivated you to apply?

I was always into home brewing because of my cousins, but I didn’t really get involved in the process until I was about 19. My cousins (four brothers), were the ones who started practicing home brewing and I was always hanging out with them, so it became something we did together. I really liked it. It was a lot of fun and the beer was always good – although at 19, pretty much any beer seems good. *laughs*

Did you and your cousins ever practice home distilling?

We didn’t do any distilling together, but they made a moonshine once, when I was younger. I was 14 at the time and when I showed up one day, they had a still going on their back porch. Their mom was not happy about it. When she got home, she found a bunch of her pots and pans welded together and hooked up to a propane heater, so that was the only time they did that. From then on, they stuck to brewing until eventually I was roped into it too.

What’s been your role since you’ve been in this internship?

I started as the Summer intern on May 2, 2019— that was my first day. My role has really been helping out in the distillery and preparing mash bills. Now I know enough that Clay can just tell me, ‘hey, I need you to set this cook,’ and I can do it. I also prepared the materials for classes— and I had to label a lot of cups. *laughs* But basically, anything behind the scenes in the distillery or the classroom that needed doing, I was the guy.

What did you learn during your time as the Distillery Intern?

A lot! I learned how to distill a variety of different botanicals and grain spirits— anything from whiskey, to rum, to mezcal, and even honey spirits.

I’ve also learned a lot about how the alcohol industry works. It’s interesting, because when you’re outside of it, it seems so romanticized— like ‘oh, look at all these artisans making these beautiful spirits, it’s so chill!’ But when you actually get into it, it’s really just TTB paperwork! *laughs* There’s all these regulations, so a lot of people in the industry realize pretty quick that they’re going to be spending more time filling out forms than they thought. But of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, a lot more to know about the industry and how it really works, and who the big players are.

What has been your favorite part of this internship?

Driving the Flavorman truck! *laughs* No, it’s really been working in the distillery doing table-top distillations and big batches. I’ve always thought that the table-top distillations with botanicals were really cool: taking a grain-neutral spirit, evaporating it through a variety of flowers and berries, and seeing it come out as a delicious gin… And the big batches, making bourbon: it takes hours, but it’s so interesting to me that I don’t even really notice the time going by. It may be 90 degrees in the distillery and I’m sweating through my shirt, but it’s a fun time— I enjoy it.

What’s your favorite memory from working in this internship?

Luckily it’s been a really great internship, so I’ve got plenty of awesome moments that come to mind, it’s hard to choose just one. Experiencing the 6-Day Distiller Course was a lot of fun, especially the reception held on the roof of The Brown Hotel. Running cooks in the distillery. Getting to experiment with distilling new materials and practicing new methods— Clay and I built a traditional Filipino still and made some mezcal on it, which was pretty awesome.

And just the company culture. Everyone who works at Moonshine University is super friendly and helpful— it’s a great working environment. That’s probably one of my favorite parts about this internship. And it’s not just Moonshine University, but the whole Flavorman company. From Dave the owner, down to the guys running the bottling line, everyone has been super nice and willing to lend a hand. There’s been plenty of times that I’ve been wandering around the warehouse and someone will ask me, ‘What’s up? What are you looking for? How can I help?’ and they’ll stop what they’re doing to make sure I get what I need. It’s a very healthy, supportive working environment with a great company culture.

What are your next steps?

I’m excited to share that I’ll be working with a former 6-Day Distiller Course graduate and Executive Bourbon Steward, helping her launch and operate her distillery. But some time in the future, I’d love to come back to Flavorman and get involved with the lab. Again, it’s such a cool place to work, and Tom Gibson – their Director & Flavor Architect – is a really nice guy who I’d really like to learn more from. And I also enjoy being in chemistry labs!

What advice would you give the next Distillery Intern?

I hope you like labeling cups! *laughs*

But really, pay attention and practice improving your communication skills. Don’t be afraid to ask for direction when you need it, because it’s very easy to get confused when you’re new to working in a distillery, and you don’t want to make any costly or dangerous mistakes. You should also know your Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), because those will tell you basically everything you need to know. And don’t forget to bring a spare change of clothes for the distillery!

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