That's My Whisky!

That's My Whisky!

Part Two: Construction – converting paper to plant

Production | 02 Jun 2017 | Issue 144 | By Chris Middleton

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In the previous issue under Planning we looked into some of the issues in formulating your business plan. This preparatory work would have provided you with a rough, working framework for the distillery design and operations, its products and brands, expenditure and revenue, suppliers and partners. The plan is also a living guide you can adjust and adapt to as changing circumstances demand. Some parts need detailed distillery blueprints, from layout and equipment installation to obtain various permits, which will vary depending upon country and local requirements. Before you turn a sod of soil or commission the stills, steel yourself for the administrative travails known as paperwork and patience. In some jurisdictions it may take several months, others several years. This can also impair budgets, as redesigns, resubmissions and consultants' fees can erode funds. Even though your business may be encouraged by local authorities, you may still have to navigate through some archaic laws and Byzantine codes where distilling was never contemplated. Urban sites usually prove the most testing, often requiring environmental impact studies on issues such as odour emissions, noise impacts, traffic flows, heritage studies, biodiversity threat, neighbourhood consultations, etc. Old industrial sites may require soil remediation, special applications for building modifications, as well as fire department, sewage, health and food safety certifications and signoffs.

Site selection

Start evaluating land zoning for industry classifications and scales of manufacturing. If you are conducting a distillery as a mixed business (with a retail store, food and drinks premises or liquor licence to operate a bar or tavern), these may be subject to different jurisdictions and permits. Access will be important for staff and visitors, and vehicle tarmacs for material delivery such as bulk grain, casks and bottling materials. The long-term plan may need to have contingencies for growth allowing for the upgrading plant, bonded warehousing, dry goods storage and office space. When you inspect buildings, look for asbestos, floor load bearings and geophysical stability ie. sustain the weight of fermenters holding thousands of litres of liquid. Check neighbourhood industries will not adversely affect or contaminate production or maturation, such as airborne microbes and odours. Consider floor drainage systems to remove cleaning water and bund walls to prevent spillage going into the sewer. Investigate whether public utilities will meet peak demand such as water usage and disposal, energy supply (gas, electricity).


The stills and condensers are the heart of your manufacturing facility. There are quite a few batch distilling formats to select. Some can be used exclusively to distil whisky, others a range of spirits from vodka to compounded spirits such as gin. The traditional alembic-style still is commonly called a pot still. Pot stills come in all manner of base shapes (onion, pear, conical, flat top, pinched waist, lantern), necks (long, short, fat or thin, reflux balls, purifiers), and lyne arms (ascending, descending, horizontal, long, wide). In America, you may consider a beer still column and doubler configuration, or hybrid still. Your shape, size, ferment and rate of distillation all influence your spirit character. If you've been doing your homework, you probably have a good idea of whisky style and other spirits profiles representing your product portfolio.

You may elect to have a pot connected to the small column still for fractional distilling or combine the column on top of the pot. Use only copper stills as they produce a superior spirit and only work with reputable still makers as these vessels are pressure cookers. Death and injury are not uncommon. There are around two dozen international still fabricators in a dozen countries and many smaller operators entering the distilling industry. Some may be able to build you a still in six months, others the waiting list is three years. You may be lucky and secure second-hand stills. How much do stills cost? A set of two small pot stills from a reputable maker can start at $50,000, larger stills could start at $300,000, even $1 million for a large distillery. You pay for the quantity of the copper (at $US5,800 per commodity tonne), and the technical expertise to design and fabricate the stills and condensers.

Plant & equipment

Heading upstream from the wash still you'll need a boiler, hot liquor tanks, fermenters, mash tuns, roller or hammer mills to grind grain, auger and silos for storage. Specialist fabricators or purchasing second hand vessels (wineries, dairies) are options. From distillation, the high wines need downstream receivers, barrel filling and warehousing and storage system. To move the liquids around pumps, fittings, filters and hoses are part of your secondary equipment. When the whisky matures, it must be dumped from the cask to be married, filtered and bottled. Cask racking infrastructure and downstream packaging all need accommodation. At key stages measuring devices will be needed such as thermometers, hydrometers and basic laboratory tools. After the manufacturing plant, you'll need to fit out a basic office and information technology to run the business.


Heating is a major cost centre, in some locations it is responsible for 50 per cent of the cost of spirit, with grain, labour and overheads being the balance. In some areas, coal-fired electricity and oil are much more expensive than gas. In country areas, small hydro or wind turbines may be long term options. Renewables like solar for administrative energy needs shrinks your carbon footprint and incremental costs. Green programmes may have an initial expense but prove cost-effective in the long run. If your distillery is large and producing millions of litres of pot ale a year, you should be looking into aerobic digesters to generate methane to heat the boiler. Heat exchangers are efficient methods of reducing energy; however, in warm climates, a water refrigeration unit will be required to chill the condensers.


Water is going to be used in abundance from mashing, condensing, to bottling and especially cleaning. You're likely to need 150 litres of water to make one litre of pure alcohol. Efficient management of your water resources is important for the environment and overheads. Only a small proportion of the water makes contact with your whisky. Water contact starts at mashing to extract starches and sugars before fermentation; although distillation strips out 90 per cent of it. Some water is added before cask storage and finally when the whisky is bottled to break it down to label proof. In the old days, plentiful clean and cold natural water was essential for mashing and cooling the condenser. Today, clean mains water can be cold chilled by refrigeration units for year round use, regardless of extremes in summer temperatures, then carbon filtered to purify before bottling. Cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation are critical to nurturing the right microbes and preventing alien ones from populating the distillery. The bulk of the water is for cleaning and sterilising equipment.


The Government's Treasury will be your biggest client through excise duty*, taxes, licences and permits. In most countries, 50 to 70 per cent of the retail cost of a bottle of whisky is tax. The authorities' greatest concern is unauthorised withdrawals or theft threatening excise revenue. All countries have stringent regulations and compliance to ensure the spirit from the still, bonded warehousing and withdrawals remain securely stored and reported in safe premises.


One of the greatest threats is fire. Grain dust can cause spontaneous combustion and ignition of ethanol fumes is a constant and invisible threat. Lightning strikes have also brought calamity to distilleries and warehouses. As ethanol is heavier than air, invisible and highly flammable, distilleries are usually required to put in expensive fire suppression systems using foam and water; smaller operators may need bund wall and air ducting. Installing RCD non-sparking electricals is another mandatory. Local occupational health and safety officers will require hazards management to carry out risk assessments and training. All distilleries should be employing protective clothing (footwear to hi-vis coats), chemical baths (spillage from chemical cleaners), information signage, traffic and forklift zones, machinery and gantry guards.


Standing on the shoulders of giants means you'll always see further. So use industry expertise to elevate the business's performance and standards. Consultants can supplement your vision with their specialist knowledge and some with their creativity to make this endeavour even greater than you imagined. Experts can prove very cost effective in the long run and by adding value in unforeseen ways. Do your background checks to find the right architect, distillery engineer, project manager, designer, etc., for skills, previous work and professional calibre.


Distilleries are no longer industrial factories, they have become tourist destinations and places of entertainment, information and theatre. Adult Disneylands. If whisky is about pleasurable moments, this should be reflected in the architecture, interior design, to the drinking experience. Thoughtful and inspiring design enriches visitor involvement and imprints a lasting impression. Your business and brand may celebrate the local environment, highlight the area's history, or be a modern and exciting brand statement - make sure they leave with great memories and engaging stories to spread the word. The selling process begins here.

The distillery is built. The various authorities have signed off on all the compliance requirements to permit commissioning of the plant. Next issue, we'll look at Production, progressing from construction to making spirit.

*Excise per pure litre of ethanol UK £27.66, Australia $82.22, Canada $11.93, Ireland €42.50 and the US gallon $27.00.

Construction Planning

10-P Checklist

Permission: ie. permits, licenses, approvals, compliance, paperwork.
Procrastination: approvals, revisions, supply delays, construction problems.
Place (internal): space, utilities, bulk access.
Physicality (external): flooding, subterranean base, local environmental threats.
Project management: oversight building, assembly, engineering, cost control.
Plant: stills, equipment, laboratory, infrastructure.
Power: energy sources, cost, reliability, renewables, recycling.
Professionals: consultants, experts, training.
Presentation: aesthetic design, inviting public spaces, hospitality, theatre.
Protection: safety, security, fire systems.
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