A few weeks ago we veered from our normal blog topics to take a look at the Gulf Coast petroleum industry. That post sparked an idea for an entire series where we peek into some of the biggest industries we serve. It's all part of staying up to date with who we do business with and pass along some interesting information in the process. By the way, if you missed the petroleum industry blog, check that out here. This week we want to explore the distillery industry and how steam plays an intergral part in the distillery process.
Distillery History at a Glance
Alcoholic distillation is an industry with a rich, global history that, for at least a century, has made a significant cultural and economic impression in Kentucky, especially as it relates to the state’s signature bourbon whiskey production.
The distillation process has been around in some form for centuries. Numerous civilizations across the world were using distillation to create spirits early in recorded history. The first distilled spirits used sugary beverages, like grape wine and honey mead. As early as the Middle Ages, starchy grains made an appearance.
Production was put under some government controls starting in the 1600s as distilled spirits became increasingly popular for recreational consumption. Accordingly, the distillation process developed refinements. Stills made of a simple closed container, a condenser, and a receptacle evolved into the pot still. Large stills similar to modern ones were operating in England and France by the early 1800s.
Next came the mechanism for heating alcoholic liquid in a column made of a series of stacked vaporization chambers, known as the continuous still. The Industrial Revolution brought with it the technology to develop rectifying columns that could handle the high steam requirement for the continuous-still operation.
Steaming up Spirits
Heat is an integral part of the complex distillation process, which involves selective evaporation and condensation. In the continuous-still process, live steam generated by a boiler is used as the heat source. It is dispensed into the bottom of the still, while the liquid is poured in near the top.
Distillation techniques may vary subtly depending on the type of spirit, but essentially, it involves vaporizing the alcoholic liquid to separate the alcohol from the water and some of the congeners.
Some spirits then go through an aging or blending process.
A Kentucky Tradition
In Kentucky, one distilled liquor might as well be stamped with a state seal: bourbon whiskey. Originally produced in the 1700s by early Kentucky settlers, bourbon was declared "America's Native Spirit" in 1964.
Recognizable brands like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve all have roots in Kentucky, and the craft of distilling bourbon is a statewide tradition. According to the official Kentucky Tourism website, more than 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is distilled and aged in Kentucky bourbon country.
It’s difficult to uncover all the details of whiskey production in Kentucky, especially considering distilleries worked covertly during the Prohibition Era. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association, formed in 1880, greatly influenced Kentucky’s signature drink and distillation as a craft.
According to the association’s website, members initially fought to reduce whiskey taxes, decrease insurance fees and remove other limiting measures. Prohibition caused membership to suffer, but it also compelled a group of distilling companies to join in getting the legislation repealed in November 1935. After that, the nonprofit association was established once again with 27 member companies.
Since that time, the KDA has been a leading voice in Bourbon and distilled spirits issues, the website states. The distilling industry itself is also alive and well, with about 30 working, licensed distilleries crafting beloved brands.
A statewide study released in 2014 for the association calculated that, in 2013, Kentucky provided about 40 percent of all distilling industry employment in the United States. Bourbon production is linked to numerous other industries in the state, including distillery equipment manufacturers, trucking, farming, wooden barrels and pallets producers and electricity. In addition, the industry is responsible for a large chunk of tourism, state tax revenue, exports, capital improvement investments and other factors that help stabilize Kentucky’s economy.
WARE is headquartered in Louisville, KY, close to some of the best distilleries in the country. With our roots deep in Kentucky, this industry spotlight post was fun to report on. Be sure to check back next week as we visit the forestry / paper manufacturing industry in the U.S.
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