Higher education at Cornell

Higher education at Cornell

I was emailing with Nicolas at Carl about getting a part for our still when he mentioned that Carl is co-hosting a distilling workshop at Cornell University in a few days. Since Cornell is a four hour drive away, I signed up and hit the road. After an uneventful drive, I pulled into the Best Western University Inn in Ithaca just after midnight and was asleep within minutes. While waiting for the morning shuttle bus to campus, I struck up a conversation with a a fellow Canadian attending the workshop. He manages the St. George's Golf Club and has been bitten by the distilling bug. On the bus in, I got to admire the gorgeous Cornell campus. I actually spent the second year of my life here when my dad was doing his post-doctorate. My parents have great memories of the campus and I was eager to explore. The workshop was held in the Agricultural building that houses among other things a working dairy. Unbelievable how much money the University has. I was greeted by Nicolas and Carl owner Alexander.  It was great to finally meet Nicolas in person. They were joined by a couple Cornell professors who ran the distilling program (yes, the University has a distilling program). There were about 12 of us in the workshop each with a cool story.  Over the next two days we would spend the morning getting into the academic details of fermentation and distilling. The afternoon was spent in the University's distillery where I was totally blown away by the equipment. The had not one but two functional mini Carl stills. They also had a sea of computer controlled fermenters. I was particularly impressed with a hose bib they had and looked it up on the web.  It cost over $5K US!  Money is no object for Cornell. We got a treat after our first day of class when we all visited 1911 Spirits.  The distillery is perched on a hill overlooking the Otisco valley.  The distillery makes apple vodka using almost the same still that we have. They even got the same size stripping still we're planning to get.  I felt a rush of excitement touring their distillery thinking that we'll have the same operation soon. For dinner, we crossed the road to Beak & Skiff apple orchard and cidery. I was introduced to their "hopped" cider and quickly purchased a case to bring home.  I was happy to spend the evening chatting with my fellow distillers who were all great people.

The tax women cometh

The tax women cometh

Alcohol taxes brought in $12B into Canadian federal and provincial government coffers last year.  The government doesn’t leave a drop untaxed. Before we could even own a still, we had to prove we can measure the alcohol we produce so we can pay excise tax on it. We applied for our federal excise license last October but was only assigned an excise officer in May. Luckily, the officer responsible for our application was very friendly and helped us through the process. The first thing we had to do was purchase instruments to measure and weight alcohol that are approved by Excise Canada. Unfortunately, they don’t publish a list of approved instruments so we had to submit ones we thought would be approved.  A time consuming process since we had to wait for the CRA lab’s approval. We ended up purchasing an Anton Paar DMA 4500 alcohol density meter. This $25K machine can measure alcohol volume to the five decimal places of precision required by Excise Canada. Total overkill considering we had a $2K Anton Paar Snap 40 that was accurate to one decimal place.   The second big ticket item we had to buy for the CRA was an approved scale. After doing some research, I concluded a platform scale would work best for us. It would allow us to weight barrels of alcohol collected from the still as well as weighing shipping pallets. I found an American vendor, Rice Lake, that had a Measurements Canada approved platform scale. They had a distributor a half hour away in Burnstown, GTR Scales. They recently supplied a scale to the nearby King’s Lock Distillery so they were familiar with the Excise Canada’s process.   With both the alcohol meter and scale on site, I scheduled our Excise exam with Amy. The GTR Scales technician came out before Amy arrived and setup the weights needed for the exam. He had to bring 2000KG of weights which our neighbour was kind enough to move into place with his forklift. With Amy present, he ran the scale through a series of tests. Once Amy was satisfied, he put his Measurement Canada seal on our scale.  First part of the test passed. Now it was Jessica’s turn to be examined. A week prior, we received vials from Excise Canada with unmarked alcohol samples.  We had to measure the density and alcohol content of each vial. Our Anton Paar unit performed as expected and showed the vials to be 15%, 40% and 70% alcohol. Amy used a table to convert the density values into alcohol percentages. Her values didn’t match that of the Anton Paar unit so I insisted she record both.  Luckily, I did since it turned out she had used the wrong table. With these tests passed, we got our Federal Spirits Manufacturer's license from Excise Canada.  Hurray! We can now pay taxes.

Tower of power

Tower of power

The summer has brought us a student, Kyle, who is in his second year at Queens Engineering. We put Kyle to work cleaning the still before assembling it. It took Kyle almost two weeks of polishing but the copper look like new.

The final flashing

The final flashing

Whoever said "the devil is in the details" had it right. A whole building can be erected in the same amount of time it takes to do the trim. For example, Omark spent days installing the aluminium trim around the building. Not easy work especially when working 40 feet up on a boom lift. When setting up the steam boiler, I found out that I need a chimney to vent it. A nice last minute surprise. Luckily, Paul at Friendly Fires in Carlton Place was able to quickly get me the chimney pieces and was able to use the boom lift to install it.  I had installed the chimney at my house so it didn't take me long to get it up at the distillery. Omark had the difficult job of getting the chimney through the roof on a very windy day.  

Cleaning out the garage

Cleaning out the garage

Today is a big day. Our still and fermenters are moving out of my garage and into the distillery. The moment my wife has been waiting for. Neal arrived at my place with a giant Penske truck and using the lift gate we muscled in most of the equipment. The drive to Almonte was uneventful but Neal grazed Simon's van on the final approach to the distillery. Not easy handling such a massive truck. I was certainly relieved when all the equipment was unloaded.

A bulletproof floor

A bulletproof floor

After doing a lot of research about how to cover the concrete in the production area, I decided that polyurethane is the way to go. It's impervious to harsh chemicals and can withstand heavy tools being dropped on it. I asked Duron who they recommend and they referred me to Bob Gordon at Concrete Fusion. Bob's first quote was out of my budget but he came back with a supplier from Montreal called Ureco who had better prices. Despite the still high cost, I signed Bob up to apply polyurethane in the production area and to polish the concrete in the retail/office area. I realized the floor is serious business when three pallets of supplies showed up. One feature I liked about the system is that the polyurethane can be run up the "baseboards" to essentially create a water proof bathtub. To do so, they firt installed a "cove" where the floor meets the wall using a cementitious polyurethane. I was surprised that they didn't cover the cement board (which I put in to cover the ICF) but Zach told me that the top coat would be painted on later. This turned out to be a mistake that would haunt us later. After the coves were in place, came the fun part. The polyurethane is a two part product mixed on site then spread over the floor using a trowel. They then sprinkled silica dust over the polyurethane to give it some grip. Zach came back the next day to apply the polyurethane topcoat. That's when he realized the cement board covering the ICF foundation wall was to rough to paint. It should have been covered with the cementitious polyurethane used to make the cove. Ironically, the Ureco product video showed this detail being done. Zach tried to solve the problem by sanding the cement board but that didn't turn out. His brother Adam came up with the idea to apply a stucco like product to the cement board to make the surface more even. I was happy with the look so they went with it. Then, the moment I've been waiting for. Zach and his team rolled on the top coat. Boy did it shine!

A one man army

A one man army

One of the highlights of the build has been getting to know Omark who has been roofing for over 20 years and is a master of his craft. Omark likes to work alone which I thought would be impossible on this job given the corrugated metal roof panels are over 50' long. But he managed to pull them onto the roof and sides using an ingenious system of pulleys.  I'm glad Sean caught it on video since it's pretty unbelievable.

Craft beer capital of the USA

Craft beer capital of the USA

The family and I drove down to Stowe, Vermont for March break. Any worry of there not being enough snow for skiing was buried by a massive snow storm that dumped 2 feet in less than 24 hours. When we were not snow plowing on the slopes, we toured the local breweries and distilleries. Beer tourism is a thing in Vermont with dozens of breweries dotting the country side. We stopped by Green Mountain Distillers who make spirits using organic corn. I was surprised that they were able to make decent product using a stainless steel still. Down the street from our timeshare, we found The Alchemist brewery. Their brewery is housed in a gorgeous new modern building where they make some very hoppy beer. I was especially impressed with their fermenters that were decorated to look like their beer cans. I also liked the huge fan they had and sent a picture of it to Sean so he can order one for us. A 10 minute drive from Stowe is Waterbury which must be the craft beer capital of the US. I found a store dedicated to selling local craft beer and cider. The choice was endless. I wish we could have similar stores in Ontario focused on local beer, wine and spirits.

Boarders, mudders, sanders, oh my

Boarders, mudders, sanders, oh my

I was lucky to reconnect with Ivan, who did the drywall at my house. He assembled a team of pros that got to work as the last glass panel was being installed. I was worried that the boarders would complain about hanging the drywall on the SIPs using the scissor lift. But Max's team had no problem with it and the ceiling dry walled in two days. I often found myself watching them work. It was amazing how they could get a screw from their pouch into the panel in less than 5 seconds. Next up was Mark, the tapper and mudder. Mark liked starting early so I had to be on site at 530 to make sure the heater was working (it was on its last legs and had to be restarted constantly). Mark didn't talk much but he did a lot of taping. By the time I left for March break, Ivan's team had the entire place boarded, tapped and mudded.  

Wonder wall

Wonder wall

When I started planning, I found inspiration in the recently built Dalmunach distillery in Scotland. I loved the window wall and wanted to my "modern barn" to have one. Paul told me that I needed to find a curtain wall supplier so I starting calling around. I came across a company called Albion Glass and made an appointment for Paul and I to discuss the project with them. We were greeted by Tony, a gregarious Italian who owned the company. It wasn't long until Tony was serving us his home made grappa and showing us the figs growing in his office. Despite the curtain wall being really expensive, I put down a deposit with Tony without hesitation. I had originally planned that the curtain wall be installed in December but production delays pushed things back. I was thrilled when I got the call from Albion that the steel mullions and glass were ready for delivery. Tony's son, Brandon, came out to survey the site. He said the hardest part will be getting the distillery curtain wall mullions up since they weight a ton. Brandon and his crew started installing the frames in the retail area and office. I was amazed how quickly that went together. Things got bogged down when installing the mullions for the main wall. They had to make sure each one was perfectly aligned or the giant glass panels wouldn't fit. It took them over a week to install the mullions. But the wait was worth it. With the mullions in place, all the glass went up in a day. The result was better than I could imagine.   [gallery ids="412,413,414" type="rectangular"]

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