A New York City Boiling Point: An Interview with Ryan Ciuchta of Kings County Distillery

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A quick glance at a map of the best distilleries in the United States is enough to prove the dominance of Kentucky and Tennessee. However, a further look at the full set reveals a broad distribution across the United States, with production largely fuelled by small, breakout players that have emerged in the past decade. One New York City distillery has jumped into the driving seat of the Big Apple’s alcohol production, King County Distillery out of Brooklyn.

After opening in 2010 out of East Williamsburg, the operation moved to the historic Paymaster Building in Brooklyn Navy Yard after two years. As well as highlighting their urban location, KCD emphasise their employment of traditional techniques and equipment like the copper whiskey stills, fabricated in Scotland. The sourcing of local New York grain also forms part of their effort to support the state’s agriculture and balance out a reputation broadly known for its successful stories in beer production.

Ryan Ciuchta is head blender at KCD, managagin the overview of production at the prestigious distillery. In this interview he outlines the state of distillery in the U.S., delving into the weeds about how to enter the industry and gain relevant skills. Responses will be useful for those looking to start a career in whiskey production, while finding some useful approaches to getting hands-on-experience.

Tendo: What is the status of U.S. distilling?

RC: From my perspective we are still very much in a boom period both on a commercial and craft level. Just in my home state of NY, we are second only to California in the number of operating distilleries at over 100. And every week we have people visiting our distillery from near and far with plans to open their own, looking for guidance on how to start. In addition to new businesses, we are also seeing capacity expansion and build-out planning from some of the pioneers of the craft scene. At Kings County, we are at the beginnings of an expansion that will 5x our output over the next few years.

Whiskey is my main focus and on the commercial side, the big guys are investing heavily in production to capitalize on the bourbon craze. I heard in an interview with Buffalo Trace Master Blender Drew Mayville, that they are building a new rickhouse for barrel aging every 5-6 months! Kentucky is also expanding its presence with new distilleries and visitor experiences from Diageo (Bulleit), Lux Row, Castle & Key, Angel’s Envy, and James E. Pepper just to name a few. I can also see similar movements happening now that occured with craft beer in the past. We are starting to see the larger holding companies buy or hold controlling stakes in smaller craft distilleries to ward off market share losses and to expand their portfolio of offerings. William Grant & Sons now owns Tuthilltown Distillery in upstate NY, giving them a new foothold in the American Whiskey market that they previous lacked. Pernod Ricard, Constellation and Remy Cointreau have all made acquisitions in the past year as well.

What moment are we in / what is the mood?

As far as moments go, I think we are in a period where the consumer has become more aware and savvy with regards to what they drink. Producers are becoming further segmented and accountability is higher. This has to do with quality, regionality and authenticity.

We see about a couple of hundred people come through our facility each week, eager to learn about spirits production. The more educated these consumers become, they more sophisticated and discerning their palettes are. In my opinion this is helping to further segment the market. It’s not simply commercial vs. craft anymore but quality vs. marketing. More refined tastes are helping to call attention to those producers that focus on consistency and taste over shear volume and sales. Consumers are faced with ever more crowded shelves and are eager to try different offerings. However, if the quality isn’t there, producers are in danger of losing their repeat business which keeps brands alive.

Regionality continues to be a factor on both the production and consumer (sales) sides of the business. According to Beverage Daily, over half of craft producers sales come from their home state. Similar to the “eat local”/farm-to-table movement, people are drawn to spirits produced locally. They seem to feel a pride and excitement when drinking or gifting something that was made around where they live. On the flip side, producers are keen to incorporate local history, techniques and ingredients into their offerings. The Pacific Northwest is hoping to have its own style of malt whiskey that is recognized as such. St. George produces a Terroir Gin made from local northern California botanicals. And here in New York, we have partnered with other distilleries to create our own classification of rye whiskey - “Empire Rye”.

The authenticity of a brand is held in higher regard now. Savvy consumers are more aware of the “sourced vs. craft” battle and will adjust their purchases accordingly. They watch the industry and take note of large corporations that take control of smaller brands and what happens to the quality of their output. I don’t think just having a marketing story is as sustainable of a strategy as it once was. More people care who is actually producing the product and if they are being deceived. In my opinion, the era of creating a new brand with sourced whiskey from MGP and no plans of actual production is not sustainable. Marketing will always be a very powerful tool in selling distilled spirits but it is increasingly becoming only one piece of the puzzle.

Lastly, as certain categories get over saturated, I think we are seeing an increase in experimentation. New grain usage and mashbills, new botanicals, new aging methods, new finishing techniques and creative blending. Brandy, rum and american style agave spirit are all starting to have their moment. I believe creativity is at the heart of most (especially small) producers. They are constantly searching for new and inventive ways to ply their craft.

Why is distilling an interesting line of work, when compared with other types of drinks production (beer, wine)?

The process of fermentation that occurs in brewing and wine-making is naturally occurring. If we were to rewind 10,000 years to an undisturbed natural world we would find evidence of fermentation amongst the flora and fauna. An apple that fell from a tree and began to rot would start to be consumed by natural yeast in the air. Similarly stacks of wet grain would begin the same transformation. Distilling is a practice brought to light by human innovation. Simple alchemical properties that we, as a species, honed to harness and concentrate this naturally occurring chemical into a potent elixir know as “acque vitae”.

I would never take anything away from my colleagues in the beer and wine industries. If anything, I find their professions way more challenging and their capacity for scientific knowledge far outweighs mine. I find distillation interesting because of the art and science that are involved throughout the process. The decisions of one side of the brain affect the other. Chemical engineering and microbiology have to align with the senses, environment and time to create the final product. Decision in certain areas that are made today will have an impact on a product that might not be released for years. The choice of grain, fermentation, yeast strain, still shape, cuts, barrel choice, aging location and maturation length are all integral factors in producing a complex combination of chemical compounds that are both safe to ingest and have a distinctive flavor. It’s a craft that takes a natural process and combines it with human advancement.

How does Kings County Distillery try to create its own culture?

I think the culture of KCD is represented well through our bottle. It is a simplistic flask shape that is reminiscent of an old apothecary bottle. There is a simple band label near the bottom with typewriter lettering. Simple, clean and nostalgic. In its simplicity it stands out among a sea of other brands on a shelf. So often in the spirits industry, marketing takes the forefront and the spirit inside the bottle is secondary. Fancy custom bottles, embossed labels, heavily embellished stories often hide a lackluster liquor inside. At KCD it’s all about the whiskey. While many other distilleries will devote capacity and resources to producing unaged gin and vodka, we only make whiskey. The idea being to focus on one thing and make it at the highest level. We don’t rely on the bottle to sell the brand, but the quality of the spirit that’s inside. By toning down the design of the bottle, we entice people’s curiosity... they buy and the spirit inside seals the deal.

This simplistic approach is seen in our distillery operations as well. Every drop is made in the historic paymaster building at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We use a double Forsyths pot still batch distillation, open top wood fermenters and moveable tanks for making cuts. There is no automated control panel and all operations are overseen by an actual human. It’s a labor intensive system but one that we think makes a superior product. A system that is worth the effort. We are very transparent about our process and share specific details with all of our daily tours. At the end of a tour, you would have all the information you would need to replicate our whiskey. The only thing you’d be missing are the people. And that is the X-factor.

Lastly, we have a culture that is built around history. Distilling spirits has a long and storied history both on the world stage and here in the US. Our owners have roots in the business through ties to Kentucky and bootlegging. We are all keenly aware of this link that we have and are eager to share it with our visitors. From the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s to the Brooklyn Whiskey Wars that happened blocks from our distillery, KCD will forever layer the past into our future.

What is exceptional about working at KCD?

Prior to working at KCD, I worked at a large corporation. There were many layers of management and too many policies, procedures and protocols. Moving to a small business like KCD, flexibility and creativity are more at the forefront. We are more about the result than the rigidity and rules of getting there in a specific, formulaic way. Being a small business also makes us very collaborative internally. I have a lot of interaction with my team of distillers, my assistant, and bottling crew. The owners are accessible and we all try to work together for a common cause. Creativity and innovation are encouraged. Ideas flow freely and we are free to try and fail if needed, without backlash, to achieve eventual success

What type of person is suited to working at KCD?

All alcohol production involves some degree of science. Many within each field have studied chemical engineering (distillers), microbiology (brewers), or viniculture (wine makers). While these people have a distinct advantage on the specifics of the process and equipment, I find that our best people have grown from passion rather than scientific pedigree. And that doesn’t have to even be passion for whiskey. Most of our distillers don’t even drink spirits! Rather they have a work ethic and intensity that drives our operation forward. Our head distiller is a process guy and ardent organizer. He would be just as successful making lamps as he would whiskey if you gave him the right tools and direction. He makes sure that production is always churning and keeps the distillery well supplied. Another distiller is a maintenance guru and a self taught mechanical wizard, constantly updating and enhancing our equipment. My assistant blender is a former chef with an intense palette and insightful taste. No one at the company, including the owners have outside distilling experience. We all learn as we go and are excited by the process. Enthusiasm and work ethic are the only prerequisites for the KCD team.

If someone was new to distilling, what would you suggest as the first entry points to learning about production?

A lot of distilleries have volunteer opportunities and some even offer internships. I got started with KCD by volunteering on the bottling line. This can give you a foot in the door and show the company that you are reliable, hard working and can mesh with the company culture.

As distilling as an industry has become bigger, there is more and more information available online and in print. There are books on yeast, fermentation, still shapes and all sorts of “How to Make...” options available. The American Distilling Institute and American Craft Spirits Association both have comprehensive websites and quarterly publications that delve into specific areas of the distilling business.

Take tours at local distilleries and pay attention to each of their unique production workflows and equipment.

Become well versed in the spirit that intrigues you. Be it whiskey, gin, tequila - take steps to become an expert in that field and amass as much knowledge as possible. Go to brand events and tasting, find clubs and events with like minded people, conduct blind tastings on your own, research brands that you like and learn how they produce their spirit differently or why you like them above others.

Network as much as possible at events. It’s a close community so the further you get in the more likely you are to hear of openings, seminars or behind the scenes access. You are also more likely to start learning, through conversation, specific production information beyond normal book learning.

Are there some central blog posts to read, or skills to acquire to act as a first step / filter?

There is a lot of information online. “Talking shop” happens a lot in this industry so keeping abreast of movements within the industry can help spur conversation. Some of the outlets that I engage to keep up on industry are:

Depending on the area that you are interested there are some things you could do to make yourself more appealing. If you are into blending, start sampling many different types of spirit within your category. This will start to train your nose to find differences or perhaps consistencies. Other things to do:

  • Engage in blind flights to see how well you do testing yourself.

  • There is A LOT of equipment in a distillery. The more handy you are the better! Interests in mechanics, plumbing and simple tool usage are always a help.

  • Read books to have at least a vague understanding of the process. Each distilleries system is different so you’ll never know it exactly. But it helps to understand the process that is happening on a chemical level inside of all stills.

  • Common sense! Distilling isn’t rocket science but it does have dangerous elements to it. Being able to think and reason are a must

Briefly outline your own development in whiskey and how KCD has played a part.

My introduction to whiskey outside of your typical Jack Daniels/Jim Beam bar shot was an invitation to a whiskey tasting in Baltimore when I was 27. A friend of my father had secured a table and invited 4 of his friends and their sons to attend. We tasted five single malt scotches from different regions. I was amazed at the difference in tastes between the five products, yet they were all considered scotch. When I returned to NY I began to taste different single malts when out with friends. I bought books, read online tasting notes and attended countless brand sponsored tasting around the city. At one of these tastings I met two women. We kept in touch and formed a friendship over spirits. This lead to a monthly outing of the three of us to tastings, bars, events and eventually a tour at KCD. After our tour was complete, I signed up for what I thought was a mailing list. It turned out to be a volunteer sign up sheet for Saturday bottling sessions. KCD contacted me later that week and I went in for my first bottling line work. I met great new people, was able to talk whiskey and see behind the scenes. I asked if I could come back and they were happy to have me. After about 6 months, I began helping to dump barrels for the bourbon blends. Then they taught me how to proof tanks and eventually I began working with our Head Blender, Nicole Austin, as the barrel manager. This lead to becoming her Assistant Blender. Nicole left the company in September of 2016 to head to Ireland (Tullamore Dew) and is now the Distiller and GM of George Dickel. The owners offered me a full time job to take over as the Head of Blending and Production in October 2016 and I gladly switched careers from the declining magazine industry to the booming world of whiskey.

I have no formal training in science and had never even been to a distillery prior to my visit to KCD in 2013. All of my knowledge and experience has been on the job. Without the trust and training that I have received at KCD, I don’t think I would be in the industry today. I arrived at the right time at the right place. But I also put in the time and effort to make them believe in me.

For more information on Kings County Distillery and what Ryan’s team are up to, visit kingscountydistillery.com.