Clay Smith of Corsair Artisan Distillery

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Clay Smith is a consummate distiller, one always interested in learning more about and expanding his craft.  He has been with Corsair Artisan Distillery for several years now and has manned distilleries for them in both Bowling Green Kentucky and Nashville Tennessee overseeing botanical distillations as well as whiskey and has also taught craft distilling classes related to Absinthe and Gin at Louisville KY’s Distilled Spirits Epicenter/Moonshine University.

Clay, tell us a little about your background, what got you interested in distillation?

I’ve been in and out of the industry for about 15 years. My formal education was fine arts based. I cut my teeth in wine in Boston while I was going to school there. I was finishing a post-baccalaureate degree at the Museum School when I kinda fell into a position with a large retailer there. Deep discounts = drinking lots of good wine, cheap, but not cheap enough to discount the experience as strictly for pleasure. I wanted to learn. When I moved to Chicago to finish my Master Degree at University of Chicago, they too had a program within their graduate studies program that allotted certain monies to be used for providing adult beverages to events such as art openings and department parties. I became the buyer for that program which was little more than a glorified events planner, but still got to interact with the retailers ordering new things and stuff I wanted to try. After that, I moved to Dallas TX for about a year (don’t recommend that) and became a buyer for another retailer for their beer program. While there, I got into home brewing and got bored with it rather quickly. I loved the process and the artistry/craft behind it, but needed to go further. I was in the process of investigating and building my own stills when I moved back to Kentucky and a friend of mine told me there’s a new micro-distillery on the square here in Bowling Green. At the time, Corsair had been producing for about 9 months or so, they were still prototyping Triple Smoke. I just stopped by one day and started chatting with Ben Kickert (my predecessor) and Andrew Webber (CEO) about booze, Art, Craft and DIY stuff. I remember Andrew brought me a sample of what was then an un-named hopped whiskey they had just prototyped that day (later to become our Rasputin hopped whiskey) I identified two of the three varietals of hops that were used. Andrew seemed a bit astonished and went back to check the labels on the hops he had been playing with and confirmed. We talked a little while longer and by the end of the conversation, I walked out with two new friends and the prospect of a job. Back then, we didn’t just hire people. Mostly us original folks would just wander in and volunteer some time to put on labels or help out distilling in exchange for an indeterminate amount of free booze. I already had two jobs and I was there to learn, and really, to be around like-minded creative individuals.

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You guys do some really interesting botanical distillation with Gin, Ginevere, and Absinthe, tell us a little about those and explain to us some of the difficulties involved in balancing a good botanical bill for the maximum experience.

Yeah, We currently have 5 gins in production, and working on a sixth for the future. Our overarching goal in general is 100 new spirits a year. That doesn’t mean that we release 100 new products, it is just a lofty starting point goal. We find out what works and what doesn’t and then they usually go through a lengthy process of elimination to find out what product is best for market. One of the reasons it takes us such a long time for a product to make it to market is being certain that product plays well with other items. With Absinthes, gins, and most all other botanical based spirits, something I tell all my students when teaching is that balance is without question the key to a good marketable product. While use of rare or esoteric ingredients make for interesting qualities and stories, if you can’t find things that pair well with it to give the spirit dimension or breadth, those elements become rather sore thumbs. A micro-chasm within an already niche space. Too often I try a very unique and sometimes proficiently distilled product and cannot see the application in a cocktail. These types of spirits will often times end up in my library, but I seldom reach for them when making a drink.

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Recently you moved to Tennessee to work on the grain side of Corsair products, is this a new facility?  What types of grains are your working with?  Any you guys are growing yourself?

Our new distillery, in the Wedgewood/Houston neighborhood in Nashville is the latest in our rapidly expanding repertoire of locations. Our third distillery about 10,000sf was brought online last year. Though it has been a slow start, I was able to lay down about 100 barrels last year consisting of mostly Bourbon, Rye, and corn based products. It is an “on the grain” fermentation facility, most of our other whiskey products are lautered to ferment. When Corsair began in 2008, we knew that as a small business, we couldn’t play in the same Bourbon/Rye league that the big boys (in KY and TN) were in. You can’t play the “Age” game (unless you have zillions of dollars to piss away) You can’t play the “quantity” game (again, zillions) and you can’t possibly make margins work at their aggressively competitive pricing. So, we started with focus on malt whiskies, shorter aging periods and initially a whole unexplored world of grains nobody was using. This facility was built with the intention of moving back into straight Bourbon and Rye production. We just had to come back to it on our own terms. We’ve also transitioned some products we already have to this facility because it just made sense. Our Quinoa whiskey for example has proven to be a better product with an on the grain fermentation. Currently I’ve been sourcing as much much local/heritage grains as possible, working with the local farmers and testing qualities of their grains in our products. We’ve toyed with growing our own barley, and corn, but not in significant enough quantities yet. Also Farmers that know what they’re doing, deserve your respect. If you don’t believe me, just try growing your own barley in a region where quality barley typically doesn’t grow. Oh, and good luck finding the equipment to harvest if you don’t have it already and aren’t willing to buy a half million dollar combine. It’s best to work with real pros even if you insist on growing stuff yourself.

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Tell us a little about the malting facility you have at Corsair and how that has benefited your products?

We began the Malt house a couple of years back as another offshoot endeavor. It’s a move to slowly grow into that “grain to glass” or even better “field to glass” category of spirits now taking shape. While having a hand in EVERY aspect of a product from start to finish can give one the “proverbial DIY boner” it is essentially more difficult than it seems and can be distracting. Again, practicing a slow, organic growth integrating it into our practice has given us perspective on how these spirits can fit into our portfolio. Though it has yielded results for us now (2-3 years later) and it accounts for roughly 20% of our lineup. Our TN single malt, Green malt, and many of our smoked whiskey varieties that you cannot buy the smoked malt profile for commercially.

You guys were previously Lautering your mash, is that still happening?  Is there a qualitative reason for running a straight wash in a still as opposed to a mash?

Yes, We do both, depending on the product. There are definitely considerations for both. Initially, lautering was a practical concern for us. We inherited the first generation 15bbl brewkit from Yazoo when we took over the space in Marathon Village. We were mainly working with Malt whiskeys in the beginning, so lautering made sense. Though it’s possible to work with corn in this manner, the practical concerns (i.e. grain handling, temp control, etc.) outweigh any benefits in our experience. We have done both and decided for our spirits, in the case of corn, traditional methodology wins.

Of the many grains you guys have worked with over the years do you have one in particular that you think distills extremely well?  A favorite so to speak?  Which is the hardest to work with?

We’ve worked with soooooo much, it’s hard to pinpoint a single thing. Ingredients change, growing seasons change, stresses on the plants change all the time which give rise to qualities you cannot (and usually should not) reasonably quantify. Good or bad. This coupled with storage considerations, minute changes in environments during fermentation, distillation and aging take the fun out of making things if you name your favorite. It makes it hard to definitively discern a hierarchy of grain. As for favorites, I’ll say this, All spirits have their place. Sometimes that place is in the trash. We are spirits lovers. I really dislike it when people ask me what my favorite thing we make is. If we didn’t see it as valid for some reason, we wouldn’t produce it. Having said this, some folks say Rye is so hard to work with. Not really my experience. Everything is hard in the beginning or when you don’t have the right equipment to do the job at hand. Some grains just take the right kind of love. Sorry, let me just kick this soapbox out of the way. There. What were we talking about again?

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I know you guys recently moved into brandy production as well, tell us a little about the varietals you have worked with and how that compares with whiskey distillation for you?

The Brandy beginnings were really Matt Strickland’s baby. I can’t really give any insight on that too much. Aside from watching a few barrels of very tasty apple brandy age, and a few trials of Traminette, Chambourcin, Muscat, and a few others not much to say yet. We are growing several varietals on the farm currently in their third year, but currently are not much more than tasty snacks for the deer. I’m sure in a year or so, I’ll have much more to say about it. Very excited to see our Charentais Alembic still restored and pumping out some brandy (and maybe some french style whiskies) though.

You guys are well known for pushing the envelope so I don’t think the interview would be complete if I didn’t ask what was next on the list?

Oh, I dunno, Space Whiskey? Trans-dimensional gin? Homeopathic Bourbon? No, seriously, We’ve gone through a really big period of growth recently. It’s hard to say what is in the immediate future, but I have some new Bourbon mash bills in barrel, and some TN whiskey made with Kamut (Khorasan wheat) and filtered with various charcoals that look extremely promising. 100% Corn Bourbon on the horizon too. I’m really just waiting for the day Darek comes in and says “Pack your bags, We’re putting a new distillery on Mars”

 

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