Steve Porter and I began corresponding electronically some time ago and became fast friends discussing distillation. Steve owns a small distillery called Woodshed Distilling in New Bavaria Ohio specializing in corn whiskey made by hand and from local ingredients as well as seasonal spirits. Steve is currently looking at expanding his operation to the next level and bringing his hand at the craft to more drinkers
Steve, tell us a little about your background and how you got into the world of distillation?
As far as making liquor is concerned, my rather bland story begins in 2004. My dad was the elected county sheriff for several terms when I was growing up and my brother is now an FBI SWAT agent formerly of the Columbus, Ohio police department and a Marine guard at the White House and Camp David. Needless to say you have to come from pretty straight-laced stock and know the right people to get a gig opening doors for the President. My childhood was at the same time as plain and exciting as skim milk. We didn’t make alcohol but we did drink a little when we left the farm. My father-in-law however is from Dungannon in Southwestern Virginia and at least a fourth generation bootlegger. Or was until 20 some years ago. All I ever heard about at parties was how much liquor he used to run and how good it was. We talked about making liquor together a few times but honestly it still sounded pretty confusing to me. I’d seen pictures of people running stills and even been to a few distilleries. Listening to him talk about making it was just overwhelming at the time. My wife bought the home from her folks when they retired and moved back to Virginia 2004. I was cleaning out the barn one day and came across a few of his old stills. I tried to dry fit everything one day for his big 50 gallon stainless rig but just couldn’t figure it out. I talked to her dad a little more over the phone and read on the tripod ethanol page, the one with the Charles 803 write up. Then I found the homedistiller site. I must have read for a good three or four years before I even attempted to put that still back together again. I ordered some books, asked a few questions and tried a few sample mashes. I didn’t have any intent to distill anything at this point, I just wanted to see if I could get something to ferment. I failed miserably the first few times, accomplishing little more than wasting corn and attracting bugs. But I was hungry to learn, and learn the right way.
Fast forward several years. I read about a product called “Sorgrhum” from some guys in southern Indiana and it intrigued me. The more I read, the more I realized I was going to need a lot of money just for permits. Then something awesome happened in Ohio around 2010. A new permit class was opened up for microdistillers. I visited Ernie Scarano as a birthday present to myself. He started the A3A movement in Ohio and was only about two hours away. The A3A is a permit class for the microdistillers. Some of the perks at the time allowed the permit holder to produce up to 10,000 wine gallons, self-transport and sell onsite with tasting privileges. It’s been tweaked now to allow 100,000 gallons and we can now sell direct to bars, clubs, restaurants and the like. He was a great asset to have early on for me. I began muddling through the paperwork…which I still complete all on my own…and then got sidetracked by life. I had just finished my business degree and ended up switching jobs a few months later. The second day at the new job my wife tells me we’re adding to our family. I had been saving up for a still but that got put on hold for a while. Dumb luck and a random Facebook post put me in touch with Matt Baltrip, a guy from my hometown that happened to build traditional stills. Matt and I worked out a deal for a 20 gallon all copper rig that I practiced with, and that carries me on to the next question.
Were you a home distiller?
I plead the Fifth. I think whether anyone admits it or not most legal distillers all played around a little bit on the other side of the fence, except for maybe a small handful that got formal schooling or apprentice at one of the major distilleries. The day I had my state inspection the agent asked me how long I’d been distilling. I told him I’d taken a class or two in high school and seen it done on YouTube. He looked me dead in the eye and said nobody wakes up and decides to be a distiller, then asked the same question again. The funny thing is I only had three or four years of successful running but he could tell I knew a little more than most of the other distilleries he’d been to in the state, and a lot more than I was letting on. But back to the question…I bootstrapped my distillery through an aggressive research and development stage with the 20 gallon and I’ll just leave it at that.
Was there someone you had to learn from and could take inspiration from as you were building your skillset?
I really didn’t have anyone to learn from…at least not anyone local. I had my father-in-law but he was/is 500 miles away. I could call and ask questions but he couldn’t be there to show me anything firsthand except the few times a year when they came to visit. He was really the only person I knew personally that made liquor before I got in to it. I learned a lot from reading and then trial & error. Inspiration comes from a lot of places though. My family of course, but especially my peers and my father-in-law. My corn whiskey is his recipe. It’s about the same but he proofed his around 100 and I bottle mine at 116. I would much rather make a product this is highly regarded by other distiller’s than…Fireball. That’s my measuring stick. I’m never going to be Jack Daniels but I am Steve Porter and I sign my name on every bottle, selling only the best whiskey I’m capable of making. On the commercial side of things, I like what I’ve read about Leopold Brothers out in Colorado. They have a story I can relate to and some awesome products. Chip Tate is kind of another personal hero even though I’ve never actually talked to hi because of how he shook up the industry. And I like what you’re doing, too, Alan. The Dona Jug, landrace projects and terroir. I grew up on a farm and still try to be as connected to the land as I can be. The last place I draw inspiration from is inside of me, of course. And inspiration may not be the right word. I have this old saying, “the fear of failure is stronger than the will to win.” I believe that a person who is motivated by the fear of letting someone down has a stronger motivation than a person who only wants to win for the sake of winning. Maybe it’s my upbringing, I don’t know. If anyone has watched “The Great Santini” you can get a sense of my teenage years. I love watching underdog movies. Secretariat, Invincible, Facing the Giants…stuff like that. I don’t have that bootlegger’s pedigree or a location in a high traffic area so I can’t just put crap in a mason jar with my picture or name on it and wait for the money to roll in. I push myself harder to make up for the lack of those things. And then there’s the crowd that says you can’t start a distillery with less than a million dollars. In fact, that exact line is in this month’s article of “Artisan Spirits.” I was up and running legal for under $10,000. It’s not an ideal situation but I have a viable business plan that I am capable of executing. I doubt many others could, but I can. I own everything outright, no loans or investors. I love proving people wrong, but rather than waste time arguing I’d rather let the work show for itself. If anything, history has shown us that nothing is impossible if a person has the will to follow through.
Tell us a little about your operation and the equipment that you use as well as the methods of production that make your style different from most others.
I’ll apologize here for my continuing use of singular possessive pronouns (I and me,) but as the readers will soon find out I’m a one-man show. I’ll explain why in a little bit. I’m probably the smallest legal Distilled Spirits Plant in the US and also one of a handful that has a DSP on residential property. My operation is in a non-enterprise township, which means that aside of partitioning and re-zoning my property I’m limited to either an agricultural business(address doesn’t meet acreage threshold) or an owner-occupancy business. In layman’s terms I cannot hire anyone who is not a member of my immediate family living on the property. As for equipment I run a single 50 gallon all copper traditional Tennessee style pot still and make one run every two weeks or so, pulling anywhere from 8 to 11 gallons of proofed product. Some of the readers are probably trying to do math in their head right now, so I’ll cut to it…I also have a day job as a manager for a steel processing plant. My five year plan (I’m just starting year three of production in May,) is to be moving 200 or so cases a month and be in the state warehouse for distribution. In Year 10 I plan to be making liquor full time.
I mill all my own grains, mostly for consistency and partly to maintain freshness. For ingredients I’ve gone into a neighbor’s field for a few dozen ears to finish out a cook, but I use corn mostly grown from my dad or uncle’s farms and I’m growing heirloom corn on my own farm for this year. You and I have talked about that a little, we’ll see how it goes in a few weeks when I start my seeds indoors. I’ve decided to hand-pollinate and bag silks to mitigate as much drift as possible. City people are reading this right now and wouldn’t have a clue except for Google. The other grains come from the best available supplier at the time I need them. I think sometimes people get caught up in that “buy local” thing. Don’t get me wrong — I’d love to buy everything right across the road from my house and keep the money at home but that’s just not always practical. People will always buy local until the value metric they determine to be the greatest is diminished or exceeded by a similar product or service. How many in this business have a maltster within an hour’s drive or do their own? I’ve done it with corn…a lot… and if you’re malting your own grains more power to ya! There are some things just worth paying for, like electrical work and malting.
Here’s a few things that make me really different from a lot of people in this industry. First, I’m not doing this because I’m chasing the dollars or need another paycheck. I really can’t respect those people that have come in to this market with an exit strategy already in place and a dozen investors that need answered to. My Grampa was a farmer for 40+ years. He never borrowed a nickel and never loaned a dime. When he died the estate had almost 1,000 acres and $2million in Farm equipment…all paid for in cash over time. If you have a dream by God follow it. But first figure out how you don’t have to sell your soul to make it a reality. More solid famliy life lessons. I still have my soul and I don’t have a formal exit strategy, but if anyone is writing checks I’d take $40 million to hand over the keys to the building and combination to the safe. It’s small enough you could haul it off with a trailer. The building that is. For $10 million I’d sell the LLC but retain creative control, recipes and no non-compete clause. I don’t think I’ll ever see one of those offers but I’d be stupid to pass on them. Even though I don’t have a family history of making liquor, I do love history. I took this up as a hobby and when the baby was on the way my wife said I had to be legal if I wanted to keep doing it. Something about having a still in the barn and responsibilities, brother that’s a Fed, best friend from high school is the local ABC field agent…things like that. Unfortunately, making distilled spirits is not something that can be enjoyed as a legal hobby anywhere in the world except New Zealand. The hobby aspect is also one of the main reasons why I am choosing to grow at such a slow pace. I’m a lot like a sponge in that I want to soak up everything of value and fully understand the “why” before I move on the “how” and “what.” After we chatted about yeast wrangling a few months back – and wrangling is the proper scientific term– I spent the better part of the following afternoon just reading about how to set up slants and calculating how much freezer space I’d need. I decided I don’t have that much spare time yet but maybe I can get my 4 year old on it. I want to make sure things are done right, for the right reasons. Sometimes that means letting somebody else provide that service or supply and sometimes it means getting talked out of a project.
Another thing about my little shop is the process and the practices. My liquor is only distilled once and I don’t proof down with water. I’m marketing an experience, one that I’d like to be as authentic as possible. Not the parts that involve a high-speed drunken chase or getting a hangover from choking down bathtub gin. But the authentic liquor experience. It’s sad that when I offer samples to people a lot of them pass. The near universal response is that they tried moonshine from Uncle Bob or at Gatlinburg or <insert famous celebrity brand here> and it burned really bad, smelled like rubbing alcohol and tasted like cheap vodka. I don’t know what Uncle Bob is doing, but most of the places in Gatlinburg are running sugar wash through a column still on a two or three day ferment. I don’t add any sugar at all and my ferments go almost two weeks before I rack them over to the pot. Like I mentioned above I use the same type of still that’s found out in the woods. I chose a true pot still with no column because it gives more flavor than a column. The learning curve is pretty steep though compared to a column. A person can’t just plug ‘n play and get something palatable like with a column still. I heat with direct fire which means I need to filter as many solids out as possible before I cook or else I run the risk of scorching and ruining the spirits. This is the main reason I let my mash set so long.
One last thing. Since my DSP and co-located state agency are on my residential property, I have some unique opportunities. First, I don’t need a bar to serve cocktails. Once a person steps out the door of the retail area they are now guests on my property. I can’t sell mixed drinks, but I can sell sour mix, juice, flavorings. I can splash a drink with my own personal liquor.IIf somebody wants to buy a bottle then hang out by my pond and BBQ, so be it. I mentioned above about my high school buddy being the ABC guy. According to him I can have a band, take “freewill donations” for babysitting beer in a cooler and sell liquor by the bottle out of my shop, all above board the whole time. Kind of a mini-festival with no additional permits. My wife has concerns so we haven’t gone down that rabbit hole yet. But it is on hell of an opportunity to party. I think if I had a dozen distillers on board I can make it happen. Bring your best 50 gallon mash or less. The wheels are turning guys. Seriously.
I know you produce a premium corn whiskey but what other products are you making or planning on?
This is a real simple one. I like experimenting with bourbon recipes. There are so many possibilities that I don’t think a guy has time scratch the surface. Lots of variations with smoked malts and combinations that I don’t think have been fully realized on the whiskey scene. I don’t plan on moving in to anything else in the foreseeable future except for flavored novelties I’ve been working on… the moonshine type stuff that sells fast and keeps the business profitable. Those are still based on my standard corn whiskey, just cut down quite a bit. I try to make as many of my own extracts ws possible but sometimes I can’t keep up. I believe in doing one thing as well as I know how and sticking to it. Trying to be lean I guess. I may try a rye down the road but have no desire to start a gin or rum. If I had more space I might feel differently but that’s a question I’ll revisit when I have more space than I can use.
What would be your advice to new distillers in the trade?
If you’re not in the game yet, plan backwards by starting with where you want to be in 10 years and then figure out how to get there. Make what you like, you’ll be more passionate about it. As far as paperwork goes, I did my own and had TTB basic permit in 45 days and state in 30. That was when there was about a thousand fewer DSP’s. I’ve helped about a dozen others get permits, all distillers and not just processors. The single biggest thing is contact TTB if you have a question on the permit. You’re gonna be the one on the hook, not the consultant filling out the forms. Sure, use those folks if you want– there is a ton of knowledge out there that was hard earned– but ask the questions yourself and get the answers firsthand so you’re clear on what’s expected. You’re the one that has to execute and it will make communicating with your agent easier.
If you’re in the game now but struggling, I’m not gonna tell you to tough it out and things will get better. They won’t unless you take control of the situation and get things on the right track for you. Stop trying to be everything to everyone. Stick to your plan. Chances are you needed a business plan to get in to the game. It was good enough to convince your investors, and they’re probably much better at assessing viability than you are. If you are using your plan and it’s not working, do a truthful SWOT analysis with a focus group. Not your drinking buddies that come in for a bottle and free samples every Thursday. You’ve already sold them. If you don’t have a plan get one ASAP. This isn’t some college road trip in a rental car and no destination. Don’t be afraid to take on a partner. I know what I said above about investors, etc. That’s me, I know myself. Don’t listen to me. Here’s why you should not listen to me.
I got married in my backyard here on our little farm. Why isn’t important, but it was a mutual decision that had nothing to do with the money and all about the experience. For the food I decided I was going to roast a hog in the ground. I don’t mean hire someone or get some buddies over to drink beer the night before my wedding day and cook it for me, I mean me personally. I had a pig lined up, site picked out, charcoal and oak, apple and Hickory wood from my yard chopped and split, industrial sized roll of foil, and I was going to make the sauce to boot while the pig cooked away. My bride to be thought I was insane, her family couldn’t believe I even thought of doing this, my mom refused to be a part of helping with the food. My brother was all on board though, mostly because we’re both a little unhinged. I was dead-set on cooking this pig for my guests. Right up until my dad told me I was out of my everloving mind to even think I had time when there was so much other stuff to do. He made a list of what needed done and then we assigned a time value to each task. This is what happens when you’re dad is also a retired Sergeant Major. I ended up not cooking the hog and instead got 50lbs from a local BBQ icon. But if my dad had not intervened I would have cooked that hog and probably not had as much fun on my wedding day. Sometimes we need an honest perspective on what we’re doing to see if it makes sense. Sometimes we need to set aside time to enjoy a dance. Sometimes that dance is on the dance floor that we built the day before our wedding to make our spouse-to-be happy when we wanted to be roasting a hog.