“5-7” with Todd Leopold of Leopold Brothers distillery.

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Todd, tell us a bit about your background, where you came from and grew up, as well as your initial interest in craft beer and subsequently distilling:

Grew up in Colorado for my formative years. This was key because the brewing scene was percolating out here before I turned 21. So I was exposed to the idea of small production breweries right away, yes, but more importantly, I was exposed to the idea of the entrepreneurial spirit. In High School, I never came across the concept of starting your own brick and mortar business. DIY only applied to punk rock in my mind. Sure, starting a band or a fanzine was possible….but not a business. That’s what rich people did. Seeing kids in their 20’s starting breweries changed this notion completely.

But what got me really interested in brewing was a book by Eric Warner on Hefeweizen. This was a beer that fascinated me, as the notion of a specific yeast strain providing the bulk of the character of a beer appealed to my sense of wonder.

Mr. Warner’s background as a Diplom Braumeister from Weihenstephan was on the book jacket, and it was there that I first came across the existence of brewing schools. I had no clue that such a thing existed, and was captured by the idea of going to a foreign country to learn about a trade at the highest level.
So I applied to the Siebel Institute a few months after reading that book, and it was dumb luck that led to my acceptance. Someone had dropped out two weeks before classes started…and I jumped at the offer to attend in 1995. At the time there were quite a few of the “large” small brewers in attendance. Brewers from Old Dominion, Abita, and Full Sail, among others were there. But the bulk of the 30 students were from Molson, Coors, Labatt’s, Heineken, and even the plant manager for the St. Louis Budweiser plant. All us small guys learned so very much from the big brewers. They were all so friendly and helpful, and their knowledge and experience simply eclipsed that of the small brewers, who all had just a few short years of work in a brewhouse.

Heck, one of the big brewery students was head of lab services at Stroh’s. You know you’re in deep waters when you’re a 25-year-old moron, and a fellow student gives a lecture on genetic manipulation of yeast strains! All of these older brewers hit the town in Chicago every night, while I stayed up til 3 am every night studying, desperately trying to keep up and pass all my exams. It was a wonderful experience.

The following year I headed out to Doemens Lehranstalten in Munich for further my study into lager production. For me, lager production is an entirely different animal from knocking out IPA and stouts in a few weeks, and I wanted to learn more about traditional methods.

From there, I opened up Leopold Bros in Ann Arbor with my brother in 1999.

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How has your experience in brewing informed your distilling, how much of what you learned from brewing is transferrable to distilling?

All of it. Everything from knowing when to add or avoid oxygen, to working with dozens of yeast strains and understanding which one’s yield which congeners…. to making hefeweizen for 15 years has guided my methods and procedures in our distillery. And perhaps one of the most overlooked things you gain from a formal brewing education is how to safely operate a factory. We’re 18 years in and, knock on wood, we haven’t had one single injury. Much of that is dumb luck that we’re happy to have had so far, but some of this is because my formal training helped me to design and operate a safe plant.

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Alright, let’s get geeky here, talk to me about wooden, open top fermenters, yeast, and microorganisms. Are you using selected yeast strains or culturing any strains yourself and how does your style of fermentation play into what we are tasting in the bottle?

Using open wooden fermenters has cascading benefits. Firstly, you can’t clean them. So this means that you’re not running the caustic-hot rinse-acid-hot rinse-sanitizer-cold rinse schedule every time you turn a tank over. If you’re turning your tanks in a distillery every 3 days, think about how much chemical, water, and labor you’re blowing for no good reason.

So from a lifecycle view, my wooden fermenters are free after about 9 years, versus using a stainless tank that you’re wasting time, money, and resources on to clean the thing every 3 days.

I’ve learned that many new to distilling professionally don’t seem to understand that sanitizing your stainless steel fermenters is a waste of time. If you don’t boil what you are fermenting first, your mash is rife with bacteria. Malted barley, in particular, is loaded with varieties of lactobacillus. Same goes for your grain mill; and your grain augers, if you have them. And your silos, too.
For us at Leopold Bros., our entire shop is built around cultivating and encouraging these bacteria that if properly managed, will lead to the congeners we want in our finished whiskey. When properly handled, acetobacter, for example, will yield acetic acid at levels that will oxidize in the barrel (esterify) into iso butyl acetate (raspberry) and octyl acetate (orange marmalade). So we work to keep strains of acetobacter in each whiskey mash at levels that I want.
So we use 3-4 different yeast strains, some dry and some liquid, to handle our primary fermentations, consuming 100% of the available sugars in the mash. And instead of going straight to the stills, we let the mash sit for as many as four days to allow the secondary fermentation with bacteria to take place.

The open fermenters are strategically placed next to windows to our gardens, which are filled with botanicals like lavender and roses, but also next to fruit trees that will attract even more wild yeast and bacteria. The building is designed to draw air out of this garden, across the fermenters, and up and out the top of our fermentation floor vents. As the decades roll by, this will populate the wood in our fermenters with location specific organisms that we will herd and control to make the most complex whiskies that we can.

You of course make Gins and Absinthe as well which are very well regarded. Can you talk to us about your process for distilling each individual botanical in your gin and how that effects the finished product? Is the same true of the Absinthe? The Absinthe is a Pisco base?

Distilling each botanical individually, and then making cuts allows me to get the precise aroma, flavor, and mouth feel that I am looking for from each botanical. When you boil all the botanicals at once, it’s a bit like trying to cook steak, eggs, and a pancake all in the same pan for the same length of time….each ingredient will not be served at their best. Because, obviously, the boiling point for the oils in orange peel isn’t the same as angelica root. So you’ll never get the best each botanical has to offer, and in addition, you’re going to pull tannins and compounds like amarogentin into solution, making the Gin astringent….or more commonly called “dry”. I don’t want this characteristic in our Gins.

No, we don’t use this procedure for our Absinthe, because I want all those oils and other compounds in solution. And yes, we’ve been importing Chilean Pisco to use as our base for Absinthe for years. A Pisco sour is my all time favorite cocktail, so I thought that the floral estery-ness of Pisco would make a lovely foundation for the apple notes that comes from French Green Anise. I’m happy I made that choice.

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As a plant breeder I would love to hear a bit about some of the more unique grains you are working with and growing or are having grown for you. Is there anything in particular that you are actively searching for or in want of distilling?

I have found everything I am looking for…it’s a matter of stepping the grains up from a handful of seeds from a seed bank into a few hundred pounds need to plant the hundreds of acres that we need for full production.

Without going into too much detail as to what we already have in process, I’ll just say that American farming and Ag R&D has been all about yield for the last 100 or so years. And for grain, yield obviously denotes starch content. If you look at the old Shackleton book on Scotch production, you’ll find that he expected about 60% starch out of barley plantings in the late 1800’s. Today, obviously, you’re looking at around 80% starch. Starch has no flavor. So this means breeders have been working night and day for 100 years to breed the flavor and nutrition out of barley, corn, rye, and everything else we eat in America and the UK. Pretty crazy when you think about it, no?

So when I evaluate old grain varieties to resuscitate, the first thing I look for are low starch levels. This, obviously, is the exact opposite of what every large whisk(e)y distillery in the world is doing. But low starch means “something else” is in that grain that isn’t in modern varieties. Then I get to work, looking into what that “something else” might be.

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So it’s not just about looking for old varieties because they are “old-timey”, or some such nonsense. It’s about finding grains that have the chemical characteristics I want. So for our wheat, for example, I want elevated levels of vanillin, because that’s what I want in our vodka.

Talk to us a little about your ageing and how your dunnage differs from a traditional rickhouse, how it effects your spirits along with your unique climate.

We use dunnage style storage for multiple reasons. For one, the earthen floors elevates the humidity for the barrels by about 20% versus the humidity outside. This retards the angel’s share, dropping it from around 10% in our dry climate down to a more reasonable 4.5% per annum.
Secondly, a rickhouse has wide temperature differentials that I’m not interesting in having. We bottle single-single’s primarily at Leopold Bros., so I want the same environment for each barrel, decreasing the variation between barrels.

Thirdly, we do not heat the dunnage warehouse. This is because we are more interested in oxidation and esterification than we are in extracting compounds from the wood. So I like having a couple of cold months in January and February to allow the wood to “rest”, so to speak. This yields nice fruit notes, such as the aforementioned orange marmalade or raspberry aromas, without the clutter of tannins or overwhelming vanilla.

Ok, last one, you gotta tell us all about that three chamber Vendome still and your experience with it, both with running it and it’s effects on the distillate/how it is ran and what made you decide to resurrect an otherwise lost piece of distilling history.

The Three came from multiple readings from older trade journals and papers. The best I’ve come across is the paper commissioned by the IRS in 1897 that follows 31 American Whiskey distillers, roughly half made Bourbon, and half made Rye.

All but one of the 14 Rye distillers used a Three Chamber still. So a Three Chamber wasn’t some “oddity”, or singularity. So this told me that the Three Chamber was synonymous with Rye Whiskey production before prohibition. So now my interest was piqued. Clearly distillers thought that the Three Chamber produced the best Rye Whiskey, as columns are far easier to operate, and are far more financially efficient. The ONLY reason you’d run a Three Chamber is if you thought the whiskey was materially better than rye whiskey produced in a column.
An easy way to explain the difference between a beer stripper (continuous column still) that you find in every major American whiskey producers’ stillhouse, and a Three Chamber is to simply look at time.
Most column stills/beer strippers are designed to turn mash into new-make whiskey in ninety seconds. In other words, it takes ninety seconds for the fermented mash to enter the still at ~8% alcohol, until it leaves the bottom of the column as stillage, and the alcohol-laden steam continues to the condenser. That’s it. Less than two minutes of steam treatment, give or take.
When I run a single charge of Three Chamber, it takes about 30 minutes to run through heads, hearts, and tails. So 30 minutes to run a mash in one chamber, multiplied by runs made in three chambers, equals about 90 minutes of steam treatment for each batch of fermented mash.
So 90 seconds versus 90 minutes. All that time will yield more flavors, more aromas, and more oils from the Rye Whiskey. It’s really like nothing else I’ve made.

 

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