Stills & Craftsmanship
How we chose our Still
Hey, I’m Rusty. Welcome to our weekly newsletter, sharing the startup journey of Kamui Whisky. Each week Casey or I will share a story as we set up a craft whisky distillery on a remote, volcanic island in the most northern part of Japan.
Deciding what still to buy is one of the biggest decisions we’ll make as we establish this distillery. It’s a serious, weighty decision. But it was such a blast and probably way more fun than it should have been.
As I began to explore our options, who to go with, I kept in the back of my mind the philosophy of what we want at Kamui - craftsmanship and community. We are building a craft whisky distillery on a very remote island, famous for its uni and konbu, it’s a high bar to maintain, but we are completely committed to it.
We’re also fully aware that we are new to this industry. That we really needed a partner, more than a vendor, to work with and advise us what’s best for our particular distillery. We wanted somebody who’d seen it all. If not all, then at least a lot. Being newbies, we knew we needed guidance. Finding quality craftsmanship and real partnership were at the forefront of my mind as I searched.
Column or Pot?
There was another big decision we needed to make: do we use a Column Still or a Pot Still? Both are beautiful and functional, but whichever we chose, it would set the tone of our distillery, be hard to change, and would win or lose fans.
Column Stills allow continuous distillation, creating higher production than Pot Stills. They also provide a purer, cleaner distillate than Pot Stills, and can reach an ABV (alcohol by volume) up to 96%.
So, basically, a Column Still would allow us to produce more whisky, faster, with a higher alcohol percentage. Two big upsides.
Pot Stills are easier to operate but, by far, more labor intensive. The ABV tops out between 60% - 80% but produces a more flavored distillate, perfect for whisky.
A Pot Still would produce less whisky, slower, and with a lower alcohol percentage. However, it adds complexity in flavor as well as tradition. It requires more craftsmanship.
A little known fact: Rishiri can get 7,000 - 10,000 visitors a month during the spring/summer/fall tourist season. That’s a steady stream of visitors, and we knew our Still would become a stop on their visit. As we discussed it, we agreed that we wanted to go back to traditional roots of distilling; a Pot Still, much more than a Column Still, would really show visitors the craftsmanship involved in making our whisky.
Pot Stills is the route we decided to go.
Finding the right Still partner
Early in our search process we thought we had found our Still partner. One of the first vendors I talked to looked absolutely perfect, a small family-run outfit out of Idaho. I went up, toured the facility, and we got so close that we were even about to sign an order when I caught wind of some press that this company had a list of unhappy customers and was not delivering as promised. I still liked their craftsmanship, but it was enough to scare us off.
We took a step back and thought we had better do more due diligence.
For me, this just meant going back to work. I’ve had a career in recruiting. I’ve spent years learning about new industries, mapping out all the companies in that industry, learning who were the best, who were the rest. It involves lots and lots of internet searches, reading articles, looking for any rankings, visiting 100’s of websites, asking for connections in to the industry. Then more internet searches, more website visits, etc…
I’d like to pause for a second, and acknowledge the levels of craftsmanship I saw out there in the still-making market. Even the companies that didn’t make our shortlist had really high quality stills. It made our decision even harder. It’s really worth underlining - there are a lot of great craftsmen out there in the whisky business.
After many exhaustive hours of research, I felt comfortable that I knew every still manufacturer in the US. I then spent several more hours exploring every website, looking at nearly every picture, and reading all I could about these companies. I shortlisted those down to 10.
From there, Casey and I went through these 10 candidates, diving deep, discussing everything we liked and didn’t like about each manufacturer. In the end, we felt there were 4 vendors we should talk to.
I contacted each vendor, 3 got back to me. One of those couldn’t fathom the idea of shipping a still to Japan, but the other 2 were excited about the project.
Down to 2.
I made appointments with each. I hopped on a plane to visit Chicago first, then Louisville next.
As Casey and I discussed the different stills, we kept getting drawn to stainless steel. I remember we had pretty much made up our mind to go that route; which is why I visited Chicago first, as that still maker built their stills primarily with stainless steel.
I wasn’t disappointed. Touring the facility and seeing all that steel and how beautifully they made each one was inspiring. I walked out of the facility and pretty much made up my mind this would be the one we went with.
That all changed when I got to Louisville.
In Louisville, I had one vendor to meet, Vendome Copper & Brassworks. When I walked into Vendome’s workshop, my jaw dropped. I’ve never seen such beauty and craftsmanship in metalwork. Their work was head and shoulders above anything I’d seen.
Their copper work made stainless steel look ugly.
After they eventually pushed me out of the workshop (I could have stayed for hours watching the artistry) I immediately emailed Casey pictures of Vendome’s stills with a quick message, ‘Found our Still'.
As I look back on the process, I am very thankful I met Vendome last. For me, it really solidified the fact that we had found the best partner. I’d done so much due diligence by that point. We chose Vendome, not only because their craftsmanship makes you want to be a better person, but because they were a true partner throughout the process.
From my our initial meeting, when I walked in with nothing but questions, to the subsequent follow-up emails and phone calls as we fine-tuned our system, Vendome was nothing less than the epitome of partnership; giving us great advice, showing us different options, and working with us through design as we maneuvered through Japan’s strict building code requirements. I’m beyond excited to be working with Vendome.
As this newsletter goes out we are minutes away from signing the contract with Vendome to produce our beautiful, copper Pot Still system.