What if we could?
The Rishiri Filtration Process, pt. 1
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.
Besides drinking, I’d say the majority of my whisky education has come from distillery tours. Sure, I’ve done tons of reading, watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, all that, learning the fundamental rules of a Scotch vs an Irish Whiskey or Japanese Whisky vs American Whiskey or a Bourbon vs a Tennessee Whiskey, but it’s when I tour a distillery, really any distillery, whether a large distiller or a small craft one, when I get to see everything I’ve read about right in front of me, in action, the practical application of it, often with so much creativity, that’s when I really learn.
Let me pause for a second and compliment all you distillers out there who give tours. I’ve been to many, but I’m still excited every time I visit a new one. Thank you for your whiskey. Thank you for your creativity. And thank you for educating me. The thought, care, and craftsmanship I’ve seen at every distillery across the country (US) is inspiring. The beauty of a distillery tour is that by the end, when I sit down and taste the whiskey, I know exactly why I am tasting what I am tasting. I taste the artist’s intention. There is a heightened appreciation in that.
I’ve toured many, many, many craft distilleries as well as a lot of big boys, including Jack Daniels. I’ve always enjoyed the taste of Jack Daniels and its definitely a go-to when I’m in a foreign country. But I never fully appreciated it until I took the tour.
If you’re into whiskey and you haven’t done the Jack Daniels’ Tour I’d recommend it. That distillery takes you back in time and yet is so modern in its efficiency. They take you through their history while walking you through the process of making their Tennessee Whisky including the key differentiator; their charcoal filtering system known as the Lincoln County Process.
For those of you that don’t know, the difference between a Bourbon and a Tennessee Whiskey is this charcoal filtration process. Tennessee Whiskey is a Bourbon made in Tennessee and filtered through charcoal. There’s even a Tennessee state law about it.
As I watch this whiskey filter through the charcoal, it becomes crystal clear that it is this filtering system that actually gives Jack Daniels its distinct taste.
I feel like I should have known this earlier. I’ve drank tons of Jack in my lifetime. I’ve drank many other whiskeys and bourbons as well, but there are only a few I can actually remember their taste, and Jack Daniels in one of them. And it’s because of this filtration system.
What if we could make a similar filtration system for Kamui?
Not charcoal. Imagining myself burning wood, breaking it down, hauling it somewhere, putting that into something that goes into something else to whatever else happens with that - wasn’t happening.
But maybe there is something else that’s naturally occurring on the island and could be a little less labor intensive. Ash? Eww. Lava rock? There’s got to be a shit-ton of that stuff on the island. Worst case, we grab some pick axes and chip away at the Volcano (again, it’s not going to be me doing this).
Whisky made with volcanic spring water and filtered through volcanic rock.
This could be exciting.
I’m fortunate, in that my brother raised a family of scientists, with one of my nephews being a recent Chemical Engineering graduate. I called him. Explained the Lincoln County Process and how I wanted to see if we could do that same thing but instead of using charcoal, we would use volcanic rock. Is this possible?
‘Let me go find out.’
Now, my expectation is that he does a little research, scans a few science documents and comes back with a yes or a no. Two weeks later, I get a 2-page report in my inbox. A full-on presentation, ‘that I quickly threw together’, filled with tons of big words - density, porous, molasses number, blah, blah, blah. Despite the big words, I diligently go through the report a few times, my mind absorbing everything it can before finally coming back with the initial question, ‘Is it possible or not?’
‘Yes’ was the reply.
Well, that’s interesting. Now what do I do with this?
This leads me to my other nephew who’s currently studying at the South Dakota School of Mines (SDSM). I call him up. Ask him if the school ever does projects like this? He says they do have a senior project program, maybe something like that could work? But school has already started, it may be too late and he doesn’t know who I should contact.
Eventually, through a series of emails I get connected to the advisors in charge of SDSM’s senior projects. I’m in luck, it’s the week before potential projects are to be presented to students via Zoom. Whew, barely made it. I liked this setup, that the seniors get to choose their project, but it also worried me, because the seniors get to choose their project.
I had 5 days to prepare my pitch.
However, I find out the next day there’s not much to prepare as each project only gets 3 - 5 minutes to present. I’ve done a lot of presentations in my life, but I’ve never had less than 5 minutes. I racked my brain for hours trying to fine-tune a short pitch. Thinking of all the ways I could connect and convince these students to choose us. Whiskey. Japan. Volcanoes. Godzilla. Whiskey. Alcohol. I don’t know. Hello Kitty?
The presentation is on a Monday. Sunday night I get a list of the other presenters for the senior projects. It’s a long line-up, with lots of projects. The good news is I’m early on the list of presenters, at the 4th or 5th slot. The bad news is that, I’m seeing lots of big names and huge projects on this list, including NASA. Almost every other presenter had a PhD or Dr attached to their name.
NASA & PhDs vs Whisky & Rusty Smith (I didn’t even get a Mr.). My confidence is not at its peak. At all. Why would anybody pick us over building a satellite antenna that gets shot into space for NASA? That sounds so badass.
I’m nervous. In my other professional life, I give presentations to some of the toughest executives in Silicon Valley. Daily. Swimming with the sharks without an ounce of worry (lie). And yet, here I am about to present to a group of college kids and I feel like I’m going to puke on my shoes.
Presentation day. I don’t know what I said. I had a 3-slide deck with images of a volcano and whisky barrels. In a lack of creativity, I named the project ‘The Rishiri Filtration Process’. My pitch was essentially; ‘Hey, help us build a filter like Jack Daniels except using volcanic rock. It’ll be fun!’ Then I threw out a bunch of buzzwords like whisky, alcohol, Japan, Hello Kitty, lava rock; hoping one would stick.
Once all the presenters were done, the advisors asked the students if they had any questions, or wanted to learn more about a specific project. I don’t know what happened, but my mind became total mayhem. I heard, ‘Whisky’, ‘Japan’, ‘Jack Daniels’, over and over and over. And over. The response for Kamui was so overwhelming they broke me off into a private Zoom room to answer questions from the students, independent of the other projects.
Once I’m off the call, I jump out of my chair and do the whole Jerry Maguire thing, of course. That was the best pitch of my life.
The next day I get an email from one of the SDSM advisors asking if I would be interested in having multiple teams work on our project. ‘Like, how many?’ ‘2 or 3’. Stunned silence. ‘Really?’ We had enough interest in Kamui to warrant 3 teams?
In the end, we decided to go with just one team. Actually it was really a combination of two teams, a team of Chemical Engineers and a team of Mechanical Engineers. I loved this; usually these senior projects are segmented so that Mechanical Engineers only work with other Mechanical Engineers and Chemical Engineers only work with other Chemicals Engineers. Very rarely do the two disciplines work together on a senior project. I was extra excited and extremely thankful that we got this opportunity.
With the team together, we had our first meeting to discuss building ‘The Rishiri Filtration Process’ thingy. to be continued…