Niles distiller explains how to make bourbon

Published 9:00 am Friday, March 1, 2019

Pass through the threshold of Niles’ Iron Shoe Distillery and one immediately detects the heady scent of booze in the making – it smells a bit like freshly baked bread and an all-night frat party combined.

In a lofty and former garage space off of the building’s restaurant and bar, owner Howard Tuthill can be found monitoring silver-colored stills where his latest batches of bourbon and vodka are beginning to take shape.

While the distillery had not officially opened its doors at the time of this how-to lesson in January, Tuthill was well into the production stage and hoping to open for business sometime in 2019.

While most spirits start with basic ingredients — water and grains — it takes patience, care and science to create the final product. We asked Tuthill to show us how he made his latest batch of bourbon.

Step 1: Tuthill first takes corn and malted barley and grinds it into a flour, which is added to a mash tank, mixed with water and heated.

“Essentially, what we are trying to do there is convert the starches in the grain to sugar because yeast eats sugar [and] the byproduct is alcohol,” Tuthill said.

Enzymes are added to help convert the starch to sugar. The mixture is cooled and transferred to a fermentation tank.

Step 2: Inside the fermentation tank, yeast is added to eat the sugar and create alcohol. It takes about four to five days for the substance to ferment. A glance inside the tank reveals a yeast-yellow and bubbling surface akin to slowly boiling grits.

“It’s bubbling and the yeast is doing its thing,” Tuthill said. “It kind of pushes some of the solid grains up to the top.”

Step 3: Inside the still, the alcohol will be distilled by heating it.

“Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water,” Tuthill said. “So, we heat it up. The alcohol turns to a vapor first. The vapor climbs up the still, goes over into the condenser. It goes into these tubes and I circulate cold water around it and that condenses the vapor back into a liquid.”

That liquid is collected and distilled a second time.

Step 4: After a second distillation, the bourbon goes into the barrels. It is clear as water from a mountain stream – but it won’t stay that way.

Step 5: The clear bourbon is poured into a 30-gallon new America oak barrel that has been charred on the inside. As the barrel sits for up to a year, the wood will expand and contract with changing temperatures, forcing the clear liquid through the blackened surface and into the wood. This process gives the bourbon its distinctive caramel color and flavor.

Finally, it can be bottled and poured into a glass.

“When it goes into the barrel, I barrel it a minimum of 120 proof and then I bottle it at somewhere between 80 or 90 proof,” Tuthill said.

What sets a craft distiller apart from the name-brand spirit makers is that every batch will have a slightly different taste, due again to the expansion and contraction of the barrels at varying temperatures.

While bigger industry operators move the barrels to a different part of the warehouse to account for temperature change and provide for consistent flavor, Tuthill likes the variety in taste that is discovered in each barrel when left natural to react to its environment.

“When you get that batch, that is the only time you are going to get a batch that tastes exactly like that,” Tuthill said. “That’s what makes it craft.”

The entire process, excluding the aging step, takes about a week to a week and a half to complete. Tuthill is hoping to add more subtlety to his bourbon flavors by using a different variety of corn. He plans to grow a bloody butcher red corn variety on some Michigan City property he owns and use it for an upcoming batch.

Tuthill and his wife Laura moved their family from Colorado to southwest Michigan in 2017. Their work on the distillery site, located at 3 N. Third St. has revived a vacant building that most recently housed a muffler shop into a brand-new business, complete with a vibrant blue and white mural outside. The mural features bags of grains and stills, showing people the process of creating spirits.

Tuthill is the former owner of the Whistling Hare Distillery in Westminster, Colorado, so he knows a thing or two about making craft adult beverages. His vision for Iron Shoe is a place for distilled rum, whiskey, vodka and liqueurs. A food menu with eats like gourmet burgers, salads and appetizers will also be available.

To share his knowledge of craft spirits with the community, Tuthill hopes to offer tours of Iron Shoe Distillery eventually. Until then, he will be honing his craft and turning corn, grains and water into a Niles made signature spirit.


Photography by Kelsey Hammon