Some informal musings on the distilling business…

When to get technical distilling training

If you have been thinking about starting your own distilling business, and you don’t already have an experience doing so, you have probably also wondered about the technical skills of actually producing spirit.
So when is the right time to ‘get technical’ and how do you go about skilling yourself up to commencing distilling?
The answer is not straight forward, because it depends so much on what you are planning to make and how you are going about it. It also depends where you are on your journey.
So let’s break that down into three categories:

  1. Exploring and thinking
    If you are thinking about starting we recommend you research all the elements involved. This might include going on road trips with your mates or partner, checking out other distilleries and commencing research on what’s involved. One day courses and tours can be great for this.
  2. Building your distillery
    If you have already started planning your distillery and are wondering about what comes next, you might want to get a bit technical with your understanding. Again this might involve some experimentation but should also involve talking to people and taking some courses.
  3. Just commenced distilling
    If you are ready to push go on the distillery, we’d hope you have already some idea about the technical side of things. The Institute of Brewing and Distilling runs some great courses and will also provide you with a technical qualification that can be useful.

    So how technical should you get? We believe that producing quality spirit is important, so get it right, make sure you know what you’re doing. Find out more information by joining the course

Is distilling as romantic as it seems?

The romance

Imagine yourself. In your distillery, standing at the still and checking the flow of liquid, the gentle trickle the only sound in your peaceful distillery. 

You look around and admire your year’s work, a beautiful sea of filled casks. You take a sip of your spirit, take a deep breath, nod your head and sigh with satisfaction.

It is a beautiful vision isn’t it? And one that at some stage will come to life. That’s the good news. The less palatable reality of distilling is that it is a lot of hard work to get to the point where you have rows and rows of silent spirits growing old, and valuable.  

Toil, sweat and tears

There is equal amounts of toil, sweat and likely tears to get to the point where you can make your romantic vision a reality.

So what are the skills needed in a distillery and when does the romance kick in?

The reality of romance is that to build a distilling business you need to love it.  Understanding why you want to start a distillery in the first place is a good way to start and planning for your success will make you fall in love with your dream.

The reality

Some of the realities of distilling, which produce less love of the job involve things like cashflow and profit, which really means getting the business model right to start with so that you know when you’re likely to reach the sweet spot in your business.

Another is the paperwork involved in recording goods in and out, your excise payable to the tax office or other costs relevant to your business.

People and skills can also be a challenge. Especially if you haven’t thought about the technical skills needed to create an audience-winning spirit.

So yes there is a romance in distilling. There is a tradition of spirit making and the magic of turning a humble grain, or other ingredients, into something that people share and enjoy and being part of that history.  Just remember there are equal parts of hard work, so get planning so you can enjoy the romance.

What else should you be thinking about? Jump over to our courses to have a look.

What is distilling?

The science

Distilling is the process of separating the components of a liquid mixture by boiling it to produce vapour and then condensing the vapour and collecting it. It both a science and an art.

When we’re talking about whisky, distilling usually occurs in pot stills, and when the vapour condenses it will run from the still as a clear spirit called new make spirit (NMS). Distillers then collect NMS, reduce it to around 63% alcohol and age it in a barrel.

This might be an oversimplification because the art of creating a great spirit is a little more complex, with specific skills needed to produce an award-winning bottle of goodness.

The right raw ingredient

If you’re making a white spirit like gin from a sugar or grain base, brandy from a grape, or rum from a molasses– the process can be a little different (eg. possibly column stills) and we’re not even touching on other fermentable sources for alcohol.

As a distiller, the process of distillation commences right back at the raw ingredient. If we’re talking about whisky, then grain is the ingredient of choice and there is quite a process to produce the wort, which is then fermented to become wash (usually about 6% alcohol) and then transferred to the still to become spirit.

For whisky, the humble grain is typically first malted (by a maltster), then milled to ensure its starches (complex long chain molecules comprised of sugar molecules) are accessible, then a sugary wort is created by adding hot water to the milled grain and processing this for a time, before the liquid is drained off through the grain bed.

The process

At this stage, the production process is similar to that of making beer, and in fact breweries have been known to make the ‘wash’ for distilleries and hand it over to become a distilled spirit. In brewing, at this stage, you would boil the spirit and add hops for beer, but those steps are not required to make a distiller’s wash. 

Once the ‘wort’ has been drained through the grain bed, it is then cooled and fermented – usually around 3-5 days but some distilleries will ferment for less and others for longer.

Once fermented, the wash (as it’s now known) is then transferred to the still and distilled twice (the wash run and the spirit run) to increase the volume of alcohol in the spirit. The final spirit (depending on the still you use and some other factors) will leave the still at around 70% alcohol (or ABV). The spirit is then watered down, and put into the barrels at 63% or thereabouts and left to rest until matured.

The technical systems

The technical components of distilling, including how to fill the still, what temperature to run it, how to do the cuts, how to test the spirit and all the other components of distillation is where the skilled art comes into play.  This is also where courses like the Institute of Brewing and Distilling’s General Certificate can help, and where you need to gain experience and hands on learning.

But for now, that’s the quick overview of distilling. If you’re ready to start your own distillery then check out the course.

How long does it take to establish a distillery?

The magic number

This is one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions. The time it takes to set up a commercial distillery may be as short as one year or as long as five depending on how dedicated you are to set it up.

Most people who have built their own distilleries have been thinking about it for a long time, usually while working in other jobs. 

Should you leap

In some cases, people take the leap, give up their regular jobs and start on their dream. More often than not, new distilleries are created by people who moonlight on their passion by night and work regular jobs by the day – until it can become real.

In short, your research will take a bit of time – understanding what forms you need to fill in, what things you’ll need to do to start your distillery, how much it will cost and of course how to make whisky, gin or another spirit are your starting points.


Planning what you want to get out of it and researching your location and market are important parts of the setup process.

Part of this is working through the various laws of your region including where a distillery can be based, do you need a liquor licence,  what safety or compliance requirements need to be addressed when setting up or other requirements (eg. Food preparation).

Once you’ve done some of this planning, then looking at your marketing and branding including labelling and bottle type are key decisions – and ones that you will probably stick with for some time. So it is worth getting some professional help to work through these aspects.

Then some of the key decisions to be made once you’ve researched these elements are those related to finances. These include set up costs, likely returns, management of cash flow, excise implications on the business and the administrative requirements related to record keeping.

Ready to start exploring, then check out our courses.