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Continuous Column operation is explained along with a distillery profile and glimpse into Headframe’s plan for the future growth of the company.
Intro: You are listening to Season Two, the premier episode of the Distilling Craft podcast, Continuous Columns.
Sponsor Mention: Distilling Craft is brought to you by Dalkita, a group of architects and engineers who specialize in designing craft distilleries across the U.S. More information is available at our website, www.dalkita.com.
Colleen Moore: What’s up, guys? This is Colleen Moore from Dalkita, your host for this long awaited season two of the Distilling Craft podcast. Thank you so much for downloading this episode and tuning in. We have so much planned for you this season. I’m really excited to bring you new content, new producers, and new technical topics.
Colleen Moore: In late summer, we put out hundreds of emails, LinkedIn messages, and Facebook requests to all of our friends in the worldwide distilling community to find out what you wanted to hear in our first ever listener survey with a prize drawing for a Colorado Crafted gift box to one lucky winner. Well, we had the drawing and our winner was Case Dietz Fischer from Fischer & Wieser Specialty Foods in Fredericksburg, Texas. If you’re in or near Fredericksburg – he has some Colorado goodies and I’m sure he would share… being the very big-hearted soul who took part in our survey. A big congrats to him and a thank you to all of our listeners who participated.
Colleen Moore: We got a heap of ideas and we are going to bring some of that feedback into each and every show this season. It was such a successful operation, I promise we will be doing it again before season three if you want to be in the know and the very first one to find out when that survey drops, head over to our website dalkita.com./shownotes to sign up for our listener club.
Colleen Moore: Now let’s get into our technical topic for today. Today we’re talking about Continuous Column Stills. Fortunately, I am lucky enough to know a couple of very smart people who know a few things about continuous columns, John and Courtney McKee from Headframe Spirits and Headframe Manufacturing out of Butte, America (or specifically Montana as we know it today). Welcome back to the show. Courtney and John, it’s a pleasure to have you back.
John McKee: You got it. So, you know, distillation is a pretty old and simple science. All you’re trying to do is boil something. You can get more technical in that there’s levels of boiling and re boiling and whatnot. But in the general sense you go home – grab a tea kettle and throw a 12 pack of Coors Light in it, turn it on and the first thing that’s going to come out the whistle is alcohol. You’ve distilled something there. (Don’t do that. It’s not safe. It’s not the right thing to do). But that’s generally what’s going on. That is really what a pot still is, or a batch still. It’s just a big tea kettle. What you’re trying to do with that is you’re trying to take things that boil at different temperatures and separate them, and what’s really cool about science is that it almost always seems to work.
John McKee: When you want to distill something that has different boiling points, all you need to do is get to the boiling point of the cooler material and get it to want to evaporate first. Then the rest of the stuff is left behind. When people started figuring this out, they started saying, alright, well copper is easy to turn into a vessel by just banging it with a rock. You can pretty much get into a vessel. I can light a fire underneath it and copper has a really good thermal transfer coefficient. Things get really hot, really fast inside and they start boiling. If I can capture the first thing coming out but not the rest of it, then I’m going to be able to get my alcohol out of my water. Or, get my urea out of, um, urine… Or various other things. What distillation was originally used for was separating things that boiled at different points.
John McKee: Batch distillation is really just a continuation of that. Now, you walk into a distillery and you see these big pot stills and these are basically just big tea kettles. Really sexy, big tea kettles. Really expensive, sexy, big tea kettles. And what you want to think about when you walk into those places that if you understand it’s just about separating two different boiling point compounds then you know that just like that tea kettle at home, you’ve boiled all that alcohol out of the Coors Light you’ve got all that non alcoholic Coors Light still sitting in the tea kettle. Well, that’s not doing you any good anymore. So you’ve got to dump that tea kettle down the drain. Fill the kettle back up a Coors Light, which is cold cause it started from the fridge and you’ve got to start all over again. So you gotta warm up that whole tea kettle again, get your little bit out of the whistle and then dump it and start over and, continue on, repeat, repeat, repeat. And that’s really what basically a lot of micro-distilleries are doing. Continuous distillation – to keep that analogy of the tea kettle going – is as we’re boiling things out of the whistle, as alcohol is coming out of the whistle, we are putting in new beer at the same rate, and simultaneously we’re letting stillage or bottoms out of the bottom of the tea kettle that don’t have any alcohol left in them. So rather than having to shut down, dump everything out, refill it with cold stuff and get it all boiling again, we get it boiling and then we just keep feeding it.
John McKee: The real big thing about that is that makes a continuous column. You don’t necessarily need to have a column to pull this off. You could do this in a tea kettle if you wanted. It’s not gonna work as well. You need the column to make the efficiencies work. But once the Coffey still was invented it really quickly grew beyond just alcohol. Once everybody figured out, you could continuously distill. Um, basically everything that gets distilled moved over to being distilled on continuous columns. So fuel, ethanol, toulene, methanol, diesel, jet fuel, it doesn’t matter. Once they figured out that you don’t have to shut it off, you don’t have to dump it, you don’t have to refill it. You just keep it going and going and going or going for long periods of time that the efficiencies there become pretty obvious. You don’t have to turn them off and turn them on and you’re not having to start over from scratch every time you do.
John McKee: Most of the big alcohol houses in the entire world all went over to this process. If you’re a standard consumer of hooch it’s almost – you know, statistics don’t really lie on this one – probably 95% of everything you ever drank… came off of a continuous column still. It’s just the way distillation is done. The places where you typically see a batch still is, in college chemistry labs. They’re teaching you how to distill because you need to start on something small and get the basic concepts. But after that, the only places you really see them outside of college chemistry labs are maybe in pharmaceutical labs where they’re doing very, very, very small batch distillations of very precise things. Or you see them at micro distilleries. Yeah, you’re going to go on big whiskey country tour and you’re going to go to Woodford Reserve and you’re going to see those gorgeous big Forsythes. But even those Forsythes they are sorta running continuously and most of the booze that Woodford puts out is made on continuous columns that they don’t show you because they aren’t, you know, they don’t feel like they’re as sexy or they tell the right story. BUT it’s what you are drinking.
John McKee: I think what you wind up seeing in a lot of the industry now is you are starting to see an acknowledgement – especially in the micro distilling industry that if Pappy van Winkle is made on a continuous still and it is the most expensive booze that you can make and buy in America, then there’s coming to be this understanding that, you know, people are coming to understand that the efficiencies of continuous columns. If you can rely on the efficiencies of a continuous column to make Pappy van Winkle or to Maker’s Mark, then um, yeah, you can rely on that efficiency to make your own process product.
John McKee: And that’s what we started Headframe Spirits Manufacturing around, which was taking our knowledge of continuous flow distillation and saying: “hey, this works!” It works for micro distilleries, too. Just because no one’s been building you the equipment to do it yet doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get a chance to use it. Just like the big guys. And that’s what sort of led us to what we were up to, why we felt that building not only a continuous column for our own distillery to, to run, but making continuous column systems for other distilleries around the world and selling those to those, those distilleries all over the world, um, was something that was missing from the industry and we felt that we could, we could provide a service there that just wasn’t being handled.
John McKee: So really, when we talk there’s a lot of people try to figure out what a continuous column is and this is what it means in our industry. Because if you walk in and people say, ‘hey, I’ve got a continuous beer stripper right here’. We really need to set up some definition of terms just so people understand what we’re talking about.
John McKee: Like a continuous column is not something that is run 24/7. But it is run in a manner like that tea kettle I was, discussing earlier, it just keeps refilling as you’re distilling until you’ve run out of stuff to refill or you decided to shut down and go home for the night. There are continuous stills in the industry and there have been continuous stills in industry, but for most part, what those continuous stills are is they are stripping stills, meaning they’re taking a beer wash at a very low ABV and try to get that to low wines. They’re trying to strip the grain and they’re trying to get it from like a 7% to a 10% ABV, maybe up to a 30% or 40% ABV. This product in our industry is called low wines. And that product typically has heads, is typically oily. It’s typically not a beverage grade or beverage ready product. That’s what we normally see when we see a “continuous column,” if you will at various distilleries around the country. After the beer stripper they take that low wine off to a pot still and they start over as if they are distilling. So they take what they got out of that stripping column, they put it in a pot still and they do a normal tea kettle distillation where they get everything out and then they dump what’s left.
John McKee: What we do is a little different. Maybe it’s really a lot different. It is in a lot of different ways. Our Continuous Column is a single pass. You put it in on one side and it comes out the other side as a finished beverage grade alcohol. So it might be a whiskey at a lower proof, it might be a vodka or a neutral spirit at a high proof for a vodka. It could be a gin. We don’t take what you make and put it back in and start over again to do all over again. We make, a piece of equiment you plug it in, you hit go and it starts making hooch that’s ready to drink off the back end. Or, ready for barrels. Or, ready for other products. A lot of the continuous systems that you may see right now, unless they’re ours in all likelihood, are just continuous stripping columns and they’re making a low wine that needs to then go on and be batched distilled. So you see when people are talking about their processes, you might walk in and see that big column and there’s a pot sitting next to it. That’s because the big columns doing a lot of work. It’s doing a lot of that, you know, get that water and that grain and everything out of their way.
John McKee: So they’ve got something easier and quicker than if they just reuse their pot over and over and over again. But they still have to take what they make and put in a pot and then do another distillation. We take that step out and just say, ‘nah.’ I mean, if Maker’s Mark has been doing this and Buffalo Trace has been doing this since the fifties and the teens, respectively. Why can’t micro-distilleries be doing this too? Why are they being forced to re-distill and re-distill and re-distill, to get to a finished product? Our goal was to, to bring the technology that we knew worked for the big guys, make it small and applicable and affordable for little distilleries and then start selling that to them. So that is a little bit of the difference about what is different between, you know, just continuous distillation itself. Even in our industry, continuous distillation can mean a lot of things, but what we talked about it, we talk about, you know, hook up your fermenter and a couple of minutes later you’ve got booze coming out the back end that you can do something with. NOT something that you have to go re-work on another piece of equipment.
Colleen Moore: Well, let me ask you, how is your still that you are making with Headframe Manufacturing, is it different than a Coffey still? And what does that difference look like?
John McKee: You know, a Coffey still is the original continuous still, if you will. I mean they’re really cool but they really work on all the same principles. Like I said before, even like a jet fuel still in that they’re tall columns and inside the columns there’s a series of trays and those trays as you’re pumping your product in pretty high on the column, like the thing that you’re trying to distill, it gets pumped in pretty high and it starts working its way down the trays and every tray it goes down. The more and more of the thing you want gets stripped away from it. So when we’re talking booze, you’re pumping a distiller’s beer into the top of the column and it’s going down through the trays and every tray it goes down and it’s got less and less alcohol until it makes it to the bottom of the still and comes out of this still as a non-alcoholic product.
John McKee: In this case, a non alcoholic beer. The separated alcohol is eventually forced over the top of the column and sent on for condensing and then usage downstream. The Coffey stills, continuous stills, that originally invented in the ones that are stripping, they’re basically stripping stills now that I was alluding to earlier, ones that Carl or Vendome make or even Forsythe makes. The base technology as they compare it to a Coffey still is really the same now. We’re not putting together from sections of wood anymore and we’re not trying to calk them with tar. We’re building them from a more precise perspective, but the internals, the way it works from a summary perspective is you’re basically setting up this tall straw and on top of the inside the straw, you have a drinking straw inside this drinking straw on the way down, every 11 inches we’ve got this thing called a tray and things set on that.
John McKee: As they flow down, they’ll flow across that tray. And as they float down across that tray the deeper and deeper down in all the trays you go, the less and less alcohol you have. And that’s why a lot of people ask us, Hey, what have you patented about you’re still, and I was like, well, nothing really because the concept of it’s been pretty much played out since the mid 18 hundreds. I mean, we’re all doing it the same way. It doesn’t matter if it’s whiskey, if it’s jet fuel, if it’s Toluene, if it’s methanol, we’re all doing it the same way. The core or the crux of the science is really well understood and it’s really fundamental in how you do separation chemistry. So if you’re a Coffey still, if you’re a continuous still, if your a stripping still, if you’re a finished beverage still they’re all pretty much working from the same basic fundamentals. As you work your way through the process. If you’re going down, physically down through something by the time you’re getting to the bottom of that, that’s generally an off product, a product you don’t want and the things you generally want are coming out the top of the column are coming out as a vapor because they have boiled at a lower temperature.
John McKee: It’s easier to push a vapor up over a column than it is to try to capture a non separated product at the bottom.
Colleen Moore: Gotcha. So what do you do with your non alcoholic beer that comes out of the bottom of your still, what happens to that?
John McKee: Well, it depends on the client. When we say beer in our industry for your listeners, you know, we refer to distiller’s beer as it’s what we’ve mashed and then fermented, and that’s what we distill to get the alcohol out of and a lot of people say, ‘beer, you just make beer?’
John McKee: And I think they get a little surprised. But yeah, I mean you are basically making a grain-based beer and you’re making whiskey from it or you’re putting wine in there and you’re making a Brandy from it or you’re putting a sugar wash in there and you’re making rum from it. But basically when we use distiller’s beer, we’re just using that to capture sort of everything that we put into these stills. And the stillage ,the product that has no alcohol, the non alcoholic beer, if you will. That stillage, every distillery is sort of dealing with differently. Some municipalities are big enough that they can handle it as a waste stream in their sanitary sewer, which is one of the things we’re allowed to do here in Butte. Other distilleries are capturing that and doing some separations work on it, maybe separating some of the fine solids and then doing different things with the liquid.
John McKee: Some are sending them to treatment lagoons cause they’re on larger operations. I mean, there’s a handful of different ways people often send this stuff to farmers for feed lot work. There’s a lot of different ways that stillage gets dealt with. In the big facilities what they’re doing is they’re taking that and they are separating the solids. So they’re getting the solids out and selling that and dehydrating those solids. They’re selling that off to feed lots. And then the liquid product, they’re generally doing some sort of a pH stabilization. It’s usually pretty acidic, so they’re bringing it up to about seven and then they’re dumping that down the drain as well.
Colleen Moore: Looking at the history of continuous columns, something that stuck out to me was that continuous columns are not allowed to be used for cognac. Have you heard that before?
John McKee: I have heard that there’s, in fact, I think there’s a little, one of the States in the United States is trying to do a, you know, I don’t know if it’s Missouri, but we’ll just pick on Missouri a Missouri whiskey. And one of their proposals for the Missouri whiskey is that you can’t make it on a continuous still. A lot of that comes from tradition. A lot of that comes from history. But like I was mentioning earlier, Maker’s Mark, Pappy van Winkle, a lot of the Irish and Scotch whiskeys, a lot of the ones that you would really put up on a pedestal as some of the best whiskeys out there are made on continuous systems. And so I think a lot of when you see that systems aren’t allowed to be made or products aren’t allowed to be made on continuous systems, a lot of that comes down to history.
John McKee: It comes down to tradition, but it doesn’t necessarily follow the science. I think that everybody gets to define their industry the way they want, but ultimately the consumer and the customers are the ones that are going to decide whether or not that industry gets a fighting chance. And knowing that really consistently and well-made products like Makers are Pappy van Winkle are made on continuum grey goose was made on continuous stills. Knowing those things and knowing that the customer tends to pivot towards those things because they can rely on the quality, they can rely on the consistency. That tends to be what really drives things in the end. And so, yeah, there’s probably a handful of products all over the world that probably have restrictions on production methodology. But ultimately, that comes down to the consumer and if the consumer says, great, you’ve got a restriction on your production methodology, but it doesn’t mean it makes it inconsistent product or it doesn’t make product, I want to buy the second time. Then typically you see those industries, you know, either wither around, fade away or change with the times.
Colleen Moore: Yeah. So your continuous column stills are continuous column stills in general can make pretty much any type of, of alcohol. So it can do grain whiskies, gins, vodkas, you could make bourbon with it. It looks like Armagnac it’s made on column stills, but cognac’s not, and cognac also has some other restricting factors to it. You can only make cognac in the cognac region of France. But you can also make other types of brandies. So you could probably make something that was similar to cognac using the same kind of fruit but it just couldn’t be called cognac if you’re making it outside that region and using a continuous column stills. So there’s still hope for you cognac lovers out there.
John McKee: Yeah, absolutely. I would be confident in saying that with the proper amount of time our industry at any time with the proper, basically I’m saying it’s like an experience masher and fermentor on the cognac side for actually like taking the wine and the grapes and getting the correct flavor for their wine that will then be distilled. You put that with the right distiller on a continuous column and they’re probably going to be able to make something that you can’t tell the difference between the columns still and a batch still. It’s just history and it’s just tradition. Eventually either it changes, or it doesn’t, and they still get a really great product no matter what.
Colleen Moore: Right. So you can make pretty much any type of those, any product, any alcoholic beverage essentially with some withstanding exceptions. Would you say that a continuous column still is a good example of fractional distillation, right? That’s what it’s for.
John McKee: Yeah. Yeah. And so you’ve got reactive distillation and fractional distillation. So fractional you’re trying to separate a couple of things. Reactive distillation is you’re putting stuff into a column, you’re doing a chemical process, some sort of reaction chemistry, and then you’re trying to separate the results of the reaction chemistry. So really what we’ve done when we make beer is we’ve basically told the yeasty beasties to find sugar. They’ve excreted CO2 and alcohol and died. And we said, well that was really great and that beer or that wine, but I want more alcohol in this. Then this volume that I want to drink. Then the beer the wine has. And our job then is to go fractionally, pull it apart and say, I just want the alcohol part. Get rid of all the water and the other stuff. And that’s what fractional distillation is. Yeah.
Colleen Moore: Okay. Excellent. So that’s a really great overview of column distillation. So thank you for that. Tell me about the products that Head Frame spirits is making? What kind of base are you using? Are you doing a grain product?
John McKee: Yeah, right now all of our products are grain products that are, um, that we mash and ferment at our place in that, you know, we’re in Montana, um, or right on the continental divide. In fact, and in mind on a lot of listeners might not know, but Montana is really sort of become the place where barley has had to retreat to. Um, and it’s pretty much only malted and made in Montana. Now on very large scales. I mean, most of the old malt and barley fields have been replaced by and being all the way through the Midwest and the Dakotas. And, luckily corn and bean don’t grow very well in Montana, but barley does. So we’re really blessed in that we have some of the largest malt houses in America within three hours of us. And so we have some really consistent high-grade malt that we can rely on and just about any time.
John McKee: So most of our products, we do big campaigns if you will. So we’ll do a month of a product and then the next month we do a different product. But our big campaigns are really focused around our single malt product, which we have not released yet. Um, we’ve been some of the very first product we ever made. Some of it’s as old as eight years right now, is not released as a product for sale, but we use a lot of malted stock from Montana for that. We use a lot of bourbon. So corn and wheat and rye based grain mixtures. We do winter wheat, a white winter wheat for our vodka. Again, a product that grows very well in Montana. But you know, in talking about what we do, we don’t make an Agave based spirit because there’s not a lot of a Agave that grows up here. We don’t make a rum because sugar cane really doesn’t do too well, you know, North of the Mason Dixon line. So we wind up sort of playing to our strengths here and we stay mostly on the grains side for most of the production of our spirits.
Colleen Moore: That’s awesome. So I also know that you guys make a cream based a spirit. So can you tell me a little bit about working with milk and how you’ve figured that out and done that bourbon cream liqour
John McKee: Yeah. So the corner, the cream based product, we actually are not a dairy. To be a dairy you have a whole different, set of licensing and regulators that get on top of yet that you then still have to deal with the TTB for alcohol. So what we wound up doing is when we recognized how prevalent cream liquors were they’re like the fourth or fifth highest selling by volume spirits in the world. Once we recognize how prevalent they were, we figured out that there were people who were doing this making the base cream. So every time you see a, you know, a Baily’s or Creme de cocoa or creme de mint, all that base cream is usually coming from a few different sources. And so we went to one of the sources in Wisconsin and they do a stabilized cream for us.
John McKee: So it’s not a milk, I mean it is a cream, a thicker, creamier product, but it’s also been stabilized at a dairy, cause these guys are a dairy, they’re all say DSP is still spirits plant. So they’re using the techniques and processes that they’ve been using for, gosh, I don’t know how long 60, 70 years of stabilizing cream that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, that can accept an alcohol addition without curdling that can do various things. And we bring that cream in and we add our bourbon product into that. So what we’re doing is we, the base, if you will, of that product is a stabilized cream, but the thing that we add to at that’s ours is our bourbon. So the, answer to that is that it seems like we should have all this secretive and background knowledge and cream and you know, we’ve got cows on
Colleen Moore: Yeah. Where are you hiding those cows?
John McKee: Exactly where are the cows? And what we figured out really quick was that, in order to hide the cows, you have to operate as a dairy and dairies have a lot of restrictions that made it unpalatable to us. And so we backed up and said, well Bailey’s doesn’t own a dairy. What are they doing? And then once we figured out what they were up to, it was a pretty simple pivot for us to do the same.
Colleen Moore: Nice. All right. What is your best selling product there at Headframe Spirits.
John McKee: Well that is that Orphan Girl Bourbon, yeah, it’s a big fan. People really enjoy it. It’s very approachable. You know, I think we we’re joking amongst ourselves here a little while back that there’s sort of a craze right now on low and no proof products. So like seltzers and these other ones, right? Well, I mean, when we opened our distillery eight years ago, we basically opened with a low proof product. We, it was intentional. We knew that, I think the way we used to say it was that we know that there’s gonna be people come in as a group and someone in the group just doesn’t like the hard stuff. And so it was our goal to find something that would be approachable to them and make it easier on them. And what we found was that when we put this product together, this bourbon cream Liquor, that it has a nice flavor. It’s a low proof, it was about 34 proof. So we were starting at something that was intentionally but mostly as a just catching people who just didn’t want the hard stuff. Wound up happening almost instantly is that we came to understand that this is what people were looking for. And it became our most popular product almost overnight and has remained so.
Colleen Moore: Awesome. When we come back, we will talk with Courtney and John more about their product lineup, community involvement and visions for the future of Headframe’s growth. Let’s take a break for a word from our first ever sponsor.
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Colleen Moore: Well, welcome back to the distilling craft podcast. I’m Colleen Moore from Dalkita, your host. With me today is Courtney and John McKee from Headframe Spirits and Headframe Manufacturing to continue the conversation around their business in beautiful Butte, Montana. So talk to me a little bit about the names of your products. I know you have a great story behind that and I just want to touch on it real quick. Where are you getting the names for Orphan Girl, High Ore vodka and destroying angel.
Courtney McKee: When we decided that we wanted to open a distillery there was never a moment where the company was going to be called McKee anything. We picked really early on naming the company after the community, um, naming the company Headframe Spirits after the headframes, which are great, big, tall, anywhere from I think 90 feet to 150 foot tall steel structures that raised and lowered minors underground to work in the copper mines of Butte and raised copper ore up. We really wanted to use the company to take the stories of the past and make them present and make them relevant, not just as references to relics. So we did the same thing with the names of the products themselves. So it was the sort of epiphany moment when rather than calling it Headframe distilling or Headframe distillery, we realized we should call it Headframe Spirits.
Courtney McKee: And so John says you know what if we just called it Headframe Spirits? And I think I gasped and said, if we call it Headframe Spirits, we could name everything we make after the mines of Butte. And that’s what those names are. Those are references to individual mines around Butte. And that’s our plan for all of our products. There were over 400 mines listed in the 1903 Butte city registry and of course 1903 wasn’t the only year that mine started or stopped. That was just an easy one that we had access to. So we’ve got tons and tons and tons of names to pick from and to use to tell stories of the past and pull those into the future.
Colleen Moore: How has the community responded, to using those names? Has there been any thoughts? Were they happy? Did have people come into your distillery or your tasting room and said, my grandfather used to work at Orphan Girl.
Courtney McKee: Actually, we’ve had people come in and say, my grandpa used to work there, or we’ve had folks who’ve come in and said, I used to work there. The last of these underground mines closed in the early 1970s. We have people who come in and say, I worked there when I was in high school. One of the fun stories, we use real photos from Buttes history, from the world museum of mining, on our labels. So if you look at any of our product labels, they’ve real photos of real human beings on them. What’s fun about that for us, we actually had a gentleman come in once and say, Hey, that guy on your Destroying Angel label, he’s my grandpa, his name is Oliver Penny. And, and he actually came back in the next day with more photos of his grandpa and stories to share with us.
Courtney McKee: And he’s over the moon that these stories are being shared and communicated and that people get to look at as grandpa. And so it’s fully endorsed, fully embraced by them, by the community. That’s wonderful. And you know, from a marketing standpoint, it’s kinda handy to when, not only are we not having to pay somebody to create story for us, we save all of that expense and effort of trying to invent something that’s compelling and that’s engaging for an audience. And we’ve seen brands be very successful going that route, but it’s sort of lovely when you’ve got true authentic stories that you can share that resonate with an audience and that saves you the expense of going to putting dollars into the creation of that story.
Colleen Moore: Right? So, yeah, you can’t get any more authentic than the people that actually worked in the factories and in the facilities. So in that vein where you started out with your distillery being very much a part of the community and less about the McKee name and more about the community. Can you talk to us a little bit about I guess maybe a recent change you’ve done with the distillery and, or the manufacturing plant? I think that you guys have made those employee owned companies now. Is that true?
Courtney McKee: So they are not employee owned companies yet, but when we think about, Headframes exit strategy, this is not about building a company that we’re going to sell to the highest bidder or that we’re going to turn over to our children to run. Our kids are 14 and 20. And we believe very strongly that our kid’s job is to go find their own happiness and their own future and not be tied to decisions that we’ve made. And so truly, if you want to make something that that lasts and that continues to add value to the community and be relevant to the community, the best way to do that is to, is to sell it to your employees and keep the passion for the brand. I’m right here with the people who build their livelihoods off of it. So what we’ve been doing for the last couple of years are investigating models for that type of exit strategy. It turns out that the Aesop model is not up our alley. We’ve got some other really great Aesop’s, in our local community that we’ve been able to talk to about the model and how that works for them.
Colleen Moore: Can you define Aesop for us real quick?
John McKee: So an employee stock ownership program. Gotcha.
Courtney McKee: Yeah. And the function of it is not up our alley. And we’ve seen it work really nicely in other businesses, at least for probably 10 or 20 years or so. It’s sort of interesting as some of those businesses continue to mature to see how sustainable that model is. So we’re looking really for a different model, but certainly something along that same concept of making the employees, the owners, make them the decision makers and keep the value local. Right.
Colleen Moore: It’s very democratic of you.
Courtney McKee: Well, you’re gonna work your ass off to build something and it won’t be your decision how it runs or what it does when we’re not the bosses of it anymore. But man, if we can set it up to continue to try to serve that same primary mission of returning value to the community, that would be pretty awesome.
Colleen Moore: That would be. So you are a part of kind of a voluntary program called B Corp. can you tell us a little bit about what’s involved with that?
Courtney McKee: Absolutely. So B Corp’s are a newer designation, like being an S Corp or a C Corp. It’s sort of a companion designation rather than a replacement designation. But it indicates that you are a for profit entity with a social mission as well. And that social mission can really be honed a number of different directions. It can be about creating a good environmental change and impact. It can be about a community change and impact. And believe there’s one other sort of primary avenue for it. In our case that really is about a community impact more so than an environmental impact. We see that as a piece of it, but really it’s about, for us, we use that designation really to highlight that we care about doing good things for our communities.
Courtney McKee: So, one of the, one of the fun statistics about headframe, we have been open almost eight years and the company has donated more dollars into the community than John and Courtney have taken home. Yeah. And I think that’s something to be really proud of. I think that’s a pretty cool metric. We work incredibly hard to partner with various organizations to highlight the work done by various organizations. I even was asked just yesterday, do you feel bad making booze? You know, don’t you think that you’re, how do you respond, I guess was the question. How do you respond to the notion that you’re creating harm in the world with what you do? And my answer to that always is, anything can cause more harm than good. Damn near any business can cause more harm than good.
Courtney McKee: We just happened to work really carefully to ensure that, that we’re creating as much good as we’re sustainably able to do. You know, I believe very strongly that Headframe and the many, many, many of our peers in the industry are in the economic development business and we’re in the community building business and spirits are just our avenue to that type of work. But I think that lots of us, when we think about why we do what we do, it’s about creating jobs. It’s about doing community storytelling. It’s about leaving a positive impact on marketing, a positive marketing impact on your community. And so to that end, we do a lot of our charitable work around that type of storytelling, around taking really good care of our employees. I think employees might’ve been the third primary category for B corpse. And so we do a lot of education work. Our employees, including even our part-time bartenders, have 401k plans. And that’s been really fantastic. We’ve had bartenders in their 50s who have said, Holy crap, this is the first time I’ve had a job where I’m able to save for my own retirement. That’s a really big deal cause I’d rather be helping people do that right now than shouldering the burden of them
Colleen Moore: When there’s a team 80, exactly. So that’s really great. I know that we have the small business here and one of the things that I’m most proud of at Dalkita is that we are able to support, two architects and an engineer at a competitive salary. But also they do have that. They do have the healthcare. And they do have, things like the 401k and savings programs and things like that. So I think that is super and I’m very glad that you do that. So thank you for being a role model.
Courtney McKee: Oh, thank you. You know, strategically it makes sense as well. If we want to attract good talent and retain them, then we want to do all the things that we can to make jobs sticky and compelling. And taking good care of people is not that hard. In fact, in the long run it tends to be substantially less expensive than having to replace people. So you’ve worked very hard to ensure that we’re paying people a competitive wage for the state of Montana and we actually get survey data every year so that we’ve got job descriptions and wages, that we get to use for Montana to compare what we’re paying our people to what they could be making and comparable. And I’m saying comparable and sort of air quotes jobs around the state. And we use that information and performance information to drive salary and wage decision making. Because, you know, otherwise we can just throw a number at a wall. But that doesn’t mean that we know that we’re giving somebody something good and competitive that they’re gonna feel good about sticking around for.
Colleen Moore: Right. It’s always good to cross check your numbers with standards and metrics that are from another source potentially. So are you getting your information about salary data and stuff like that? Is that coming from your department of labor or do you pay a subscription for something like that?
Courtney McKee: Yeah, we actually get it from a third party called Associated Employers and they do an annual member survey. So there are about 500 businesses in Montana that contribute to the survey every year. So we’re able to see a lot of very similar jobs and even if they’re not exact, copies of some of the work that we do. You know, they don’t have a distilled spirits production manager. Um, as I said, a job they have sufficient information on, but we can find comparable things to use to drive some of that in.
Colleen Moore: Yeah. Something like that could be a plant manager at a grain handling facility or something like that.
Courtney McKee: Absolutely.
Colleen Moore: So tell me about your biggest success in the last year. What has been your biggest business success that you are most excited about?
John McKee: You know, Coleen, it’s really funny. We are coming up on being open for just about eight years. So, we opened on leap day in 2012 and so on February 29th, this coming year, we will have been open by the calendar eight years. Um, but by leap day we’ve only be on our second birthday and then it gets sort of a funny, it’s a funny metric at the think about that. Um that we’ve only been open two years about running for eight years. But the thing I think we’re really proud about there to say is that we’ve, for eight years, we have gone from this aha moment in a restaurant about what to call our company and how to co-brand it against and with the history of our place in the world to being, like Courtney was saying just a minutes ago, our ability to donated more money and given away more money than we’ve taken home for ourselves.
John McKee: And now after eight years being open, I think it’s sort of this, there’s the lovely thing to wake up every morning and say, okay, we could still cock this up tomorrow. We could still screw everything up tomorrow, but what’s really rewarding is that for eight years now, we’ve created a place for what is now 33 people and their families and their kids and their husbands and their wives to have a source of income, to have a stable place to work. You know, their days are going to look like day in and day out. And just have some stability in that. And I think that that’s for me over this last year, that’s been something I’ve been really just enjoying about what we’re up to and why we’re doing what we’re doing. So how about you, Courtney, since you let me take all of it first. I wonder what’s left.
Courtney McKee: Yeah. Well I think, to to just expand on what you said there a little bit. Eight years is a really big deal. I think by SBA statistics, if I have my numbers right, about 80% of small businesses fail in the first eight years. So that eight year mark really there are a lot of feels around reaching that eight year mark. And it doesn’t mean that we haven’t made mistakes, it just means that we’ve been successful and not making any terminal mistakes. Which is pretty fantastic and pretty rewarding. You know, I would say that in the last year some of our biggest successes have been around the quality of the team that we’ve assembled. And you know, cause sometimes turnover is disappointing. Sometimes it’s a disappointment to see members of the team leave. Other times turnover is a really great opportunity to bring in new talent or to see jobs certainly over the years evolve and change and you know, maybe they don’t evolve, change in line with the folks who have that position. So I think just in terms of the quality of the team that we have in the roles that we’ve got, I think that we’ve had some really strong successes there. I think we’ve also had some really cool innovations in the manufacturing side of the work that we do.
John McKee: Well, I mean, I think about manufacturing, regardless of if it’s booze or if it’s machines and make booze is that, I think all good businesses are always trying to think about the next thing they want to do. As soon as you sit down and you’re like, Oh, we did it, it looks good. Let’s just carry on with that forever. Well that doesn’t happen because those businesses don’t exist anymore. So I think what’s fun about being entrepreneurs and about having the opportunity to lead the focus and direction of our companies is that when someone comes up with a crazy idea at our place, we normally find a way to at least challenge it, think about it, look at it, and game it out. Because ultimately, you know, a long time ago, Courtney and I were like, wow, we need something that just, you know, for the people who don’t like the hard stuff and within weeks that became our highest seller and it’s has never come down. And so when I think when people think outside the box or given the opportunity to do that, they’re given the opportunity to innovate and to keep innovating as part of their culture. And then ultimately, you know, the companies themselves or the company that allows that to happen is setting itself up for a much bigger chance of a win.
Courtney McKee: You know, we work really hard, whether that’s spirits customers out in the world, folks who come to our tasting room, or clients on the equipment side. We work really hard to meet our customers where they’re at and to understand their needs and their interests and to deliver them a product or an experience that delights them, that, that suits the purposes, that they’ve got in mind. And so it’s really interesting. We are the only business that I’m aware of in the world that gets to hire both bartenders and welders. And to think about how you build jobs for diverse groups like that and how you build sales plans and manufacturing processes for things as diverse as, you know, cocktails and bottles of booze and big stainless pieces of, of welded equipment.
Courtney McKee: So I think we feel challenged by that but I think that we also really enjoy that challenge and getting to think about, you know, those three different customer segments and how you deliver something appropriate to them. The language that we use. We totally stole from Netflix culture deck a good number of years ago. But these business units are highly aligned and they are loosely coupled, meaning, you know, we’re all working to serve the same larger, good purpose, but we’re all going to climb that mountain, via the path that makes the most sense to each of those departments individually. So we’re all aiming for the same goal, but we’re all going to take our own routes to get there, but we’re going to do it as as a team. I think so some of those favorite innovations have really been about taking good care of our customers and meeting them where they’re at and delivering, you know, products that address pain points for people.
Colleen Moore: So, speaking of pain points, have you had any operational pain points that you’ve come across running a distillery, either that you’ve solved triumphantly or that you’re still working?
Courtney McKee: Never. We’ve, we’ve never had a single problem yet in anything. Ever. At all. Okay? Yep. Ever. Never, ever. Never, ever.
Colleen Moore: Exactly. So it’s just confetti and kitty cats all the time. Right?
John McKee: There’s rainbows come out of unicorns’ bums. No, I think like in all things, I think one of the things that I think we are, we’re seeing a lot right now is that the translation from, I think a lot of distilleries are going through the same problems. It’s the translation outside of your local area. So, you know, I think the local Vore if you will, trend is really great. You show up to a town, you’re like, I want to find the breweries there. I want to find the distilleries there and I want to try them out and see what they’re like. It’s really cool. It’s a really cool process. But what it also means is that when you know, you’re trying to transition into a market outside of your own, it can be challenging anymore because people are like, well, they’re not from here.
John McKee: I should just be buying stuff from here. And that’s definitely been a challenge. I think a lot of the industries waking up to is a really hyper, hyper localized local thing going on in the markets. And, that’s been a challenge, I think for all of us. And that was a challenge for us. I mean, we feel comfortable in Montana. We’ve done a really nice job and I’ve been very blessed at how Montana as our community has accepted us. But when we’re translating into other States, there’s always that, that there’s that added difficulty to telling your story when they can look down their block and say, well, I’ve got a distillery here and they make Vodka and they make Gin, why dont I go down there and take care of my own local guys. I would say that’s one of the challenges that’s been facing us in the last year is convincing our customers that even though we might not be from their state or from their backyard, that, there’s a really good reason to give us a shot and to give us a try because I think that ultimately there’ll be pretty happy that they did.
Courtney McKee: Also slightly more philosophically- I think one of the other challenges that John and I face and I know is common to others in our industry. That is, generally not talked about, is the excellence as you scale. And really what I mean there is are each of us still the right people to be serving the roles that we do – as our company continues to grow. I think when we, any of us, comes up with the idea that ‘I want to open a distillery.’ We come at that from one particular angle where we have some experience or some talent or some excellence and that’s not necessarily the same primary needs that your company is going to have as it continues to grow. So being able to check your own ego and know where you are a badass is relative to what the company needs as the company continues to grow. That and having a strong skill set around hiring, too. Knowing your own weak spots – I think is one of the most important and often – kind of underrated or under-discussed, under-addressed aspects of continuing to stay awesome and badass as you grow.
Colleen Moore: Nice. Well I think that is a good place to leave it. I want to thank both Courtney and John for joining us on the Distilling Craft podcast today. Thanks for coming on the show!
The McKees: Thanks for having us! It was a lot of fun. Thank you.
Colleen Moore: Well that was some great stuff from Courtney and John. If you get a chance to visit them in Butte, you definitely should drop in. It’s a cute tasting room in a quintessential Western town. While you’re there you will certainly come to understand the imposing scale of the mining headframes that they’ve named their company and their product in honor of.
Colleen Moore: I think it’s only fitting that this episode on continuous columns actually continues on into a second episode. So episode two of our Distilling Craft podcast will be available in about two weeks. We are going to talk with Greg Lehman from Watershed Distilling in Columbus, Ohio, who runs one of Headframe’s continuous column stills in his operation. So until next time I’m Colleen Moore from Dalkita and this has been the Distilling Craft podcast.
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Colleen Moore: Do you have feedback on this show? Send us an email to [email protected] of course, if you want to find out more about this specific episode, go to our show notes on our webpage. That’s www.dalkita.com/shownotes.
Colleen Moore: Remember, you can subscribe to this podcast via Apple podcasts or however you get your podcasts.
Colleen Moore: Our theme music was composed by Jason Shaw and is used under a Creative Commons attribution 3.0 license. Finally, a special thanks to the Dalkita team behind this production and the man that puts it all together, our sound editor, Daniel Phillips, from Zero Crossing Productions. Until next time, stay safe out there. I’m Colleen Moore.
Sponsor Promo: Dalkita is committed to getting intelligent and quality design solutions out to the craft distilling industry. Check them out at their website, www.dalkita.com. Until next time this has been Distilling Craft, cheers!
Mentioned in this Episode:
Headframe Spirits: http://www.headframespirits.com/
Headframe Manufacturing: https://www.headframestills.com/
Coffey Still: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Column_still
Associated Employers: https://www.associatedemployers.org/