Artisan Tools

  • by Ian Schmidt

You may or may not be aware that later this year we are moving from our distillery home for the last twenty years to a new home at Nairne in the Adelaide Hills. This move will have a tremendous and far reaching impact on Tin Shed Distilling and our products, and hopefully on us as individuals. These impacts will be discussed at a later date, but today I want to discuss the tools we use.

Here at the Shed we think of ourselves as artisan, or craft distillers. We are small-scale, we operate equipment by hand, we make judgment calls based on smell and taste, as well as time and instrumentation. For example we generally look to start thinking about the spirit run cut from heart to feints around 1430 in the afternoon. We then check to see if the strength of the distillate is what it should be. We also look at the temperature of the still and lastly, we smell and taste the distillate to see if the time is right to make the cut. The inputs consist of a mix of subjective sensory ones, backed up by instrumentation and measurement and it works well for us. We would not consider making the cuts any other way.

But what about the less critical elements of whisky making? A wash run is just set and forget. Charge the still, turn it on and collect low wines until it is finished. There is no need to do anything except keep an eye on it to make sure there are no disasters such as a loss of cooling water. If that is all that is required, it is possible to get a machine to do that. I can devote my time to other tasks and be more efficient, making my whisky less expensive and more attractive to my customers.

Not many people would call Glen Fiddich a craft distiller, they operate on an industrial scale; pushing out sixteen, ten ton mashes a day and have been operating for a couple of hundred years. They have got the process nailed to where they can make the spirit cut at the same time everyday because it is the same process everyday. I am not going to tell Wee Jimmy who has worked in the still room for thirty years that he doesn’t know his craft! He knows it far better than I ever will, except that he may not know what a barrel looks like, or how to fix one that leaks, or how to blend a whisky so that it tastes bloody fantastic.

This discussion came about because I spent a few hours this morning talking automation with a consultant. I was considering doing unmanned wash runs overnight and I wanted to be able to do that with fail safes in place so that if there was a malfunction the still would shut down and we would have no disasters except a bit of lost productivity. That discussion led to another discussion about implementing failsafe procedures so that it would be impossible to open the wrong valve by mistake and fill the distillery with water, or flammable spirit, or pour whisky down the drain. In other words make the place idiot proof, a good idea around here, trust me on that one!

It was then I started to think “if we operate our distillery by clicking a mouse or a touch screen are we still craft producers?” There are artists who paint using a digital brush. Are they not still artists even though their brush is electronic instead of made of wood and bristles? Just because we stir the mash with an electric motor rather than a paddle, are we not still craft producers? It is much safer doing it with a machine than with a paddle by the way.

I have arrived at the conclusion that being an artisan or craft producer is more about the state of mind and philosophy of the producer than it is about the tools he, or she uses.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments below...

Tagged with: Distilling Shed Wisdom

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  • Great thoughts and ponderings, Ian! I agree with your conclusion that artisanal/craft pursuits are perhaps more a state of mind and philosophy than the tools employed. But somewhere intertwined in all of this is the “story” and the stories of some distilleries involve the “intangibles”. This article has a picture on the left-hand-side of you manually raking the spent grist out of your mashtun with a handtool. That forms a key part of Tin Shed’s story; it’s part of your narrative; and, frankly, it’s bloody good marketing collateral. This is amongst the intangibles that further endear Iniquity to its fans. If automating parts of production saved time/costs and allowed you to bring your product to market for $5-$10 less per bottle (say), then that’s a win. But would you still trade on the same narrative? ;-)

    All grist for thought. :-)

    AD on
  • As good as automation is,it can be a costly excercise to implement and maintain.installing new pipework to accommodate new solenoid/pneumatic valves,2 way/3 way ball valve/ actuators,reed switches,pe sensors,proximity sensors,etc and then the PLC to run it all.then,the knowledge to program it,problem solve it,include means of manual override features,have ups’s to back everything up in case of power failures,it can turn into a small fortune.
    Then,if things go pear shaped,call out fees for tech support and keeping a small amount of spare parts to replace critical components.
    Would this investment plus ongoing costs outway the benefits gained?
    Only you’ll know!
    Food for thought in case you go down that path.if it’s purely to simplify medial tasks that don’t interfere with the artisan process,why not.but if it effects the reputation of this product since you guys first started up,then it could be a big risk that may have short/long term implications.but, I’m willing to bet you guys have enough sense to figure it all out.
    Best of luck.

    Andrew on
  • Just thinking out loud: Automation often uses craft initially to create a design – thereafter it is not a craft but production i.e. the producer does not use his/her craft as it’s unnecessary; and others may produce without being a craftsperson. If you as a whisky maker make decisions based on sensory perception to compensate for the large numbers of variables, you are using your crafting skills. This continues into the vatting of casks to make a drinkable product. I think you guys are craftsmen by any definition. I think wee Jimmy is also a craftsman as he has full knowledge of the craft and the knowledge to assess if things are going to plan at each stage, and to modify if not – he just may not use his crafting skills every minute of every day. For me, artisanal implies scale (tradition + size) – but it probably depends on where you are dragged up. A good craftsperson also makes good quality produce so it can of course be qualified. Happy to change my mind on any of the above :-)

    Paul Shand on

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