As a take on my Know Your Brewer series, I wanted to expand my focus to feature local distillers.
Becoming a distiller, unlike becoming a brewer, is not the most direct path. That’s not to say there’s one way to enter into brewing, as we’ve seen there are many, but to start distilling, you can’t just head into your garage with a pot and still like you can with homebrewing … legally.
With that said, I thought it would be interesting to delve into the world and minds of these local distillers.
To start, I talked with Dan Kulick from Tattered Flag Brewery and Still Works.
Kulick’s fermenting journey started when he and a few friends start brewing in their dorm while attending the University of Pittsburgh.
“We were underage at the time,” said Kulick. “But, there weren’t any laws against brewing the beer, you just can’t consume it once it becomes alcoholic.”
Once he and his friends became of age, they started to frequent Rock Bottom Brewery’s Pittsburgh taproom. They got to know the head brewmaster and talked with him regularly.
“We would go to the brewery and bring our homebrew to drink with him,” said Kulick. “He would give us tips, talk with us about the beer and we go back and tweak it.
This is where Kulick said he started to become fascinated by brewing and the fermented arts.
“I really started liking the whole recipe development aspect,” said Kulick. “How you can manipulate the types of hops, water temperature, and if you do one little thing that it completely changes the flavor profile.”
Brewing begets distilling
All the while when Kulick was drinking at Rock Bottom he kept asking if they needed any assistance. They said kept saying no, but Kulick kept at it.
“One day the head brewer had too much to do so he called me up and asked if I wanted to help,” said Kulick. “I worked as a volunteer for three to four months and then was hired on as an assistant brewer.”
Kulick worked as the assistant brewer for five to six years at Rock Bottom. Kulick said during this time he knew some of his friends were involved in distilling, maybe not legally, though.
“That’s the thing with distilling, you can’t practice your craft as you would with homebrewing,” said Kullick. “You can’t do anything legally without being fully licensed or working at an established distillery.”
He said he started reading and learning everything he could about distilling.
Like his draw to brewing, Kulick said that the manipulation of ingredients is what drew him to distilling.
“It was all about curiosity for me,” said Kulick. “I liked whiskey, rum, and vodka, and since I was already on the brewing side, this was something interesting and new.”
Becoming a distiller
Kulick ended up leaving Rock Bottom in 2005 to pursue his distilling curiosity. Again, he couldn’t hone his craft without being licensed, so he worked at Spirits of Gettysburg Distilling for a few years.
There are a few ways to go about learning how to become a distiller. You can have a master distiller take you under his wing or, in Kulick’s case, you can study and learn as much as possible and give it a go.
Kulick honed his craft while at Spirits of Gettysburg, before Pat Devlin, co-owner at Tattered Flag, came calling.
“When Pat came to me, I asked him if really wanted to start this,” said Kulick. “I told him it’s a 24-hour job, like a kid, but Pat told me about his team, and I saw how serious they were.”
Since coming on at Tattered Flag, Kulick has been churning out flavorful and award-winning spirits done his way.
“My philosophy with distilling is a lot like good bar-b-queuing, which means low and slow,” said Kulick. “I don’t care how long it takes. I just want it to taste how I want on the back end.”
Kulick said he wants his drinks to be smooth with very little bite. He wants people to come in and have a few cocktails and not realize there is alcohol in the drink itself.
For his efforts, Kulick’s spirits have recently received international praise.
His Pennsylvania Gin received a bronze medal at American Distilling Institute’s International Spirits Competition, and at the Great American Spirits Competition his Blue Agave Spirit received a bronze medal, and the Susquehanna Gin received a silver medal.
“That was a proud moment for the guys here,” said Kulick. “They were the first major awards we won for our products.”
Recipe Development + Education
When Kulick approaches a new recipe, it usually happens in a few steps. He knows what he wants to get out of the final product, but he wants to figure out how to put his own spin on it.
“With spirits, there are certain stipulations you have to meet in your product. One example is that bourbon has to be at least 55% corn,” said Kulick. “Beyond that, we can tweak the recipes all we want.”
After that, Kulick said they run three to four test batches through a smaller system to pinpoint the final version.
Kulick said he loves working with their gin because of the fresh botanicals used in every batch.
“With our gin, we’re working with 14 fresh botanicals, and you really have to fine tune that palate, and that to me is fun,” said Kulick.
Aside from distilling, Kulick said he also works on educating customers about the products.
“There’s this stigma around spirits, and people are all about brand name,” said Kulick. “They like what they like, but I get people in here to help them taste through the spirits and educate them about how it’s made.”
Kulick said customers are always impressed with the flavors of the spirits. He shared a story about doing a blind taste test with a woman who only drank high-end vodka. Kulick said she was shocked to discover she picked his vodka over her usual high-end preference.
Tattered Flag has a full list of gins, vodka, moonshine, but the one I am most drawn to is their Blue Agave Spirit (tequila). It has an aromatic nose of citrus and a bit of sweetness, and a smooth finish with similar flavors. It works perfectly in a margarita, or just as a shot.