By Aaron Fournier

Back in late March I traveled to the New Holland Brewery to interview their Brewmaster (more on that in another post). Upon sitting in the pub drinking their delicious beers, I noticed I had severely overlooked their distillery. Their entire line is readily available here in our parts, but I just couldn’t pull myself away from the newest offerings from our kilt-wearing neighbors across the pond. Thankfully, their pub in Holland, Michigan invites you to try everything they make, in a comfortable environment. While I left there with a belly full of awesome beer and wings (their fries are awesome too), I was amazed at the quality of the spirits I tasted. With special help from my friend (and yours!), Dr. Joel, the head of sales for New Holland, I was able to have an incredible e-mail exchange with Brad Kamphuis, one of the distillers at New Holland. Below is a selection of some of the best of the back and forths.

And please, don’t sleep on New Holland spirits like I did. You know where the nearest good liquor store is. Give’em a shot.

Me: What is the annual capacity of the New Holland Distillery today compared to when you opened?

Brad: When New Holland decided to start up the distillery side of the business in 2005 they cobbled together a small pot still with used parts that were left in our boneyard. It’s basically a 60 gallon Navy soup that they tied a steam jacket into with a conical fermenter cone turned over and stuck on top. At that point New Holland was producing around 10 full size casks of whiskey annually with much less than 1000 cases of other clear spirits annually.

As of late 2011, New Holland installed a prohibition era pot still in our production campus. It’s capacity is about 600 gallons. With a two man team on the distillery side and countless others on our brewery staff we are capable of producing about 1 full size cask a day. That’s of course if you average our production over the course of the year.

We have an expansion plan in place that will allow us to be producing over 1000 full size casks a year.  We will be implementing that construction in 2013.

Me: What size barrels do you use? Do they get used more than once? And what happens to them at the end of their life cycle?

Brad: We use a variety of barrel at New Holland, on the distillery side and brewery side as well.  Our straight malt and straight bourbons are matured in new American oak that are 53 gallons, so the industry standard.  We use a heavy char on everything we age.  We also have a small barrel program that we use as a sort of R&D program.  The lineup is called the Brewers Whiskey series.  We call it that because it’s a program that allows us to screw around with specialty brewing grains.  These are currently aged in anything from 5 gallon casks to 25 gallons.  Most of these we are getting from the cooperage Black Swan.

We have just recently gotten to the point where we have the luxury of having a significant volume of used barrels.  We are using most of these in our rum program & the rest get turned over to the brewery for some specialty barrel aged beers to serve at our pub in Holland. Some of the smaller barrels do find their way in the hands of our homebrew club too.  Don’t ask for them, we will never have enough of them.  Since we are a producer of a lot of different types of spirit we have accounts in bars all over our distribution that receive the smallest barrels we have to barrel age cocktail in as well.

We have our “decoopering” team on staff here as well that specialize in taking our spent barrels and building displays and barrel head signs that get displayed in bars and liquor stores to promote our company.

Me: Craft Distilling was still an infant when you opened the distillery in 2005 (correct the date if I’m wrong). What made you want to venture into distilling, given the uphill battle to convince people good spirits weren’t limited to Kentucky, Ireland, Scotland, and England?

Brad: That is more of a question for our President and founder Brett VanderKamp, but I will take a swing at it.  He is a creative person and he wanted to take on the challenge of distilling spirits after a trip to the Caribbean.  Also, there was a necessity to produce spirits for our pub in Holland.  Not everyone is a beer drinker and being from the state of Michigan we are not able to sell anything that we didn’t produce.  Finally, distilling is a basic progression of what we do as a brewery already.  There was little equipment that we needed apart from the still itself.

Me: What sets New Holland Whiskey apart from its Kentucky (and a few other states now) counterpart’s whiskey?

Brad: We have a unique way of creating our washes.  It’s unique to the spirits industry, but not to the brewing industry.  Since we have all the equipment and brewers to produce a high quality beer we can also take as much care and attention to our washes.  If you believe in quality you know that starting with the best thing you can make, in turn, will produce a better product.  In our case it’s our spirits.  We could ferment our washes on the grain, but we have a mash/lauter tun that we can separate it before it is fermented.  We could ferment our wash uncontrolled with yeast that is able to reach terminal in only 48 hours, but we ferment at cooler temperatures with our house ale strain in closed vessels for 10 days.  We could pump our wash into our still with all the yeast and break material still in it, but we centrifuge our wash to remove that material.  All these steps lead to high quality wash that is clean and free of many of the off flavors that are produced in a hot and fast fermentation.

Having a brewery in the same building has its advantages, as mentioned before.  This is also why we make a lot of malt whiskey.  Malt whiskey is a category not often produced in this country because of the delicious Bourbon that we can make in the corn rich areas of this country.  With our malt whiskey we are using a variety of specialty malts like roasted and crystal malts that are often used in our beers.  It’s providing some unique flavor components that you just can’t replicate with your basic grains.  We are also aging our spirits a little untraditional.  We have the afore mentioned small barrel aging that is bringing out some intense barrel characteristics and we are finishing Bourbon in our used beer barrels.

Me: New Holland Distilling has the advantage of living within a production brewery. Because after all, most spirits are just distilled beer. You make a distilled version of Mad Hatter IPA, “dry hopped” with Centennial hops. If I had never had it, I would have thought it was a bad idea. It is delicious by the way, and so different. Was this recipe some serious trial and error? Or did you let your hop-head guide you?

Brad: That brand actually goes back to before I was a part of the team.  The company’s anniversary party is a big celebration every year where we produce off shoots of our top brand Mad Hatter IPA.  There are now 8 different IPA’s that we produce in that season and one year the distillery decided to get into the action.  They distilled our imperial IPA first and learned that it tasted similar to an agave based spirit, but the hops were either not present or they were obviously bitter.  What they had learned is that it is almost wasteful to be using hops in the spirit before it is distilled.  The pleasant components just don’t carry over the distillation unless you are using a type of botanical basket.  They decided to use the hops post distillation which ends up utilizing the hop oils.  Yes, I am telling you to mess around with hopped vodka’s; you’d be surprised what you find.  I believe that Fuggles smells like feet.  We are not hopping vodka, but we start with a 100% 2-row white whiskey that we pot distill and dry hop it for a week.  Centennial is bringing out a nice citrus and floral note that you are familiar with our Mad Hatter IPA.  It’s a very interesting spirit that can be used in a lot of different drinks.  We like to make Hopirita’s.

Me: I’m one of those whiskey snobs who can’t say enough about the malts of Islay. Are there plans for a smokey whiskey in the future?

Brad: We actually just laid down our first batch of a peated whiskey earlier this year.  We are not able to smoke our own malt yet so we needed to source the peated malt from a UK maltster, Simpsons.  The whiskey we made is far from the level of peat that you would find in an Islay distillery.  The peat is balanced out with the use of unpeated malts and also new oak.  The other smoked whiskey that we have in our brand line is called Malthouse.  It is the grain bill of our smoked rye doppelbock that we release in small batches.  It is not as smokey as you might think, but has some really interesting notes.  The malts we are using in that are a smoked malt, 2-row, Munich, Crystal Rye and Chocolate.

Me: Spirits finished in wine casks are really taking off, and spirits finished in beer casks are gaining ground as it is freaking delicious. New Holland Distilling has already put out whiskey finished in Dragon’s Milk beer barrels. Is this just a natural progression of getting all you can out of a barrel, or a way of melding beer and spirits? 

Brad: A lot of the opportunity that we have found with our barrel aging has stemmed from the fact that we have barrels everywhere around here.  We are bringing in around 200 barrels a month just for our Dragons Milk program.  After saying that, there is some true uniqueness to the used beer barrels that we can use in the distillery.  It is producing some amazing characters that no one else can replicate because it’s our beer that was aged in them.  That’s when those used barrels stop being a commodity and start being a little treasure chest for us.

Me: Have you ever caught any of the brewers taking an additional angel’s share after they had a long day of brewing?

Brad: I believe that if I were to take some measurements on the angel’s share we would have slightly more losses that many other distilleries.  Brewers are thirsty people.

Me: Just like with brewing, there are home distilling enthusiasts. Even though home distilling is quite illegal. Brewers (for the most part) don’t mind answering homebrewer’s questions, but you have to walk a finer line I would suppose. Are you allowed to answer those kinds of questions?

Brad: I never even knew how many home distillers there really were until I took this position.  Pretty soon, people are just handing you jars and looking for advice on their stuff.  I have no problem giving advice on the topic.  As with the beer, your fermentation is key.