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An Interview with Rick Stillwagon
We recently had a chance to talk with Rick Stillwagon, owner of Stillwagon Distilleries in Charleston, Oregon. Rick is a scientist-turned-distiller, who came to love the craft of making spirits through, of all things, his love of Koi. Rick is a student of aquaculture and loves Koi fish. He built several Koi ponds, but the fish that would live there had been raised in the warmth of Florida -- hardly hardy enough for the colder temperatures of the Pacific Northwest. Rick started playing with ways to warm large quantities of water, ultimately settling on an electric pellet stove he found on Craigslist and a heat exchanger and hydronic heating system he built himself. When that heater fried itself out, Rick searched for a pellet stove that didn’t need electricity. He found one, eventually creating steam, which opened the door first to water distillation, and then, to ethanol. The next logical step, of course, was to start creating his own spirits.
Stillwagon Distillery opened in 2014 in an old, refurbished boatbuilders shop along the Oregon coast. They now produce 10 different rums, are aging a whiskey that sounds like it will knock our socks off and have made a vodka that the locals love.
Sustainability to Distillability
Rick is serious about sustainability, as you’ll see. He’s working on ideas that will allow him to recycle distillery spent wash, something that historically has been incredibly difficult to reuse. He’s also an astute businessman: His research has shown that the growth in microdistilleries could create a substantial market for a DSW recycling facility. He’s working on ways to capture carbon dioxide from his production process.
But equally importantly, we think, he’s focused his scientific brain on producing high-quality rums and other spirits. The results are impressive: Since opening, Stillwagon has added a second tasting room in a southwestern Oregon town about 20 miles from Charleston. Stillwagon Distillery’s spirits spread first to liquor stores around Oregon, but Rick and his wife, Karen, are also working to export to other states. And they are in the process of helping to open a new distillery in Ohio. Read more to learn about how Stillwagon became what it is today, and to hear some of Rick’s insights about making the very best rum possible. We hope you enjoy!
Clawhammer Supply: Tell us about how you chose your location -- a refurbished boatbuilder’s shop is an interesting place for a distillery.
Rick Stillwagon: My wife’s parents own the property where our distillery is located. When my father-in-law passed away, he had a boat that was left unfinished. I am a craftsman, had my own cabinet shop for 25 years, so my father-in-law felt I had the skills to finish his work. He mentioned this to my mother-in-law before he passed away. My mother-in-law asked me if I was interested in finishing the boat, and I agreed to do so. I spent about 6 weeks working on the boat and in my father-in-law’s shop. I really liked the coast, the climate, and the community. When I finished the project, my mother-in-law offered the use of the building. Because of a variety of reasons and the fact my wife could be close to her mother again, we accepted. After visiting with the local government officials we came to an accord, and we were able to acquire the necessary permits for our distillery.
Clawhammer Supply: What size mash tuns do you use and what kind of heat do you use to heat the mash tuns? Is it direct-fired? Or do you heat using a steam jacket? Why did you make that choice? If you use a jacket, we’d especially love to hear more about why you opted to do this.
Rick Stillwagon: I have developed a great relationship with a local brewery, 7 Devils Brewery in Coos Bay, Oregon. They have recently purchased a 15 barrel system, direct fired, gas. They provide the use of their brewing system for the mashing of the grain. I then transport the sweet wort to the distillery where we ferment, distill, barrel, age, and eventually bottle our whiskey.
Clawhammer Supply: Do you have different mash equipment for the different products? Whisky, rum, vodka?
Rick Stillwagon: We use our fermenter for the preparation of the rum wash. Our fermenter is a repurposed dairy vat cooler.
Clawhammer Supply: What materials are those made of?
Rick Stillwagon: All of our vessels: HLT, storage, still kettles, etc., are stainless steel.
Clawhammer Supply: Do you ferment in open tubs or closed fermenters? Why did you decide to ferment that way?
Rick Stillwagon: Our fermenter has lids, but is not sealed. Rum is traditionally fermented open, so I found no need to change that. The lids prevent errant bugs or potential infectants from falling in.
Clawhammer Supply: What size fermenters are you using?
Rick Stillwagon: Currently we use a 500 gallon fermenter. I have a 1,000 gallon fermenter of the same design we will install soon.
Clawhammer Supply: Do you have any temperature control in place? Have you had any issues with temperature during fermentation?
Rick Stillwagon: Our fermentations are temperature controlled to within 1 degree of set-point. Because of this, we have no issues with temperature.
Clawhammer Supply: How many stills do you have and what size and material are they?
Rick Stillwagon: I have two 100-gallon stripping stills, and one 60-finish still. The stripping stills are all stainless with copper packing, and the finish still is a stainless kettle, copper column with copper mesh packing as well.
Clawhammer Supply: How are the stills heated?
Rick Stillwagon: Direct fire electric elements.
Clawhammer Supply: Can you explain your process for cleaning the stills?
Rick Stillwagon: The stills are disassembled, scrubbed with an acid sanitizer, and reassembled.
Clawhammer Supply: Do you do a stripping run and a spirit run?
Rick Stillwagon: I strip the wash/beer hot and fast, and then perform a finish run where we make our cuts.
Clawhammer Supply: Do you distill on the grains? (I guess this would be a question for the whiskey mash...)
Rick Stillwagon: We do not ferment or distill on the grain. The wort is collected during the sparging process at the brewery, sent to the boil kettle for a short boil, then off the fermentation.
Clawhammer Supply: What is the target ABV for your wash? We know it is possible to make wash in the neighborhood of 20% alcohol with the help of nutrients and high-alcohol-tolerant yeasts. We also know that “bigger” is not always better. Can you explain where your wash usually lands and hopefully provide some info on why you shoot for that ABV?
Rick Stillwagon: Our rum wash ends up at about 12-15% after a two step process. Our whisky mash ends up about 10 -12%. The fermentation protocol that we worked out with Dr. Clayton Cone, uses a Champagne yeast and nutrient blend that will not go much higher than that. I have never found the flavors produced by “Turbo” yeasts to be as pleasant as those we achieve now.
Clawhammer Supply: What kind of yeast are you using? Do you use a different strain on different products?
Rick Stillwagon: We use a Champagne yeast from Scott labs.
Clawhammer Supply: We have a rum recipe on our website that is scaled down for a 10 gallon pilot distillery system. We’ve been collecting feedback from other distillers to try and explain how different folks approach distilling in different ways. Can you take a look at our rum recipe give us some feedback on it? Is there anything you would do differently?
Rick Stillwagon: I recommend a 50:50 mix of molasses and cane sugar by weight added to boiling water to 20 - 25 brix (1.083- 1.105 gravity) Once cooled to under 100 degrees F, pitch yeast and add a yeast nutrient. Buffering the molasses wash pH with calcium is recommended to maintain a robust fermentation as pH will drop dramatically during fermentation sometimes bringing everything to a halt. Calcium hydroxide is very reactive, calcium carbonate will work also. Molasses is deficient in a number of things, so adding a yeast nutrient supplement and DAP will make for a much more robust fermentation. Bread yeast is great for making bread, but I would suggest a distillers yeast or champagne yeast for rum. If sufficient yeast has been pitched, fermentation at 90 degrees should be finished in 5 days or less. Dunder from a properly tended dunder pit may be added at distillation to increase the ester content of the rum. I do not recommend adding dunder to the fermentation. Dunder is a whole subject of research unto itself, but well worth the effort. Reading Raphael Arroyo's patent on heavy rum production is also incredibly enlightening, and well worth the time spent.
I have reproduced his fermentation protocol, somewhat modified, and intend to introduce a "Caribbean style" rum based on this fermentation and distillation protocol in the future.
Clawhammer Supply: Do you run your stills differently for each product? How does your vodka run compare to your rum and whiskey run?
Rick Stillwagon: Stripping runs are done essentially the same. Rum and whiskey are run the same through the spirit still except for the cuts. I make very hard cuts on my rum, heads deep, tails early, to achieve a very clean, smooth, and slightly sweet and fruity rum. Our whiskey I cut the heads about the same, but I cut the tails a little later for more flavor. When I cut to tails, on either product it is still running above 70% abv. So, you can see I cut the tails very early. Our vodka is a third distillation of our rum. We make this run very slow to keep the proof up above 190. So the cuts have been done twice and only that which is collected above 190 proof becomes our vodka. Our vodka is very clean, with a slightly sweet finish.
Clawhammer Supply: We know you use a small-batch distilling process, and that you do very deep cuts to only maintain the hearts. Can you tell us more about that process? Why make those deep cuts? How big are your batches? And what do you do with the tails and heads after you’ve separated them out?
Rick Stillwagon: It is really simple. I don’t like the taste of heads or tails in my rum. We do 500 gallon batches and end up with about 50 gallons of 160 proof rum. The heads and tails obviously have a great deal of hearts included in them. So I save them until I have 60 gallons, then do a feints run. This means the heads are more concentrated and voluminous, a smaller heart cut, and more tails. Eventually the heads will bleed over too much and they are used for fuel, and the tails get too rank and are discarded.
Clawhammer Supply: It seems like you guys went to a lot of trouble in selecting your barrels for aging. How did you come to choose American Oak for the wood, and why is that important to your process and final product?
Rick Stillwagon: The selection process was more economics and education. I started with smaller barrels due to initial cost and availability. After aging in them, I found the flavor unpalatable, and ended up redistilling everything. I spoke with several cooperages all over the world. ISC had the best options, price, and shipping of all of them. I want to support US made products as much as possible. I would have liked to purchase those made in Oregon as well, but with shipping I could not justify a tripling of cost.
Clawhammer Supply: You have focused primarily on rum. Why?
Rick Stillwagon: I had to decide on a product. So I visited a few liquor stores. Vodka and whiskey looked pretty well saturated. Rum and Brandy looked like there was greater opportunity. I quickly ruled out brandy for the immediate future due to the volume of fruit needed, processing equipment, and the time needed for a good brandy to mature. So I settled on rum. I started researching rums origins and history. I looked at the different varieties of rum and the accessibility I had to the raw ingredients. Rhum Industriale made the most sense since molasses is a common commodity, as is cane sugar. I was lucky enough to get to talk with one of the leading experts in the world on fermentation, Dr. Clayton Cone, and he helped me develop my fermentation protocol. I also spent some time researching Raphael Arroyo’s patent on heavy rum production. Then once licensed, I began producing our initial products, The Devil’s Own Rum, and The Devil’s Own Wicked Rum. I really enjoy the art of infusing fruits and spices. Rum lends itself well to this. Marketing an infused rum is much more interesting than a vodka. Everyone thinks vodka needs to be clear. Infusion includes color, sugars, oils, basically everything the alcohol can extract from the fruit, spice, or nut. This gives you the truest flavor possible, and it is a lot of fun!
Clawhammer Supply: But you also have been aging your Whiskey Run single-malt whiskey. Why did you decide to get in the whiskey game?
Rick Stillwagon: To be honest, I haven’t been much of a whiskey fan. But I really enjoy working with Carmen and Annie at 7 Devils. Then as we experimented, I started to develop a taste for good whiskey, and particularly what we have been coming up with.
Clawhammer Supply: What have you learned about making whiskey that differs from making rum? Do you separate the hearts the same way? Any other lessons you can pass on?
Rick Stillwagon: Whiskey fermentations are much more prone to secondary infections. I have found the rum fermentations to be pretty much bomb proof (knock on wood!) I make different cuts with the whiskey, leaving in a bit more of the tails for flavor. The most important lesson is to experiment, make lots of notes, and it is better to cut hard than it is to be greedy and keep too much. Heads and tails will ruin a spirit. The barrel gives you 70% or more of your flavor. So going in clean will come out much better than going in too dirty.
Clawhammer Supply: We know you infuse your rums at different points in the distilling process -- your spiced rum, for example, has 12 different spices all added at different points. How do you determine the best point to add the best spice?
Rick Stillwagon: It starts with the elements that contribute the most volume. These will be the lightest and most delicate flavors. Then you bring in the flavors you want to come forward. Then I add those that I want in the background in very small amounts. There are rest periods in between that allow the flavors to blend and change, then you adjust. It isn’t much different than painting a picture, or playing music. The goal is harmony of the elements.
Clawhammer Supply: We saw that Koi ponds brought you to distilling, and we have to say, that’s the first time we’ve heard that. Finding ways to heat the ponds opened the door for you to find ways to use those heaters for productive purposes. Can you tell us a bit more about how you made the connection from Koi to distilling?
Rick Stillwagon: I have always enjoyed the peacefulness of a Koi pond. I have also always had an interest in natural systems and biology in general. I started with the focus of a Koi pond and looked into how it is maintained from a practical perspective. It is actually quite expensive and requires a lot of mechanical equipment and is labor intensive. So I started researching how water is cleaned in nature. A swamp or bog is basically nature’s kidney, breaking down, filtering and removing nutrients, minerals, and other compounds from the water. This information lead to the thought of building an artificial bog for my pond.
Then my Koi started developing issues due to a suppressed immune system because of the cooler water in Washington than their accustomed climate of Florida. So I immediately started heating with electric heaters to raise the temperature. This proved to be prohibitively expensive. So I began researching alternative fuel sources. I built a heat exchanger for a wood stove and built a hydronic heating system that circulated water through the heat exchanger and into a storage tank. This water was then circulated through a heat exchanger in the fish tank via pump controlled by thermostat. This proved much more cost effective, but tedious in the necessity of feeding the wood stove.
Then I found an old pellet stove with a large fire box. This allowed for the installation of a heat exchanger and retrofitting into my current system. This worked fine until the auger motor quit, and the electronics fried. Circuitry and electric motors do not like excessive heat.
So I began the task of researching non-electric pellet stoves and discovered three on the market. Two had been around for some time in use for camping. A third was new on the market, relatively untested, and unknown outside of Oregon. I drove down to meet the inventor and bought one of his stoves. He built two stainless steel heat exchangers for me that fit to his unusually shaped stove. I installed them and plumbed them then began experimenting with the stove.
My first test was to be a convection current through the stove, therefore no pump. What I got was steam because the water level in the reservoir wasn’t quite high enough in relation to the plumbing between the two heat exchangers. So, only one exchanger filled with water. The vapor carried over to the next exchanger was heated more, and I had a steady stream of steam. This lead to a number of tangents in my research: steam heating, steam engines, and water distillation.
In researching distillation, I discovered an interesting gentleman in my neighborhood. Anthony is a second generation still builder from Australia. We had an initial conversation over the phone with which he became very intrigued with my projects. He volunteered to build me a custom column for the continuous distillation of water through the pellet stove heat exchangers.
Anthony brought the column over and we played with it all that day. The water distillation was a success, so he then mentioned the possibility of distilling ethanol because of the lower temperatures required. This new relationship with Anthony lead to a variety of new tangents in my alternative energy research: sterling engines, gasification of wood, other biomass fuels, and the production of ethanol.
While playing with the steam and the stove, I discussed developing a steam generator with the pellet stove with the inventor. We batted around different thoughts and plans. While this was going on I researched steam engines. I couldn’t find anyone in the US that I wanted to work with, so I started chatting with an interesting fellow in India. He agreed to build me a steam engine for a fraction of the cost of anything I could get built in the US. That process took a year to conclude. When I finally got the steam engine, I had moved forward with a variety of other projects, so the engine would have to wait.
The bog filter, and heating of the tanks made me think I need better control of the environment. So planning for a greenhouse began. I also began to question why couldn’t I grow plants of some use in the bog filter. Further research led me to aquaponics. So the design of the greenhouse changed somewhat. No longer was it just a covered pond. It became a facility that had a concrete basement with a variety of tanks and other equipment, while the upper section was a greenhouse with media beds that grew a variety of vegetables and fruit. The heating system was constantly changed, adjusted, and redesigned as I discovered different technologies.
I have always as an adult lived where there was some uncertainty of a water supply. Conventional wells require pumps, electricity, and are susceptible to highs and lows in the water table, freezing pipes, power outages, etc. This and watching water issues arise locally and around the world made me contemplate ways to recycle and conserve existing water supplies.
Food security is and always has been a global issue. So I started working on a system that addressed all of these issues. My parameters were to conserve and recycle all the water possible, produce fish and produce, and do this in a protected environment which would allow for year round production.
This project required a fair amount of capital to maintain. Situations that changed where I was to live and work came about and forced me to re-evaluate everything. So I began looking at everything I had been working on to see what would be the most profitable. I had been building greenhouses and aquaponics systems and making some money. I had a martial arts school that was doing ok. None of this was enough to take care of things that were developing. So I looked at the distillation of potable spirits.
I do not drink a great deal, so I had to research spirits, the market, the industry, and the regulations necessary to comply with to become a legal distiller. I visited several small distilleries in Washington state. This inspired me to see that it was easily within my capacity to build a functional distillery.
Clawhammer Supply: Your interest in warming your Koi ponds eventually led to a custom steam engine, a greenhouse and experiments in aquaculture and aquaponics, right? How do those interests play out now in Stillwagon?
Rick Stillwagon: I had to start making money to work on the things I put on hold, the aquaponics, alternative power, water conservation and recycling, etc. Now that we are becoming an established distillery, I can start moving back into these areas and how they relate to this industry.
For every 50 gallons of rum we produce, we also produce about 500 gallons of wastewater. For every pound of ethanol we produce approximately 2 pounds of CO2. The spent wash coming out of the still at 200 degrees is wasted BTUs of heat. Spent grains, fruit, yeast, cardboard, etc, are all organic waste. These waste streams are actually untapped resources.
The system we are working on will recycle the water right back into the distillery for fermentation, the CO2 will be consumed and replaced by O2, the waste heat will be used to heat the facility, and the solid wastes will all be composted and digested in a vermiculture system and consumed by the plants in the system.
All the research and projects prior to opening the distillery will now be used to develop a waste free business and actually be turned into assets: water, produce, incredible PR opportunities, and education.
Clawhammer Supply: We love that you came to distilling because of your interest in sustainability, and we know (and also love!) that you are trying to make the distillery a zero-waste place. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you’ve encountered in doing that, particularly when it comes to recycling your distillery spent grains and wash?
Rick Stillwagon: The challenges to developing something as complex as the system we are working on is mostly funding. We are working with several Oregon state agencies: SBDC, SCDC, Dept. of Agriculture, SWOCC, and local groups: South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, Chamber of Commerce, Charleston Merchants Association, all of these groups and others will hopefully lead to the research and development funding we need.
As far as the actual challenges surrounding the spent grains, fruits, and other solids, it is simply a matter of gathering enough and varying organic matter to make the microbes happy in breaking it down.
The spent wash is a little more complex. At first I was concerned with the dark color and its removal. This issue has been exhaustively researched by far greater minds than I, and many methods have been theorized.
Clawhammer Supply: What solutions have you found to solve those problems?
Rick Stillwagon: Solutions for my funding issues are still being developed. We will be forming a new company and then forming a CPO (community public offering) so that Oregon residents that would like to invest in our project can do so. They will at that point own preferred shares in the company, which I feel is more attractive than crowdfunding, as they become an owner in the company. We will also be applying for a variety of grants. SBIR and STTR are two types of federal grants that are set up for exactly this type of research. Once we have the corporate entity formed, should we find other investors that are interested we will certainly welcome the conversation. We have a variety of solutions for the varying resources to be recycled: The spent grains, fruits, and other organic solids will be composted and digested, as I previously mentioned. I came to the conclusion that the yeast do not care what color the water is. So if I can simply remove the undesirable components, I can leave the color as it stands and reuse the water for fermentation. If I do not return this water to the environment, the color has no bearing. The CO2 will be consumed by the plants in the greenhouse.
Clawhammer Supply: You seem very committed, not only to spreading the word sustainable production, but also to encouraging customers to embrace and understand the craft behind the products you make -- even offering weeklong classes in distilling. Why is that so important to you? What kinds of things do those classes cover?
Rick Stillwagon: Unfortunately, no one has taken me up on our offer for classes yet. The reason I offer them is I want to pay forward the kindness and wisdom so many have shared with me. I imagine at some point someone will be interested enough to visit. The content of the classes would be tailored to the students desires and time constraints.
Clawhammer Supply: What has surprised you about running your own distillery?
Rick Stillwagon: The lack of anonymity. I have always kept in the shadows. Now I have people coming up to me saying, “Hey, you’re the rum guy, right?”
Clawhammer Supply: What lessons have you learned that you would pass on to other people who love distilling?
Rick Stillwagon: Read, experiment, get used to failure, and enjoy the process.
Clawhammer Supply: What are you excited about for the future of Stillwagon Distilling?
Rick Stillwagon: I think many things will result from the venture of the distillery. The distillery was really an accident. I think it will be the impetus of many other good developments. I am amazed at my personal growth. I have become involved in things that I never would have imagined. Local and state politics, entrepreneurship advocacy, networking and improvement of our local economy, environmental protection and conservation, education, and much more will be possible because I started this project.