The 2nd Midwest Distillers Fest at Hard Truth Hills Brings More of Everything

The 2nd Midwest Distillers Fest at Hard Truth Hills Brings More of Everything

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

The 2nd Annual Midwest Distillers Fest is coming to Hard Truth Hills on October 5th. That means that 25+ of the best distillers in the middle part of the country will be pouring unlimited samples of the best artisan spirits and cocktails in one of the most picturesque locations in the state. The best of last year’s event has been retained, but the new features will make it just that much better – everything from parking, to more goodies, to having a host and emcee, to bringing in many more interesting vendors.

Last year the festival was held in the very new rackhouse, but that building is now full of aging bourbon, so the 2019 extravaganza will be deep in the woods on Hard Truth Hills’ 325 acres in two massive tents. This will bring the attendees close to nature – outdoors with the breeze and the sun on your shoulders if you wish it. Yet it won’t be far from the Hard Truth Distilling Co. workings, the Big Woods restaurant, the welcome center, multiple bars and lounges, and even hiking trails.

Craft spirits are behind craft beer in terms of big tasting events, but that will continue to change with the 2nd the Midwest Distillers Fest (click here for tickets). Hard Truth Distilling’s head distiller and general manager Bryan Smith said, “This is a chance to connect the distillers to our customers and give them a peak behind the curtain and meet the people making their spirits.” It’s in this “spirit” that the Midwest Distillers Fest shines, with many opportunities to learn about craft spirits, taste products that range from gins and vodkas to pure Kentucky bourbons, and to build that same kind of sense of community between drinkers and producers which craft beer has done so well.

image credit: Hard Truth Hills

The Indiana hardwood forest is a perfect backdrop for holding the festival, with activities, games,  liquors, and entertainment that will impress the novice and expert alike. The stars of the day will be the drinks, both in cocktail form and with straight tastings. Big names like Jeptha Creed, Wilderness Trail, Traverse City Whiskey Co., Rivulet Artisan Pecan Liqueur, Middle West Spirits and others will be joined by just about every craft distiller in Indiana (Cardinal Spirits, 1205, Cedar Creek Distillery, Donum Dei Distillery, Sun King Spirits, Hotel Tango, Old 55, Three Floyds Distilling and many others), and this year you can try all 100+ of them alone or some in cocktails because of the unlimited sampling policy that is new for the second year. See the festival website for all the participating distilleries.

Every GA attendee will also receive a free cocktail ticket, good for a full pour craft cocktail from Hard Truth. VIP ticket holders (300 maximum) will be allowed an additional hour to enjoy the event (with entry beginning at 1pm), shorter lines, limited edition spirits and cocktails, plus TWO complimentary Hard Truth cocktails during the event. VIP tickets also include a “Seek the Truth” tour and tasting voucher (a $12 value) good for any future date. This is a great chance to dig deep with the distillers and learn some inside information and distillers’ secrets. Truthfully, VIP hours are where I usually get my best information.

But the tastings are just the beginning to this festival. How about Monte Skelton and DIZGO on stage under the tent, or the Big Woods food truck serving up high end food, or tours of Hard Truth Distillery. Tom Fischer the host of Bourbonblog.com is the event’s host and emcee this year. Alan Bishop, head distiller at Spirits of French Lick, will be speaking on the history of making spirits in Indiana just before the tasting begins.  There will be additional vendors such as Cigar Cigar (Evansville), Burtons Barrel Aged Maple Syrups (Medora), Art Eatables Chocolates (Louisville, KY) and Butcher’s Block (Bloomington) vending their wares as well. As Head Distiller Bryan said, “This is an experience, not just a tasting festival.”

I’m thinking that by this time you’re looking for a way to get tickets, so here’s the link – www.MidwestDistillersFest.com. Believe it or not, there’s more to say about the festival and I’ll get to that below, but the mention of the Hard Truth Distillery tour above made me want to talk about Hard Truth itself – my gosh is this place amazing. From the day they started distilling last year, Hard Truth had the largest production capacity of any craft distillery in the state. This realization quickly led the distillery leadership team to hire Martin Gradolf, a senior brewer at Quaff On! Brewing, as the third distiller for Hard Truth.

The first MDF was indoors, the second is in the woods under two huge tents. image credit: Kara Lucero

The inspiration for many of the design innovations of Hard Truth Distillery’s new system were born in the halls and rick houses of Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville, KY. Bryan, along with lead distiller Cole Smith, made many trips to visit founders Shane Baker and Pat Heist at Wilderness Trail in order to hone in on just how Hard Truth wanted to set up its process and equipment. The result is so forward thinking and green that this alone makes Hard Truth a destination distillery. The commitment to the quality of the whiskey, paired with a focus on innovation and efficiency at Wilderness Trail resonated deeply with Bryan during these visits. Clint Hammes was then brought on the team as Lead Engineer to design the facility and work hand in hand with Vendome Copper & Brassworks in designing the custom distillery systems.

To understand the interesting features of the distillery, it’s necessary to go very quickly through the spirits making process. First, the grains are milled to a fine powder and soaked to release the sugars (mash), and then yeast is pitched with the mash for a very vigorous fermentation, creating alcohol and some flavoring compounds. It is this low alcohol containing concoction that is then heated in the pot using steam and evaporated. The distillate rises up the distillation column and strikes relatively cooler plates within the column. Since the condensation point of ethanol is lower than that of water, alcohol will condense on the plates and drip into the collection tubes while the water steam continues up the column. This concentrates the alcohol and raises the ABV.

After a sufficient distillation, the spirits are collected for bottling (white spirits like gin, vodka, etc.) or moved to the proofing room for barreling (bourbon, for example). Gin, rum, and vodka will be made in abundance, but it is no secret that rye whiskey and bourbon are priorities for Hard Truth. Bryan told me, “The distillery at Hard Truth Hills is basically a machine built to make whiskey. We are taking this first year to set in motion the practices that will help us make a world class whiskey.” I will take about four years to get it out of barrels, but if they taste it at two years and it’s amazing, they won’t be shy about putting some out there. As Bryan stated, it’s all about high quality, not about amount of time or amount of product.

One of the thirty foot distillation columns at Hard Truth Distilling. photographer: Kara Lucero

As a craft beer drinker, it helps me to note where distilling and brewing diverge. There are a couple of similarities to brewing beer, like using grains as sources of sugar and using yeast to produce the alcohol, but there are many differences too. For one thing, you boil the wort to sterilize it and isomerize the hops when brewing beer, but the mash for spirits isn’t boiled until it is distilled. For another, the yeast is quite active, and spirits fermentation takes only about three days. Finally, the mash for spirits during fermentation and which goes into the pot after fermentation retains the grains. If the corn or wheat or rye is separated from the sugar and alcohol, too much product is lost and the alcohol produced is significantly reduced.

To make the fermented mash and distill it into spirits, Hard Truth initially has three large fermenters, two pots, and two thirty foot distillation columns. They can be run as two separate systems or linked to make one big system if needed. As two systems, one will be used for white spirits and one will be dedicated for making whiskey (rye and corn versions). The hybrid pot (has a short six plate column on top of it) will be used for white spirits, feeding the first distillation products into the twenty-plate column to finish up at over 190 proof.

The whiskey system is a bit more intricate, with the fermenters feed beer (fermented mash) into the other large column (14 plates) about a third of the way from the top. Steam travels up from the bottom of the column so that the “beer” is heated by it and evaporates. The recondensed whiskey is collected and sent through a second smaller pot to be boiled and sent up the column again. The water steam is collected and reused, while the spirits (white whiskey, about 135 proof) are moved to the proofing room for barreling. This is called a continuous column and can feed the pot and column as long as there is mash in the three fermenters. Technically you could turn it on and let it run continuously as long as you keep filling the fermenters.

The MDF after party will include some beautiful sights of its own. image credit: Hard Truth Hills

The slop (mash that has gone through the column) is still about 180˚F, so it is collected to a silo out back and used to keep the water for the pot hot. This way, it takes much less energy to raise that water to boiling and create steam. Likewise the collected water from the columns is reused in the system so that basically 100% of the water ends up in the product, known as a clean steam system.

Using the three fermenters in place now, Hard Truth produces 2000 barrels of whiskey each year (those are 53 gallon barrels, not the 31 gallons used for beer in the US). But with a second shift of fermenters, that will be increased to 4,000 – or 6,000 barrels with a third shift of distillation/day. White spirits can be made at the same time, using botanicals grown on site in a garden that can be toured during Midwest Distillers Fest. Clearly, distillers Bryan, Cole, Martin, and Clint have very full days as production is in high gear after opening last year.

Attendees are encouraged to stay after the festival for the After-Party from 5pm – 6pm and/or to dine at the on-site restaurant, enjoy more outdoor music until 9 p.m., and even tour the property and the trails on their own. Order a picnic basket from the Welcome Center and explore the hills with some food, a bottle of your favorite Hard Truth spirit, or some of your favorite Quaff ON! Brewing Co. beers.

Hard Truth Distilling, along with the welcome center, grounds, and Big Woods restaurant at Hard Truth Hills are always fine reasons to visit Nashville during an Indiana fall, but the 2nd Midwest Distillers Fest on October 5th offers even more reason to make the trip. The largest craft spirits event in the Midwest, on the grounds of the largest craft beverage destination in the state, which happens to house the largest craft distiller in the state? This is big, and the 2019 version of MDF is even bigger.


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