The Perfect Craft Cocktail – Hard Truth Distilling Co. and the Midwest’s Largest Spirits Festival

The Perfect Craft Cocktail – Hard Truth Distilling Co. and the Midwest’s Largest Spirits Festival

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

October 6th will be a historic day for Indiana craft beverage industries. The largest craft distilling festival in the Midwest will take place in Nashville on the grounds of the new destination distillery, restaurant, beer aging facility, and nature park called Hard Truth Hills. It’ll be a party by the rackhouse from 1-5pm, with tastings from 25 of the Midwest’s best craft distillers.

Craft spirits are behind craft beer in terms of big tasting events, but that will all change with the advent of 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 will shine, 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 Distilling

The 325 acres of Indiana hardwood forest will be a perfect backdrop for holding the festival, with activities, 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 straight tastings. Big names like Jeptha Creed, Wilderness Trail, and Journeyman will be joined by just about every craft distiller in Indiana (Cardinal Spirits, 12.05, West Fork Whiskey, Hotel Tango, Old 55, and many others), so your twenty tasting tickets will be put to good use. See the festival website for all 25 participating distilleries.

But that’s not all, every attendee will also receive a free cocktail ticket, good for a full pour craft cocktail from Hard Truth. Want more cocktails? Four of your tasting tickets can be used for another full pour craft cocktail from any of the participating distilleries. But the tastings are just the beginning to this festival. How about Gordon Bonham Blues Band on stage under the tent, or the Big Woods food truck serving up high end food, or tours of Hard Truth Distillery? As Head Distiller Bryan said, “This will be an experience, not just a tasting festival.”

There are even more chances to get the most out of your day. If you purchase a VIP pass, you will have an additional hour of tasting before everyone else enters; 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. Or you can go a step further and get the VIP Experience – you get that same extra hour, but also a hand made cocktail from Hard Truth, a tour of Hard Truth Distillery with one of the distillers, and a bottle of Hard Truth Cinnamon Vodka to go.

I’m thinking that by this time you’re looking for a way to get tickets, so here’s the link – 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 that place amazing. From the day they start distilling (they may have already started), Hard Truth will have 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.

Midwest Distillers Fest will include cocktails hand made on demand. photographer: 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 grain silos shadow over the botanical garden used to flavor the white spirits and cocktail syrups. photographer: Kara Lucero

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 will be able to produce 2000 barrels of whiskey each year (those are 53 gallon barrels, not the 31 gallons for beer used 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 are going to have very full days as production ramps up this month.

The new 4000 barrel rackhouse will be starting to fill with barrels by the time the Midwest Distillers Fest takes place. Attendees will have so much to do on the 6th; order a picnic basket and wander around the 325 acres of paths, ponds, and forest. Have dinner at Big Woods on the Hill, visit the welcome center, or listen to Gordon Bonham Blues Band or Monte Skelton’s unique jazz on the stages under the festival tent as you enjoy your tasting.

The beautiful rackhouse will be used for housing whiskey barrels and for the Midwest Distillers Fest. image credit: Walter

If that’s not enough, Hard Truth and the other distilleries are sponsoring a distillers’ expo tent. Vendome, the premier manufacturer of distilling equipment will be there to talk about the process of distilling, Independent Stave Company of Lebanon, MO will be on hand to talk about barrel making. Interestingly, many of the wood staves Independent uses are actually made just down the road from Hard Truth in in Salem, IN. Perhaps the farmer who grows corn for Hard Truth will be on hand to talk about no till farming as a green method for mash grains.

Perhaps playing games is more your speed. Yard games like giant Jenga and corn hole (no jarts) will be there, as will henna artists and the Moonshiners photo booth will be on hand to memorialize your day. Food is a must with this much fun, so the Big Woods food truck will be at the festival grounds, and the Quaff On! beer tap truck will be pouring several different beers.

The guided tours of the distillery are not limited to the VIP attendees, there are tours of the grounds and equipment every day, including the day of the festival. These include side by side ATV tours of the grounds and backwoods. Of course there will be an after party at the Big Woods restaurant for those with limitless energy. Big Woods Executive Chef Dan Nichols is creating a spirit-inspired menu especially for the day of the festival. There is also an opportunity to listen to two live bands on the restaurant’s outdoor stage and watch the sun go down on an autumn Indiana evening.

The opening of Hard Truth Distilling, along with the welcome center, grounds, and Big Woods restaurant at Hard Truth Hills are fine reasons to visit Nashville during an Indiana fall, but the inaugural Midwest Distillers Fest on October 6th 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 going to be big.

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