The road to becoming a distiller isn’t always a straight one, and it can start just about anywhere. In the cast of Great Wagon Road Distiller Michelle Piechowicz, the road started with a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science.

BW: How do you use your background in environmental science in distilling?

MP: I try to implement little things and changes on a daily basis and think about future larger efforts to continue to be environmentally conscious. I use as much local grain and ingredients in our products as I can. Minimizing the amount of effort to transport goods long distances and support smaller local businesses. We also reuse our bottles when we can. Rather than throw out the bottles used at the bar, we actually rinse and refill them for the bartenders to use. Also, we are very conscious of water usage — we reuse hot water from the distillations for CIP. When it comes to getting rid of spent grain, we donate to a local farmer who uses it to feed animals on his farm. Hoping to implement more as we continue to grow.

BW: You’ve been brewing and distilling for just about four years now. How do you find brewing and distilling are alike and different?

MP: On a big picture scale they are very similar because you have your recipes that you start with, a flavor or style that you are trying to achieve. With both, you cook your mash or grains, this step is very important, but after that, with brewing you separate your grains and your wort. Distilling you can leave it all together for fermentation and then you’re ready to distill. Brewing is a lot different once you have your wort, you then need to boil it and transfer it to the fermenter. It stays in that tank for weeks sometimes before it is ready to cold crash and carb then keg and serve. Distilling is nice because the fermentation process is shorter. The waiting part comes once you start to age spirits. I like being able to sometimes see results quickly, like with your unaged spirits. Then being able to get creative and wait on the aged spirits adds a whole new component to my job. I also enjoy having the ability to experiment with unique flavors and desired characteristics of the spirits.

BW: What does your day-to-day life in the distillery look like?

MP: Lately it has been a lot of problem-solving. Not just your typical, mash, ferment, distill then barrel or bottle routine every day like it used to be. There is a shortage of goods right now which has made it very difficult to get bottles, stoppers, labels, and most of our packaging components. We were actually in the middle of moving locations and equipment when covid first hit. So we are still recovering from that hit and trying to continue on with our expansion project and new location. I have had to pick up a lot of additional responsibilities that extend out of the production facility and keep the distillery running smoothly.

BW: What advice do you have for women who want to become distillers?

MP: Keep an open mind and go into the situation ready to learn and work hard. It can be overwhelming sometimes to even figure out where to start. But just have a game plan and be willing to improvise and roll with the punches. I was literally in the right place at the right time for most of my advancements and growth opportunities in this industry. I think it is important to carry yourself with confidence and to let that show in a modest way. Just let people know that you are willing to put in time and effort. That goes a long way and will help you progress to a place where you necessarily did not expect yourself to end up.

BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in North Carolina.

MP: There are so many amazing options in North Carolina to have a great weekend and incorporate whiskey or your favorite spirits. Charlotte is a great city but I always try to make it to the mountains to explore and relax on the weekends. If I have the opportunity to visit Asheville or the western part of the state, I always take it. I love being outside, hiking and kayaking. I would typically start my day doing something outdoors then reward myself with a nice strong drink by a campfire or an outdoor area at a local bar. Downtown Asheville has a great craft alcohol scene, but I like to treat myself when I’m not working hard in the distillery. The Grove Park Inn is one of my favorite places to soak in the mountain views and have a great cocktail. They carry all of our spirits and have great mixologists there to create anything you are in the mood for. I prefer to sip on an old fashioned that is whiskey forward. I’m particular about the other components complementing the spirit, not taking away from it.

Photos Courtesy of Michelle Piechowicz

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