Roxanne Tiburolobo (he/they) is the Distillery Production Operator at Sonoma Distilling Co, whose background in forensic pathology led to a career first in brewing and later in distilling, a career path he began back in 2013 when California had just changed the laws to allow commercial distilleries.
BW: You came from the brewery world. What similarities and differences are there between beer and whiskey production?
RT: Obviously the distillation, maturation, and sanitation are the big differences. I’d say you need a firmer grasp on chemistry and a lot more patience to make good whiskey vs. good beer. A strong understanding of chemistry is foundational because distilling can be downright dangerous for both the distiller and the consumer without a firm grasp of distillation chemistry. You also need to understand how all the flavor components you made during the brewing and fermentation process are going to chemically interact and change during both distillation and barrel aging to produce a quality spirit. If you’re predominantly making sour or barrel-aged beer you do need to have some of that understanding; direct extraction of wood compounds, the decomposition of wood macromolecules, and the reactions between wood components and the constituents of the beer you’re aging, but that tends to be a small subset of the industry.
You need to have a ton more patience in whiskey-making because you probably won’t have a fully actualized product that’s ready to be released to the public for at least 2 years. The fermentation times in whiskey tend to be much shorter than beer (3-7 days for most whiskey vs. 7-14 for ales and 14-28 for lagers), sure, but everything after that is a waiting game. Even barrel-aged beers are generally maturing for 2 years at most, but that’s the bare minimum for many whiskeys. When you’re tasting off the fermenter or the still you’re trying to envision what that product is going to taste like years down the road while beer is a much more instant-gratification payoff for your hard work.
On the sanitation end of things, you have to be extremely militant in beer, while whiskey, not so much. Don’t get me wrong, a huge part of the job of a distiller is cleaning, just not to the same degree you need in beer. The keyword there is need. In a beer brewery, you’re constantly working to prevent contamination from unwanted bacteria or wild yeast that will alter the desired flavor of the beer, but many of those same organisms are often desirable in whiskey fermentation. For example: γ-decalactone and γ-dodecalactone contribute to the sweet and fatty flavor and quality of malt whiskey, and those lactones are predominantly formed when lactic acid bacteria convert oleic acid and palmitoleic acid to 10-hydroxystearic acid and 10-hydroxypalmitic acid, respectively, and these, in turn, are then converted to γ-decalactone and γ-dodecalactone by yeast. This kind of synergistic interplay between yeast and bacteria is exactly why so many whiskey distilleries opt for open-top fermentation. With the exception of breweries that do “wild” or sour beers, these organisms tend to be undesirable, and thus the extra sanitation measures. Open fermentation also does happen in beer still, but it tends to be the exception rather than the norm these days.
As for similarities, I’ve had several brewer friends ask me about the transition from brewer to distiller over the years and I generally answer the same way, “When it comes to making whiskey and making beer, the principles and concepts are all the same, you just apply them differently.” What I mean by that is when you design a mash bill and fermentation profile for a whiskey or a beer all the biochemical principles and concepts are the same, you just want different things from them. For example, when you’re making whiskey the concern regarding mouthfeel usually lands more on the distillation side of things, and we’re not trying to leave behind residual sugars for sweetness, so your mash temps tend to favor enzymatic activity to cultivate dryness and more complete attenuation. Whiskey yeast is generally the same species as ale yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, just engineered for higher temperature and alcohol tolerance. That means that generally speaking, you’re shooting for the same nutritional requirements for yeast health in a whiskey wash as you would when making wort for beer. Obviously, there are no hop additions to play around with flavor profiles in traditional whiskey-making (I do sometimes miss hop selection), but the tradeoff there is that whiskey gets to play around with the flavors that come from being able to use a greater quantity of unmodified grains. Prior to transitioning to distilling, I’d brewed with rye, wheat, and corn before, but never to the degree I do when making whiskey. Lautering really limits your ability to utilize certain cereal grains when producing beer. The higher content of arabinoxylan, working synergistically with β-glucan, in grains like wheat and rye make a sticky, viscous mash that becomes increasingly difficult to lauter as their percentage increases in the mash bill. In both the distilleries I’ve worked in we’ve done both grain-on fermentation and distillation, so lautering is a moot point. Similarly, low protein adjuncts like corn can decrease or limit head retention in beer, but we’re not worried about carbonation and head retention with whiskey, so with the right cook temperatures and enzymes you can use up to 100% corn in your whiskey mash. I could go on and on about this really, so I’ll just say that if you have a good grasp on the chemistry and fermentation science of making beer, then you have an excellent foundation for transitioning into whiskey making.
BW: With a college major in molecular toxicology, did you expect to be working in a distillery?
RT: Not at all, and I often joke that I dropped out of medical school to make booze. I was initially interested in getting my MD and going into the field of forensic pathology. Unfortunately, though, I finished undergrad at the height of the Great Recession. With limited credit history, a dad in prison, and a mom with a bankruptcy still on her record; my options for getting a loan to actually move forward with that went from slim to none real quick. I’d managed to squeak by on money I’d made working and a few scholarships up until that point, but there was just no financial way to make it work at the time. I took some time off school to just work and save up money thinking maybe I could come back to it. I had gone the community college transfer route to get into university, and while there, I actually got a technical certification in bioscience microscopy. It’s not a field that many people get extensive training in, and I had a real natural affinity for it. Since I live in the SF Bay Area, where biotech is big business, I actually made a decent living for myself doing contract work as a microscopy imaging specialist (confocal, mostly). After a few years of that though I found myself with an ever-increasing feeling of ennui. I wanted a career that would genuinely feel engaging for me rather than something I just happen to be good at that pays me well. I then started thinking about what I actually would enjoy doing that would still utilize all the chemistry and biology I took to get my degree. Over the years I had always been really interested in fermentation science, going back to making traditional corn beers in my youth. I had really started to get back into it in college; making natto, kimchi, tepache, mead, and getting into homebrewing, so I eventually felt a pull to the alcohol industry. I initially wanted to start at a distillery because I’ve always preferred spirits to beer, but the laws in California had just changed that year (2013), so there were very few distilleries, and even fewer jobs. Craft-breweries on the other hand were plentiful, so that’s where I got my start as a cellarman, genuinely loved it, moved quickly to also working on the brewhouse (though honestly, I prefer the cellar, cold-side is the best side and where beer is really made), and did that for the next 4.5 years. When we moved to Sonoma so my husband could be closer to his paramedic school, I interviewed at a few breweries, but nothing was really clicking with me. At that point though I was reminded that I initially wanted to work in a distillery, and Sonoma County was home to quite a few small-batch ones. I started researching and tasting products from who I might want to work for in the area, put some feelers out, and the rest as they say is history.
BW: What does your day-to-day look like in the distillery?
RT: Day to day can vary wildly depending on our production needs. We’re a small team for the size of our facility, so you have to be ready to do a little bit of everything. You might be tied up all day doing R&D work for a new product one day, then hand labeling single-barrel releases all day the next. In general though a day goes a little something like whoever shows up first starts up the steam generator and will usually get the stills heating up, particularly if we’re doing a full run on the big still, as that can take a while to get to temp. If we happen to be smoking malt that week (all the malt for our cherrywood smoked bourbon and rye whiskey are smoked in-house), then someone else needs to head out to the smoker, rake the malt, and fire up the smoker for the day. If we’re mashing on that day, then whoever is on the brewhouse side would start laying foundation water and getting together enzymes and water adjustment chemicals. One person will run the mill and another will run the actual mash-in. There might be several mash-ins throughout the day depending on the type of whiskey and the size of the batch, though we’re usually doing at least 3. At some point in the morning, one of us will grab samples for any active fermenters and check the gravity, potential alcohol, and pH to ensure that ferments are going as they should. On the DSP side, we might be stripping, running spirit, or both on any given day, so someone will be on that checking proofs and making cuts when necessary. If we were stripping the day before then the separator has to be started up and managed throughout the day to remove spent grain from the stillage for the farmers we work with. If there’s white spirit that needs to be proofed down and put to barrel, then there will usually be a person or two working on that to get proofing water added to our white spirit tanks and barrels swelled accordingly. If we need to prepare a blend for an upcoming bottling, then barrels need to be pulled for the new batch, as well as roll forward and barrel water for proofing. Someone will need to find and pull all those racks for that from the barrelhouse, and those then need to be dumped and blended accordingly. If there’s an already prepared batch ready to go to bottle, then we’ll try to have 3 people on the bottling line those days. You might be bouncing around a bit between any number of these things on any given day, and if a truckload of new barrels shows up then everyone stops what they’re doing to unload that. Like I said, highly variable, but that’s what makes it interesting.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to become distillers?
RT: I always kind of hate this type of question because what works for one person may not work for another. I’m basically trying to give advice to someone based on a case study with an N of 1. That being said, and this is general advice I’d give to any minority looking to break into the industry, I’d say really do some research on where you want to work and why. Not just do they make a product that you like, but what’s the company culture like, does the company ethos conflict with your own? How is worker satisfaction, do they always have job postings up because of the high turnover rate? Also, think long and hard about what you want your career to look like. Do you want to be a Master distiller or blender, do lots of research and development, own your own distillery, or do you just like being in production on the floor? Once you’ve answered these questions, draft up a cover letter expressing your background, interests, goals, and what you can offer the company, and email the places you’re interested in working with for the position you want to start in regardless of whether they’re hiring. My first brewery and distillery jobs both came from cold emailing for the positions that I wanted, not replying to job posts for available positions. When people write up a job posting they often have a vision of what that ideal candidate looks like and you may or may not fit that vision even if you know you’d do an excellent job. If you’re bold about it though, and basically show up saying, “Hi this is me, this is what I’m looking for, and this is what I can bring to your company.”, you’re more likely to find a position that suits YOUR needs rather than grasping for anything and taking a less than ideal job just to get your foot in the door.
I’d also advise if you plan on entering into the “craft” or small-batch side of things that you have to understand that these smaller companies may change their business trajectory, and you need to be constantly checking in with yourself that the job you’re doing is still taking you where you want to go. Be ready to move on if you have to, and never feel bad for putting yourself and your goals first.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in the Sonoma region.
RT: My perfect whiskey weekend would probably involve grabbing my husband, a bottle of whatever single barrel release we currently have available (right now it’s our Cask Strength Cherrywood Smoked Bourbon), some nice cigars or cigarillos, and a picnic basket of charcuterie supplies; then head to the coast. We’d do some hiking in Bodega Bay, watch the whales if it’s the season for it. Hit up Doran Beach and take a dip, have a nice picnic, and end the day with whiskey and cigars at sunset. My husband and I used to do these monthly whiskey and cigar dates on the porch of his crappy apartment in Hayward when we first started dating, and it was always my favorite. We’ve got much better scenery now.
Photos Courtesy of Roxanne Tiburolobo