We recently approached Julian, the Master Distiller at Gulf Coast Distillers himself to ask him important questions that our followers were dying to know!
Julian’s role at Gulf Coast Distillers involves him making sure that each step in the fermentation and distillation process is done in the most efficient way following the highest quality standards. As the man in charge of our famous spirits we wanted to know a bit more about his journey with Gulf Coast Distillers and take a more personal look at his passion…whiskey!
Read along to learn more about his thoughts on the industry and what a typical day as a master distiller looks like.
Q: Hi Julian thank you for being here today. Tell us about when you started at Gulf Coast Distillery, what got you interested in distilling?
Julian: Whiskey is part of my life, it is what I make for living, and for some reason, it keeps me happy and makes me feel alive. Maybe that’s why the origin of the term whiskey comes from “water of life”.
Q: So, what is your story? How did start working at Gulf Coast Distillers?
Julian: I started as most college students, drinking Jack & Coke, and GCD is part of a family owned business which I have been working for over 13 years. I started in the coffee side working in warehousing department, then the company gave me the opportunity to grow professionally. I was moved to the coffee processing plant, and later became the new plant manager.
In 2016, when Carlos decided to open up a new branch of the business, the distillery, he invited me to join the journey and I couldn’t say no. So, I have been with GCD since the very beginning.
Q: Let’s talk about the process. What is your favorite part of the production process?
Julian: Making whiskey is a beautiful process because it is a combination of human and nature intervention. The fermentation stage is merely focused on a living microorganism called yeast. This fungus, magically turns the fermentable sugars from the grains into alcohol and CO2.
So, it is the yeast that makes the alcohol for us, while we just watch it and make sure it stays happy.
As for the human intervention part, I find the distillation process my favorite, because this is when all the expertise of the distiller plays a significant role, specifically doing what we call the “cuts”. These are the moments/transitions when the distiller, based on his experience and sensory judgment, determines when the distillation run switches from heads to hearts and later from hearts to tails.
In other words, the distiller separates the toxic alcohols (heads), fusel oils (tails), from the ethanol and some congeners (hearts). The hearts, also called white dog or white lighting, is what goes into the barrel.
Q: In your words, what is the difference between whiskey and bourbon?
Julian: “All bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon”. Basically, whiskey is any kind of spirit distilled from fermented grains.
Bourbon is a specific type of whiskey, in this case the producer has to follow some rules in order to call the spirit bourbon: It has to be produced in the US, the mash bill must contain at least 51% corn, it can’t come out of the still at more than 160 proof, it has to be barreled into a brand new charred oak containers at no more than 125 proof, and no coloring or flavor can be added to it.
Q: What would be a typical day in your shoes? How often do you make whiskey? Daily? Weekly? What type of Stills do you use?
Julian: Get up early, listen to my audiobooks while I commute, get to work, have coffee, line up my team, check emails, check on my fermenters and production logs, crush numbers, kick ass, taste some whiskey (we call this sensory analysis), check on the production line, have the wrap up meeting and plan for the next day with my team, check on the tasting room (maybe give some tours), send end of day report to the boss man, leave work, go biking until traffic ceases, cook with my wife, have dinner with my family, watch a documentary, and go to sleep.
We use Pot Stills. Our stills are very particular and unique.
Carlos (the owner) is an Industrial Engineer so he loves to build stuff. He gathered some pieces of equipment that we had in the plant and, with David Pickerell’s guidance, they customized them into Pot Stills.
We had to reduce the size of the condensers, extend the stacks, add a dome to the stack of the stills and fill it with copper packing. This would provide the necessary contact of the evaporated alcohols with the copper to remove the sulfur taste. We did so many modifications to the stills that one day one of the employees said, “those stills look like a Frankenstein” and that was the origin of the name “Frank” for the stills.
And yes, we make whiskey from Monday to Saturday.
Q: What makes Gulf Coast Distillers spirits different or unique?
Julian: I think it’s a combination of multiple factors: Our grains, our stills, the yeast, our quality standards, and the way we maturate our barrels.
As I mentioned before, we use Texan grains which have flavor profiles specific to the terroir of this region. We have custom made stills that produce spirits with strong character, and for the maturation part, we control the heat exposure of the barrels by keeping the new fills during the first six months in our “hot” warehouse, which is a metal building. Then, we move them to a much cooler environment which is a concrete room, where we also control the air flow.
All these conditions along with the fact that the barrels are aged under Texas heat, the very humid semitropical weather, being aged at sea level in Houston, create a set of characteristics that develops a unique profile to our spirits.
Q: With that being said, do you have any pet peeve when it comes to drink styles? (i.e. adding ice to whiskey, adding coke, etc.)
Julian: I don’t have any pet peeves; I am very open when it comes to drink styles. I totally agree with the biggest rule of the whiskey tribe that says, “The best whiskey is the whiskey you like to drink, however you like to drink it”.
Like our fingerprints, each palate is different, so everybody should feel free to taste whiskey the way they like it. In my case I’d drink it neat if the proof is below 95, if the proof is greater than 95 I will add a small ice cube to proof it down a little bit.
Q: What are your goals for 2020 at Gulf Coast Distillers? What do you see in store for the whiskey industry in the years ahead?
Julian: I think the whiskey world is going through a transition phase. Every day you see more and more small craft distilleries popping up everywhere. This is creating a huge variety of flavor profiles available on the shelves.
Nowadays, consumers have a more sophisticated palate and they are looking for more specific products and flavor profiles. At the same time, they deviate from the world of the big brands.
I see a lot of innovations such as: filtering methods to speed up the aging process, using different wood and used barrels to second finish the whiskeys, playing with streams from different sources to create unique blending profiles, using young whiskeys aged in small barrels, agitating the barrels by using low frequency sounds, etc.
All these new techniques and trends are creating complex whiskies which is what the consumer is looking for.
We would like to thank Julian for the time he spent answering the above questions and wish him well for the years ahead. Feel free to stop by and visit him at our Ben’s Den tasting room.
Want to know more about our master distiller? Comment below with your questions!