532 West IL Route 22, Suite 110, Lake Zurich, IL 60047
In 2013, a friend told Lisa and me about an exciting new local craft distiller of gin and whiskey. They offered tours! I had never been on a distillery tour. And so we visited Copper Fiddle Distillery, met one of the original owners (Fred Robinson), toured the facility, sampled their gin and whiskey, shared a cocktail, and brought home a bottle of Bourbon Whiskey and some merch. (I never lurch for the merch.) All of it was so memorable!
Recently, I revisited Copper Fiddle Distillery in my mind. I was never one for mind games. I wanted to play this out again IRL. This time, I would document our visit and bring a couple friends: our friend Tracy and her daughter Samantha (Sam).
Ready? Clap your hands. Now, let me get some action from the back section!
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“Let’s toast to this with 108 proof. The notes that you get from this moonshine are: barley, rye, a little bit of pepper, and sweetness from corn. I will explain why it tastes this way.”
Lisa, Tracy, Sam and I pulled up to Copper Fiddle Distillery. Everything looked the same from the outside except for the area for outdoor imbibing. We walked up to the bar and met Ryan the Bartender and the new owner Andrew Macker, Owner/Operator. Jim Iverhouse, the other owner, was out on business. New ownership was news to us; and, so was the expansive boards of so many colorful labels and flavors in the bar and distilling area. This was going to be a new experience!
“We are Copper Fiddle Distillery. We’re very big fans of our flavor profiles. More than 90% of everything here is done by hand. This gives us a very intimate feeling in all our products. Like many good stories, we’re going to start in the middle. This is the middle of bourbon’s journey. This is our ‘moonshine.’
We’re going to talk about four different things. The first is process. Our process is the most important thing for us. Nobody can replicate our process. By ‘process’ I mean, ‘How do we create alcohol?’ The other things are: aging, bottling, and a little bit of history with some tasting.
For us, we took this project over in September 2019. Rewind to 2011 when Fred Robinson and Jose Hernandez were the original owners. They were neighbors in Hawthorn Woods. Jose experimented with making moonshine in his garage. Let’s toast to this with 108 proof. The notes that you get from this moonshine are: barley, rye, a little bit of pepper, and sweetness from corn. I will explain why it tastes this way.
Let’s go back to Fred and Jose. One day, Jose ran across Fred’s lawn with a Mason jar filled with vodka. Fred shut off his motor. Jose said, ‘Fred, you gotta try this!’ Fred tried it and said, ‘That’s totally disgusting!’ Knowing it was a labor of love, they agreed to find a better recipe for Jose’s still. They found a moonshine recipe that was good with ingredients readily available in the midwest. They did a couple runs. Fred wasn’t sure if their stuff was actually good since they were making it, so he bottled some of it and brought it to his golf buddies. Fred sold it for $20 a jar. He sold out every time.
Since Prohibition, DSP (Distilled Spirits Permit) licenses were not available, meaning that nobody could distill spirits in Illinois. The turning point came in 2012. We were able to grab DSP license number 11. Before that, Fred said, ‘Why don’t we buy a real still? We’ll apply for the federal license first, then get the state license.’ Fred and Jose did that, thinking they’d be ok. They went to get their township permits, but they ran into a little bit of a problem. Fred and Jose needed commercial space. It took them a long time to find a building. They needed good water drainage. They also wanted to focus more locally than nationally.
Fred and Jose drove around a bit looking for a building. While looking, they experienced some car trouble. They went to a garage next door from here where my cousin in-law Jim worked. They got to talking. Jim had just built this building a couple years before. He said, ‘Hey, guys, I don’t mean to eavesdrop, but I might have what you’re looking for.’ He threw the keys to Fred and Jose. This building has a drainage trench, location with heavy traffic, and a tall ceiling for the still.
Lake Zurich at that time was not too supportive of alcohol distribution. They turned down local breweries. Jim happened to be on the board of trustees and was good friends with the mayor. Jim helped Fred and Jose get up and moving. During their first year from 2011 to 2012, Fred and Jose were bottling as much bourbon and gin as they could to open in 2013 when they first started legally selling.
I met Fred at Jim’s Fourth of July party in 2015. Fred knew that I ran some restaurants downtown. He wanted me to try his whiskey. I absolutely loved it! I put together a local whiskey flight for some restaurants. We kinda got the touch.
By 2019, Fred and Jose got busy with other things. I met with Fred and Jan in 2019. They had a couple suitors. We made an offer. We felt we could do this at the right price. We got a call the day after Labor Day to hear that somebody tripled their offer. Fred decided to take the offer and retire.
Another 29 days later, I got a phone call from Jim. The company that tripled the offer ‘ghosted’ and never showed up. We made the same offer. Long story long, we ended up taking it over on the 16th of September 2019.
“We’re very big fans of our flavor profiles. More than 90% of everything here is done by hand. This gives us a very intimate feeling in all our products.”
We met Rob Scaramella, who knew Jose. Rob has been brewing for over 20 years. Jose asked him to come on. When Jose left, Rob was the one to do it all by hand with the same ingredients. Rob actually didn’t like the ingredients or the process. He wanted to make the best possible whiskey from here to Kentucky. I asked him, ‘What would you change?’ Rob said, ‘The ingredients and the process.’ I asked him, ‘If I could source you the right ingredients, could you do it the right way?’ Rob said, ‘Absolutely.’
We get our cereal grain, the rye from Minnesota. It’s not malted. What’s malted is our barley which also comes from Minnesota. Why Minnesota? In Minnesota, there’s some really great stuff. Our wood comes from Minnesota too. The soil components are very consistent. That’s why it’s so prevalent in the flavor of our moonshine because it enhances the sugars.
These are cereal grains. They’re not malted. I want to cook them at 190 degrees Fahrenheit for about two hours to get all the solids and liquids to separate. At 160 degrees, we’ll start to pitch our malted, milled barley.
Does anyone know the process of malting? What we’re actually doing is baking. We could do it in a bunch of different ways. To make tequila from agave, it’s burned, torched. To make scotch, peat is used to smoke malt. At 150 degrees, for barley not in solution, we activate its natural enzymes, its diastatic power to break down its own starch into a simple sugar. When we bake it, we stop right at 150 degrees. As soon as we hit 150 degrees again, whether in a baked form or in solution, that power will reactivate. At 160 degrees, we’ve broken up the liquids and solids. Once that diastatic power happens, there’s enough power there to break up its own starch and sugar. When sugar is heated by yeast, it creates carbon dioxide and alcohol. We don’t make booze here. We make sugar. All of the potential to create alcohol is right here.
When we look at proof statements on barrels, bourbon can go as high as 125 proof. That’s the maximum. We don’t want to go any lower than 80 proof because we can’t bottle it lower than that.
Here’s the last bourbon from Tuesday. What’s happening in this barrel is the yeast has been activated. This sugar laden liquid is starting to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is our bourbon from the last run that we did. It’s in a process that will take up to two weeks, which is called waiting out. The yeast will essentially die off and fall to the bottom.
This is a solution of fermented rum. What have we done? Sugar is in the yeast, it falls to the bottom, and we have essentially a flat beer. So how do I get from 12% ABV (Alcohol By Volume) to 120? That’s our process. That’s how we get from fermenter to still.
Let’s start with our Bourbon Whiskey. You tasted the moonshine. There was a little bit of sourness in there. There were grainy notes from barley and rye, some pepper from rye, and sweetness from corn. This is about six months to a year later, our Bourbon Whiskey, rested in American charred, wooden barrels.
Water boils at 212 degrees. Ethanol is the one molecule that we chase. It boils off between 150 and 202 degrees. It boils off before water does, so we can catch those vapors, condense them in a shotgun condenser, and collect that distillate before the water would boil. That’s how we take a solution that is ‘low beam’ and make it into ‘high beam.’
In a copper pot, the scrubbing process, reflux or distillation, doesn’t happen. Copper is a very poor conductor of heat, meaning that it’ll maintain a unified temperature a lot better than stainless steel. Esters are fats and oils that hang onto sugar molecules during fermentation. What makes moonshine taste like moonshine (we can taste the barley and rye) is the fact that it’s cooked in a copper pot. There’s no reflux.
Let’s taste our Fiddle Gin. We wanted to make big fans of our gin. The minimum botanical amount of juniper needed to be considered gin is 51%. Juniper in a London dry gin tastes like licking a pine cone. The oils in that berry, once extracted, take on that flavor. We only use 51% of that berry. The other 49% is a fun mixture of: coriander, Chinese star anise, lemon/orange peel, and angelica. We make a more complete botanical form of gin that can be versatile as a gin and tonic, dirty martini or whatever you want. It’s a much richer flavor.
Tom Gin is our brown gin. Why is it brown? It rests inside a bourbon barrel anywhere from four to six months. Most gins, at some time in their life, and especially before the invention of stainless steel, have some brown characteristics, meaning that they rested at some point inside a wooden container. In the past, gin was transported across a vast body of water or even across a large continent. It would have to be stored in some way. Gin was usually stored in a sealed wooden barrel. Then it would take on the characteristics of the wood. That’s called a Tom Gin. Unless we were in the Roman Empire and had access to marble, our gin would probably spend some time in wood. This is the exact same gin that you just tasted, tossed in a wooden barrel to sleep for four to six months. It drinks like a whiskey.
I would like you to taste this. This has all of the things for chemical quality but it’s also our flavor profile. It has this really cool green apple, caramel taste. There’s sugar that’s still left during the fermentation process because we can’t get every sugar molecule out. When we cook it, it caramelizes. It’s a really cool flavor. Instead of just using water and starch, we use our by-product or back set. It has a flavor that’s unique; it has nutrients too. It is everything that we are.
This is our Vodka. We just released this. It’s brand new. We use fourteen distillation points. You can still kinda get those essences and hints of what you got in the moonshine. We didn’t take them out. All of our stuff is smooth because this also did not see any synthetic points of enzymes during the fermentation.
“It’s a really cool flavor. Instead of just using water and starch, we use our by-product or back set. It has a flavor that’s unique; it has nutrients too. It is everything that we are.”
Now, on to our Rye Whiskey. Who likes rye? The first thing that I wanted to do, when even thinking about starting a distillery and learning how to distill, was make a rye. I love rye. With rye, the only difference is, there is no barley; and, there’s more rye than corn. To be a rye whiskey, we need to be at least 51% rye. But we are about 60%. Rye costs less to produce than bourbon. To be bourbon, I need to go into a new American charred oak barrel that’s never been used before—brand new. To be rye, I can go into any barrel I want—used or not used. It doesn’t matter, as long as we’re over 51% rye. We go into bourbon barrels first anywhere from three to six months. Our Rye Whiskey takes on characteristics similar to our Bourbon Whiskey, but there’s a Snickers bar, peanut and chocolate, and baking spice life of its own. We’re going through our first release. The second release will come out in about a month or so. This Rye Whiskey’s about three months old. The next batch will be about six months old.”
Part two is next!
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