In the Distillery - Cooking Up a Batch of Bourbon

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Did you know that all Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is Bourbon?  What??  Can you run that by me again, please?

Bourbon is a uniquely American word and product and is officially labeled as Bourbon Whiskey.  But what makes Bourbon, well...Bourbon?  And how does it differ from other types of whiskey?  There are two main criteria.  First, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, whereas whiskey in general can be made from any type of grain...rye, corn, wheat, millet.  If it's made from grain, you can call it whiskey.  But if you want to call it Bourbon, your mash must be at least 51% corn.  The second criteria is how it is aged.  All Bourbon must be aged in a NEW oak barrel, whereas a general whiskey product can be aged in a new or used barrel.  There is no time requirement for the aging of Bourbon, just that the aging occurs in a brand new barrel.


So how do you turn corn into Bourbon?  That's a great question.  Magic!  Just kidding.  It's actually science and begins with the oh-so-scientific processes of liquefaction and saccharification.  These are fancy terms that mean taking a complex this case starch...and converting it into its monosaccharide components, basically sugar.  These steps are required when making spirits like Bourbon, but not when making wine.  Any why is this?  Because the raw materials used in wine making...grapes...have sugar readily available to use for fermentation, which is the conversion of sugar into ethanol.  To conduct a grain fermentation, we must first "crack" the starch to get at the sugar.

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So how do we crack the starch?  First we mill the raw grain, which we do right here in the distillery with a machine called a hammermill.  Once we have milled grain, which has a flour-like consistency, we add it to heated water to produce the mash.  This step is the liquefaction and is conducted at a precise temperature and pH with the addition of certain enzymes.  Once liquefaction is complete, the saccharification process begins by way of different enzymes added to the mash at a (different) precise temperature and pH.  Now we have sugar available, which we can ferment into ethanol by the addition of yeast.  Wow...that's a whole lot of science!

Once the yeast has been added, our grain mash will ferment away for five or six days, producing a low level of ethanol.  But don't spirits have a high level of ethanol?  Indeed they do.  We'll talk about that next week when our fermentation is complete, and our Bourbon mash enters the process of distillation.  Do stay tuned!



Spring in the Wine Cellar - Bottling


Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for his beloved adventure novel Treasure Island, but he also penned one of my favorite quotes, “Wine is bottled poetry.”  As an author, he likely did not bottle much wine, however, and the task itself is not that poetic.  It is, however, the task that gets our wine into your hands, so off to the bottling line we go!


Here at River Bend, we fire up the bottling line approximately fifteen times a year starting in the spring.  Reds that have aged for the past twelve to twenty-four months are ready, as are the wines from last year’s harvest that do not benefit from extended aging.

Set-up of the system falls into Al’s hands, and on bottling day he is in the winery by 6:30 a.m.  It takes four hours to completely prep the system, which involves attaching inert gas cylinders and final filters, cleaning and sanitizing the pump and bottler, and testing each stage of the line, of which there are several.


Now we are ready to begin!  After being loaded on a conveyor, each empty wine bottle is inverted and blown out with nitrogen.  After being turned back upright, each bottle is purged a second time to displace any air (the enemy of wine).  After the nitrogen purge, the bottle advances to the filling carousel.  After filling, each bottle passes under the leveler, which ensures every one is filled to exactly the same height.  From here, the bottle is vacuumed and corked and makes its way to the finish carousel from where it is loaded into a case.  Sixty cases are loaded onto a pallet and are sent off to the warehouse to await labeling.  With three staff members working the line, we can bottle approximately 250 gallons per hour.  Once we are done, the whole system is cleaned again.  Ten hours later (half of which were spent prepping or cleaning), we have approximately 5,000 bottles of finished wine.  Whew…now it’s time to relax with one! 

So now that we have some wine in the bottle, it’s time to make spirits.  Next week we’ll be checking in with Al in the distillery as he cooks up a batch of Bourbon whiskey.  If you are a Bourbon fan, you won’t want to miss it.



Spring in the Wine Cellar - Prepping Reds for Bottling

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Grapes harvested in the fall go through many stages of processing before becoming finished wine.  Fermentation is complete a few weeks after harvest, but several additional processing steps are needed before a wine is either laid down in barrels to age or made ready to bottle.

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Spring is when we sample our aged red wines to determine if they are ready to be bottled.  Our reds are stored for up to twenty-four months in either French or American oak barrels, and each barrel that is a candidate for bottling is sampled individually to determine its readiness.  We recently sampled fifteen barrels in preparation to blend two wines...River Bend Blend and Summer Red.  As luck would have it, we found a stand out barrel that will become a Reserve wine later this year...exciting!  More on that in another post…


Once we have determined which barrels are ready, the wine is transferred to stainless steel tanks for the next stage of processing.  Filtration is a crucial step in winemaking, and our wines go through five filtrations before reaching the bottling line.  Filtration to this level of polish ensures both quality and longevity, allowing our red wines to age gracefully in the bottle for several years.

Interested in learning more?  Next week we will be on the bottling line, so stay tuned.



Spring in the Vineyard - Pruning

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It is often said that great wine is made in the vineyard.  For a winemaker, that means the vintage year starts long before any fruit is harvested in the fall.

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As we all know, seasons in Wisconsin vary greatly from year to year.  In the spring, there can be deep, heavy snow on the ground or temps can soar into the 70’s.  So far, the spring of 2018 has been more about snow than above average temperatures, but green grass is starting to peek through and warmer days are on the horizon.

Here at River Bend, pruning begins in early March and is finished by the end of April.  Each vine is pruned by hand, and it is now when the bud count is determined for the year.  Bud count is important because it determines the number of grape clusters that will be available to harvest in the fall.

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Each healthy bud will produce two clusters of grapes.  Depending on the age and health of the vines, we prune to between forty and eighty buds per plant.  That makes for easy math…forty buds mean eighty clusters per plant come harvest time.  Eighty buds mean one hundred sixty clusters per plant.  While that sounds like a tremendous amount, each cluster’s individual weight is relatively low.  As a rule, each plant in our vineyard produces between ten and twenty pounds of fruit per year.

Interested in learning more?  We’ll revisit the vineyard later this spring as pruning nears completion.  For next week, we’re heading back inside to see what’s happening in the wine cellar.



The Vintner Lifestyle

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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a winemaker or distiller?  Have you ever dreamed of living the vintner lifestyle?  Does such a lifestyle ACTUALLY exist, and if it does, is it as glamourous as it sounds?  My name is Donna Sachs, and for the last ten years my husband Al and I have owned and operated River Bend Vineyard and Winery in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.  Two years ago, we also opened River Bend Distilling, a craft distillery producing spirits from both grapes and grain.  And this year, we are letting you in behind the scenes of our operation…

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Al and I are often asked how we spend our working days.  For the past few years, we have had to shift our focus from the parts of the business that a tasting room visitor sees to all that goes on in the background.  While the administrative side of the business is probably not so mysterious, the field work and production side of a winery/distillery is often referred to as “where the magic happens”.  It’s a romantic notion this magic, but the truth of the matter is that running a vineyard and two alcohol production facilities is just good old fashioned hard work.  Remember the episode of Dirty Jobs where Mike Rowe works at a winery?  That's what I'm talkin' about.

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So sit back, grab your glass, and join us each Monday as we pull back the curtain and set off on our journey through a year in the life of a midwestern winery and distillery.  We’re glad you are here!