‘The process’

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By Jeff Bryan

When it comes to Fish Hawk Spirits, it begins with the oats, or corn, in which they place the product in the smoker for about three days. On this particular day, the corn malt is in the smoker while the oats will go in the following day. The wet grain has changed to green malt, Bagdanovich explained.


“All of the magic that we need has occurred now,” he said about the oats. “What is really occurring is the grain is getting impregnated with the terpenes from the smoke. That smoky flavor follows through the grinding, mashing, fermenting, beer stripping and so on.”

It’s the main reason, Bagdanovich said, why their products are placed in the smoky whiskey category at competitions. They use both natural cherry and oak when smoking the oats or corn.

“Once we have it roasted, we grind, after processing it we don’t use the whole grain,” he explained. “Seeing the process right now, we’re watering it.”

That process began with 300 gallons of boiling water and 700 pounds of oats. Once the temperature drops to 140 degrees, they put 300 pounds of malt in.

“What’s currently happening is the liquid is being sucked off bottom of grain bed and it rains down on top,” he explained. “That is separating the starch from the grain; the starch converts to simple sugars and exposes the liquid to the enzymes, alpha and beta amylase, which are the catalysts.”

And this is where “The Chemist” comes out.

“If you remember high school chemistry, catalysts don’t get consumed in the reaction, they remain,” Bagdanovich said. “Amylase breaks down long-chain sugars, all the way down to simple sugars. That process takes about two days to mash, because we use the little vat.”

From there, the product is moved to the mixing tank where they take the wart out of the mash. Then, Bagdanovich explained, they balance the Ph. “If it’s not quite low enough on acidity range,” he said, noting grain is notorious for being short on solid nitrogens, “we usually amend it with a mineral salt. Once they have it perfect, they pitch yeast in it and pump it into one of four 850-gallon fermenters.

“When you first put it in, it smells like bread baking,” he explained. And while local ingredients are key, Bagdanovich said he is extremely picky about the origin and source of the raw materials. He follows the philosophy of Wolfgang Puck.

“If you want to cook well, get the very best raw ingredients and don’t ‘mess’ them up,” he said. “Every flavor, everything that will be in the bottle except tannins and vanderrom, are formed here. Downstream is producing, concentrating and eliminating. We’re very conscious of the front end of this, it makes what we want come out at the other end.”

One key to Bagdanovich’s process is he ferments all of the sugar out.

“A brew master, a good brew master, is an artist,” he explained. “He gets that good tasting IPA or stout, because he balances sugar with biter with the hops. For me, if there’s any sugar left in here, I’ve made a mistake. I want things that will vaporize at point of ethanol alcohol.

“There are some acids I want to come out, other things I want to come out. When we finish the distillation, mature into some toffee like flavors, butter scotch flavors. Then we beer strip, once the beer is done -- it’s not the beer you think it is. If you do it from fruit, it’s wine; if you do it from grain, it’s beer.”

While not all of the parts of that beer product are good, “some are funky, some are real funky,” Bagdanovich said, but buried in it, “are all of the good parts.” In order to get those good parts, more work is done.

He compares his work to that of a painter.

“I want all of the colors on the palette,” he explained. “I might not use them all if, but if they’re not all on the palette, they cannot be used. We do that in here.”

Bagdanovich points to the corn low wines they haven’t used yet, lifting the lid where there’s “crud floating on it,” and unsavory aroma emitting from it.

“It’s kind of funky,” he said with a laugh. “That’s actually the way it’s supposed to be. This is a precursor product; those compounds we ultimately want, now we have to separate them out.”

That’s done through the finishing still.

“In theory, we can calculate fermentation,” Bagdanovich said. “I know what the formula should be.”

On this day, Bagdanovich said they have a gallon of headshots to be disposed of. That’s when they begin tasting it. “We taste it every step of the way,” he said. “It is a black and white clear delineation; time contaminations at a higher end of headshots and when it should simmer to a pure.”

It’s at the moment it turns utterly soft and sweet, he said, is the only time they collect the product.

“When we get to 100 proof, we cut it off,” he said. “We only pick up that pure, clean heart of the run. Also, it’s quite strong obviously so we carbon filter it.”

They in turn dial back to a minimum heat, and that’s one reason they use a chiller.

“The hotter the run, the hotter the whiskey,” he said with his best Irish accent.

Bagdanovich points out the R&D, in which quality control is required by federal law. The R&D is also where they go if they “get a crazy idea.”

“The first and last bottle, we do temperature adjusted fill test,” he said, noting they are done with certified Class A laboratory equipment. “If I take temperature adjusted fill, I pour it in there, measured at a liter. We have to say, if it was 80 proof, under lab circumstances, first and last bottle of every run has to measure at 80 proof.”

‘Those crazy ideas’

“It’s a lot cheaper if we do experiments on the 5- or 6-liter scale,” he quipped, pointing at big container full of liquid. A “good example” of a crazy idea he and his lab rats concocted was a “crazy kick Russian stuff.” During the era of the Soviet Union, kibosh was very common. But it was more often safer to make it at home, Bagdanovich said, than to purchase it from the state store. Kibosh of course tastes much like rye bread beer, he said.

“If we find that pent up demand for rye bread,” he said laughing, “we’ve got it covered.”

While there might not be a booming demand for kibosh, agricole rum might be the next big hit, Bagdanovich said. In Brazil, it is called Cachaça and it is made from fresh sugar cane, not molasses.

“We had some Brazilians in here who sampled it and said, ‘It reminds us of home,’” Bagdanovich said. “That’s good indication so far.”

Additional cane is being grown at Island Groove, the namesake for all of Fish Hawk Spirits’ Vodka line, and Bagdanovich said they may have enough for maybe a “400 or 500 prototype batch.” All of the tests they do on their products are done with customers. One of his interns was a fraternity member at the University of Florida; so Bagdanovich invited him and his fraternity brothers to come in and sample a Blueberry Vodka they had made. So, Bagdanovich arranged for transportation, provided food and samples. The cost: each person had to provide a legitimate critique of the different versions of the blueberry vodka to decide which was best for production. (The winner was the 70 Proof.)