by Chas Guy
I never knew how much I truly loved whiskey until I startled bottling it at a craft distillery for free. That may sound funny, but hear me out…
While interviewing Nicole Austin, master blender of Kings County Distillery for this Booze for Babes piece last summer, she told me volunteers often fill the bottles before they hit the shelves. Which makes sense because, who better to lend a hand than active members of the drinking community and fans of the brand? I’ve since gone into Kings County on a handful of Saturdays and each time, the experience gets even more interesting and worthwhile.
You can go by yourself, take a date, or just partake as a tourist for a few hours to get a memorable experience worth bringing up in cocktail conversation. Kings County isn’t the only one that hosts bottling volunteers: Catoctin Creek in Purcellville, Va. hosts bottling days, as does Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado, New Columbia Distillers in Washington, D.C, Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh and Rock Town Distillery in Arkansas. There are opportunities everywhere to participate in the craft spirits movement. To get involved, all you have to do is ask.
But before you go, know what to expect. Here are five reasons to try your hand at booze bottling:
1. Your Spirits Knowledge Will Grow, Whether You Realize it or Not: This is the perfect time to ask as many questions about the craft, category of liquor or production process as you can. Want to know the difference between bourbon and rye whiskey? Just ask someone. See if you can get a sample of whatever you’re bottling that day and have someone walk you through a proper tasting of it. Ask the person bottling next to you what they like to drink and why. You never know – they might even offer up a recipe or two. This is how I figured out how to use a particular liqueur I’d been experimenting with (Licor 43 to be exact).
2. You’ll Meet New and Interesting Friends: Just like going to a bar, there will always be the opportunity to meet new people with similar interests on bottling days. Don’t be shy: strike up conversation with anyone and everyone you can. You never know what may come about it. This is how I learned about how my buddy Ryan makes his own barrel aged cocktails. He was explaining to me how he likes to plan his aging times around holidays so he can have a special batch ready to drink with friends and family. Turns out he’s also from Baltimore, in my home state of Maryland (what’s up, B-more?), which was another thing we had in common. Ryan, an experienced volunteer, has gone from just helping with bottling to helping Nicole Austin decide which barrels are ready for blending. He’s even helping out with the actual distillation process now. Soon enough, he might be a distiller himself…
3. You’ll be Part of a Handcrafted Step in the Process: Watching the bottles fill up right before your eyes as you sit at the bottling machine is a great feeling, especially when you get to smell those delicious honey, oak, and caramel notes wafting right under your nose. At a large, industrialized distillery you wouldn’t have this privilege, mostly because bottling is totally mechanized, but at a place where every bottle is treated with care, you do. As the bottles are filled they are passed on to get capped, sealed, and labeled, sometimes by other volunteers. Each bottle also receives a batch number that is handwritten.
4. Your Workload Will be Light: No one is going to ask you to randomly run the stills upon arriving. Your work will mainly entail filling bottles, screwing on caps, and packaging up the product. There may be a few other odds and ends that need tending, but nothing you won’t be able to handle. That means you can sit back, relax and enjoy.
5. You’ll Get a Few Perks: Depending on the distillery, you could get perks like free lunch, cocktails, and bottles to take home. Kings County offers its volunteers 375 milliliters of liquid currency (bourbon) that I’m very pleased to have on hand to share with friends. After you get home, you might surprise yourself by how much more curious you are about all of the stages prior to bottling, too. And the next thing you know you’ll be reading The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining or plotting your career as a liquor maker, which wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.