A Cautionary Tale about Producing Spirits

Ohio winery's distillery destroyed in explosion

by Linda Jones McKee
wine winery wolf creek distillery still
A fire in the basement of the Winery at Wolf Creek was likely caused by a gas leak, according to owner Andy Troutman.

Norton, Ohio—Many winemakers contemplate making their own brandy, but making distilled spirits can be a hazardous undertaking. Andy and Deanna Troutman, owners of the Winery at Wolf Creek in Norton, Ohio, found that out in a devastating way May 30. Early that morning, Andy Troutman went to the winery’s distillery room and turned on the distiller. Shortly after he left the building to get a cup of coffee, there was a loud explosion. The blast and the fire that followed leveled the portion of the winery building that housed the distillery in the basement and an event room and offices above it. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and a firewall between the distillery section and the rest of the winery, including the tasting room, prevented the destruction of the entire building.

While the cause of the explosion has not yet been officially determined, Troutman told Wines & Vines, “More than likely it was from a gas leak, not from alcohol. The still and the boiler were in tact after the fire, and the building had been closed up for Memorial Day. Security cameras outside the building recorded the explosion; it was immediate and catastrophic.”

“Safety is paramount for me, in the distillery and in the winery,” he continued. “For example, I insisted that the boiler was outside the building, and still something happened. I often said, someday, somewhere, this will happen to someone. And then it happens to us.”

The Troutmans have not decided whether they will rebuild the distillery. “It’s not a big part of our business. We make a few barrels of brandy a year; it was a project that Andy Weinberg (the original owner of the Winery at Wolf Creek) was interested in. We had extra space in that part of the building, and five years ago, we had extra wine,” Troutman stated. The polar vortex during the winter of 2013-14 froze some of his more sensitive vines (Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon), and reduced his crop since then. He replanted with Vidal, Traminette and Maréchal Foch, but this will be the first year his production will be back to pre-polar vortex numbers.

Of greater concern to Troutman is the loss of the event room, which could seat 60 people, and the damage that was done to the press pad and some of the equipment used for crush. While the Troutmans produce about 15,000 cases annually at the Winery at Wolf Creek, according to Wines Vines Analytics, they also own another winery, Troutman Vineyards in Wooster, Ohio. “That winery is about 30 miles south of this winery at Wolf Creek and about a quarter of the size of this one. But we may have to crush there this year,” he commented.

With the help of their staff and friends, the Winery at Wolf Creek reopened six days after the fire. “We’ve been lucky,” Troutman said. “The cleaning people were gone, the office staff hadn’t arrived, and no one was hurt. And we found out how much our business means to our community.”

Craft distilling: two different approaches

In the past few years, craft beverages have boomed across the United States, and more wineries have added cider, mead, beer and spirits to their product lines. Wines & Vines spoke with two distillery owners with different approaches to spirits production: Dave Peterson, owner of Swedish Hill Vineyard in Romulus, N.Y., and Adam Flatt, owner of the Social Still in Bethlehem, Pa.

Swedish Hill Vineyard

New York State eased requirements for the production of spirits at a “farm distillery” in early 2013. At that time, Swedish Hill Vineyard had been producing distilled products from their grapes for almost 20 years under the old regulations. Dave Peterson purchased his 600-liter alembic still from Portugal in 1994, and has been producing port, eau de vie (a grape brandy) and a raspberry infusion (produced from raspberries soaked in Swedish Hill brandy) on a regular basis ever since.

Peterson said Swedish Hill’s still is not inside a building, but outside under a roof and next to a small pond. “We check the connections and the burner to be sure there are no issues before we start. Also we only use it for a month or so a year, usually in the late spring or summer.” The copper pot still is enclosed in brick to insulate the pot and maintain a more constant temperature, and it is used when the air temperature is above 65° F.

“We still make the same amount of brandy now that we did when we started,” Peterson said. “We’ve talked about expanding the distillery but haven’t gone anywhere with it. Instead we added two ciders to our list.” Each 125 gallons of wine produces between 25 and 30 gallons of spirits; the winery usually has about 1,400 gallons of sherry and 1,500 gallons of red port in barrel storage.

Social Still
Adam Flatt, the son of Elaine Pivinski, owner of Franklin Hill Vineyards in Bangor, Pa., grew up in the vineyards and winery and continues to be involved in running Franklin Hill. However, in 2014 he and his wife, Kate, followed their passion and opened a micro-distillery and restaurant in a 7,000-square-foot, Prohibition-era bank building in downtown Bethlehem, Pa. The restaurant area is separated from the distillery by a glass door and wall. Restaurant patrons can see all the distilling equipment but can’t go inside except for special tours.

Flatt told Wines & Vines that while the glass provides a barrier for any vapor or spills in the distillery, the most important feature of the distillery room is the “negative air system” that exchanges the room air with fresh air from outside approximately 15 times per hour. “We’re always removing the air, so if something vaporizes, it gets pulled out” Flatt said. In addition, one window is designed as a “blow-out panel window” so that if air pressure builds up in the room, that will go first, send the air outside, and limit any potential injuries within the facility.

There are no open-flame pilot lights or burners in the distillery. The still is heated with steam, which is produced by a boiler located in a separate place, and pumping is managed from a different room. The floor has drains below all the equipment so that any spills get removed from the room quickly and big puddles don’t accumulate. The lighting in the distillery is all explosion-proof, with outdoor LED bulbs that emit less heat than traditional bulbs, and all light switches are outside the room. Switches for starting equipment are locked in waterproof electrical boxes, and the stirrers are explosion proof.

According to Flatt, when distilling takes place, all the people in the facility are trained with safety precautions, and someone monitors the still manually whenever it is operating. “We distill five days a week on average,” he said, “but not when the restaurant is open. We close up shop by 3 p.m. or so, and open the restaurant to the public at 4 p.m.” He noted that monitoring the cooling water flow is especially important. “The water going through the pipes is noisy; if we lose water flow, you’d know it.” The cold water cools the vapor into liquid spirits, and the concern happens only if the vapor is not cooled quickly enough.

“We’re incredibly careful,” Flatt continued. “We have high-flow sprinklers and have gone above and beyond the requirements. The fire department is tough; they make us toe the line and enforce all the regulations.”

Social Still has 10 types of bourbon, whiskey, gin, rum and vodka on its list and supplies their facility and 40 restaurants in eastern Pennsylvania.

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