Thursday, June 1, 2017

The OSU Distilled Spirits Program

Those who've read Distilled in Oregon may recall that Molly Troupe, a distiller at Oregon Spirit Distillers in Bend, has a masters degree in brewing and distilling. Ms. Troupe received her degree at Heriot-Watts University in Edinburgh, Scotland. That's a long distance to go to get a degree in the subject, and although there are a couple of distilling programs here in the USA (University of California at Davis and Michigan State University), I can't help but feel that such a program offered closer to home would be a great resource for those in the Pacific NW interested in the subject.

Apparently someone at Oregon State University had the same thought, because in 2015 the university announced the creation of a distilling program as an option within the Fermentation Sciences program. The first step was to get someone to architect the program, and OSU hired Paul Hughes, one of the faculty at Heriot-Watts, to fill that role. Dr. Hughes arrived in the autumn of 2015 and has been developing the curriculum and assembling a lab.

I visited OSU in late April of 2017, interviewing Dr. Hughes and touring the facility. At present Hughes is the only faculty member in the program, but another may be added in the next year or two. The program is receiving strong support from the state government (as in funding), which wants to encourage the distilling industry in Oregon, the rationale being that fermentation and distilling multiply the value of locally produced commodities.

So far only two courses have been offered - one on the general subject of distilled spirits and one on Scotch whisky production - with about 20 students enrolled in each. Hughes expects to have a full 90 hour program ready by the autumn of 2018, and it's his ultimate goal to make the OSU distilling program the "go to" choice, not just in the United States but worldwide.

The curriculum will include not only the basics of distillation but advanced technologies as well, such as new distilling techniques (Hughes described the innovative still developed at Bunker Distillery in Washington; see, methods to reduce energy consumption (such as solar power) and methods to enhance the aging of whiskeys, brandies and rum. Students will have access to the lab, which offers five small stills of various configurations, and can experiment with these to see how the different configurations affect the final product (a standard gin recipe is used to provide a baseline spirit).

Hughes took me to the lab, which is about 600 square feet and is jammed with equipment. The five stills take center stage, and all have names.
From left to right, Abigail (who I believe had a prior career at a dairy farm), Serena, Annabelle, Conchita and Amy.
After visiting the distilling lab, Dr. Hughes took me to the Food Science and Technology lab, a very large room with a partial second floor (a gallery sort of thing), and infused with many interesting aromas.
OSU Food Science and Technology lab. Jam, cheese, wine, beer and more.
The distilling program's largest still - "Giselle" - is currently tucked into a corner of the second floor. Donated by King Estate Winery (which, I'm guessing, was planning on getting into distilling but had second thoughts) this still was constructed by Northwest Copper Works in Portland. The still is not yet operational; numerous modifications need to be made to comply with both federal and university regulations.
Paul Hughes and "Giselle"
Speaking of regulations, the OSU distilling program will also include in its curriculum an overview of federal and Oregon laws governing the production and sale of distilled spirits.

Since arriving in late 2015, Hughes has visited about 35 Oregon distilleries. An element of Hughes's program is to develop internship programs with operational Oregon distilleries; House Spirits in Portland is the first partner in this effort.

All in all, I was impressed with Dr. Hughes. He's accomplished a lot in the 18 months since arriving at OSU, and I think it's a good bet that he'll achieve his ambitious goals. Anyone planning a career in spirits distillation would do well to take a look at the OSU program.