Friday, February 14, 2014
Lewisville resident learned a unique skill during Marine service — liquor distillation
Quentin Witherspoon is now the founder of Witherspoon Distillery in his hometown.
LEWISVILLE One Iron Age Middle Easterner helped a butler running low on party supplies by changing water into terrific wine. Medieval alchemists tried to change lead into gold. And Flower Mound’s Quentin D. Witherspoon successfully changes sugar cane molasses, grains, and wines into rum, whiskey, bourbon, and an occasional holiday brandy.
With his military haircut and trim physique, the blue-eyed 42-year-old distiller and grandson of Flower Mound's third mayor — David Witherspoon — doesn’t look like a mad scientist or a Dogpatch hillbilly scampering two steps ahead of infernal revenooers. Weekdays he shows up for work in T-shirt and jeans, and on Saturdays conducts tours in business attire. The avant garde desk that fills most of his office looks like a riveted steel airplane wingtip.
“After high school I joined the Marines (USMC),” he said, “became an embassy guard, and went to France where I also learned about wine and brandy.”
During that assignment he certified, on his own time, to become what the French call a sommelier or wine expert before he departed for a new assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR).
A former French colony about half the size of Texas, CAR is named for its location in the heart of Africa near the confluence of the Congo and Ubangi Rivers, an area similar to where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers join at Cairo, Illinois.
Part of his job in Africa was to distill river water, to clean out its impurities. His Marine contingent, a small group of 20-somethings, appreciated an occasional sip of more than water, but that was hard to get, and expensive.
“Without electricity or refrigeration, local beverages spoiled,” he said.
Making use of fermented local beverages, he tried his hand at whiskey.
“It was awful stuff,” he admitted with a laugh, “but I found a challenging hobby.”
After separating from Uncle Sam, Quentin worked as a master electrician in South Carolina, and graduated with honors from Charleston Southern University. During his stay there he also became a student of locals who crafted homemade liquor called Mountain Moonshine, Jailhouse Hootch or White Lightning (Appalachian Mountain pronunciation: whaht lahtnin’).
“The difference between those concoctions and commercial whiskeys is consistent quality, and price which is affected by taxes, of course,” he said.
Ethanol or drinking alcohol is produced by microbes that live on mashed fruits or grains, and break down the plant sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol.
“The alcohol vapor cools and condenses from is its distilled ‘spirit,’” he explained, wiggling his fingers in the air to indicate a steamy ghost. “Prize-winning spirits aren’t bitter on the tongue, don’t feel like fire racing down your throat, and they don’t leave an aftertaste.”
Plain rum, which looks like water, is distilled from sugar cane, has mild butterscotch, vanilla, or caramel flavor, and is aromatic.
How is ethanol different from germ-killing alcohol used in medicine? He went wide-eyed. “You disinfect with isopropyl alcohol, a poison derived from petroleum.”
After college, he spent time in Puerto Rico, where sugar cane distillates fuel power generators, and fermented sugar cane molasses makes world-famous, hard-to-replicate rums.
Several years later in Flower Mound he set up a small “craft” distillery in his garage and created his unique River Rum recipe which proceeded to win silver medals in trade contests.
“In 2012 it lost the gold medal at the Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition to an 8-year-old, barrel-aged, Bacardi commercial rum which is a different class of spirits really. It was exciting to come in second among the thousands of entries.”
Entering the MicroLiquor Spirit Competition limited to small producers, River Rum won again. After the second victory Quentin knew his smooth transparent drink “…with vanilla, cherry, and gingerbread notes” was an idea worth pursuing.
After several years of planning and jumping through regulatory hoops to get a federal permit, and backed by family and investors, he bought a small commercial still in Kentucky then manufactured an accompanying 500-liter unit for his 5,000-square-foot factory on Cowan Street in Lewisville.
“We call them Porgy and Bess,” he said, looking amused and proud. It takes a ladder to reach the top of the two rigs.
Old Glory and the USMC flag hang proudly behind the units that look like two-story steel and copper steamship smokestacks decorated with mad scientist gauges housing little compass needle arms.
To oversimplify, the steam from the heated fermented mash rises in the big stack. The carbon dioxide dissipates, and the alcohol cools and condenses into colorless ethanol that drips down a thin copper pipe into a small collecting tank.
Drinking spirits are differentiated by their fermented bases, the creation process, and are often named for their production locations. Cognac for example, is a brandy, a spirit made from fermented fruit, produced in the French province called Cognac.
Brandy manufactured outside Cognac, France may not be called Cognac. If Cognac distillers produce too much brandy they sell the excess to purveyors who give it another name, a different label, and dispose of the excess at reduced cost from the bottom shelves at liquor outlets worldwide.
Proprietary whiskies are Scotch, Irish, Canadian, American, and Tennessee, all peculiar for their manufacturing equipment, techniques, and quirks; local weather patterns; and fermented bases.
Quentin said he asked himself why Texas couldn’t have its own whiskey then discovered the simple answer was — no Texans thought of it. With that in mind he created Cross Timbers Single Malt Whiskey.
“It’s tasty for sipping,” he said.
His business goal is to create a destination shop where guests and customers may tour the facility, taste the products, and purchase goods. “I’d love Witherspoon Distillery to become known as the Samuel Adams of spirits.”
Adams started as a unique, high quality product that went on to corner the craft beer market with a small portfolio of flavor-filled beverages.
“The company has a wholesome reputation. I’m not interested in the nightclub world,” he said. “We plan to have event space for wedding receptions, anniversaries, reunions, and happy hours — light socials in good taste.”
To that end, later this year, he is looking forward to purchasing and moving into the old Lewisville Feed Store at Main and Mill Streets in historic downtown.
“It will be a perfect facility for us.”
He plans to use the site for a barrel warehouse, a tasting hall, and production space.
Cringing at the mention of alcoholism and drunk driving, he said, “I believe in moderation in all things.” He doesn’t drink much, but says addiction is definitely an industry problem.
He offers employee training patterned after the master electrician licensing program he went through. “Distillers are artists who learn the science as they go,” he said. “We teach interns, apprentices, and journeymen in our informal guild here. Master distillers are people whose creations win medals.”
Witherspoon spirits are sold all over Texas, and are headed into the national markets this year. Hunter Brothers H3 Ranch Steakhouse in Fort Worth, The Mansion Restaurant in Dallas, and the Old Town Flying Pig Sports Bar in Lewisville use the distillery’s products.
Keep up with the company on its website www.witherspoondistillery.com, and at various social websites. Join a facility tour by calling 214-814-0545.
Pegasus News Content partner - The Cross Timbers Gazette
The Cross Timbers Gazette is a locally owned and operated newspaper established in 1979, serving the southern Denton County towns of Argyle, Bartonville, Copper Canyon, Double Oak, Flower Mound, Highland Village, Lantana and Robson Ranch.
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