Industry City Distillery
Building A Better Spirit, From the Yeast Up
David Kyrejko and Zachary Bruner of Industry City Distillery (ICD) did not set out to make a high-quality handcrafted vodka or multi-purpose high-proof neutral spirit. Instead, in the industrial space that their distillery calls home, David and Zac sought to revolutionize the machines that make alcohol. For the duo behind ICD, the smooth and pure vodka they produce is merely the high-quality end result of their desire to craft the perfect tools for the distilling trade.
The two men behind Industry City Distillery didn’t start out as mechanical engineers, chemists, or distillers. Instead, David was a wet plate photographer with an interest in closed biological ecosystems and Zac studied set design and worked as a theater technician. For them, having no background in the spirits industry was a great strength. It allowed them to enter the field without prior biases on how things were supposed to be done and gave them license to completely deconstruct every step of the liquor production process.
Industry City Distillery, in many ways, started because of wet plate photography. As David describes it, the hardest part of making images through the wet plate method is having access to good quality alcohol that won’t ruin prints. The Distillery’s Technical Reserve product was born of this pursuit. Technical Reserve is a clear alcohol at 191.2 proof or, in layman’s terms, 95.6% alcohol. This is an alcohol that isn’t made for drinking, but is destined for uses beyond the bar – tinctures, flavor extraction, or photography. Why stop at 95.6%? Per the distillers at ICD, alcohol cannot be distilled any further past this point – the ethanol has reached its azeotrope – and this product goes straight from the still to the bottle.
The mission of ICD is to create an urban distillery that is efficient enough to be sustainable in the high cost, low-space environment of New York City. To accomplish this goal, Zac and David looked at every step of the spirit-making process, deconstructed each one, and made each step as space, time, and energy efficient as possible. It also meant hand-making nearly everything for the distillery.
For two distillers who think beyond the box and are fixated on the process, off the shelf equipment just will not suffice. Many distillers hand-make their own still, which is an amazing feat in its own right. Industry City Distillery takes this one step further and uses personally crafted yeast. One of the amazing pieces of equipment in their distillery is a device straight from the Cold War – an East German yeast propagator they call Werner. Werner’s job is to take a commercial yeast strain that produces “beautiful esters” during fermentation, immobilize the yeast cells in a matrix of alginate, and turn these cells into densely packed spheres. Werner actually programs the yeast cells to create a non-traditional shape (for yeast) and then gets the yeast spheres fermenting at an incredibly accelerated rate. Making great yeast takes time and that means 40 hours of yeast “programing” each time they need to propagate a new batch.
The next step in the ICD process is to take Werner’s special yeast spheres and move them to a fermenter. Like the yeast, the fermenter is designed to be space and time efficient. Using two tubes made of glass and stainless steel, ICD’s fermenters keep the mash in constant motion. These “bioreactors” create a constant temperature and PH for the mash during the entire fermentation process. The result is a fermenter that can fit in a closet but create enough fermented mash for an entire distillation run. The end product is a 14% mash that is ready for the still in only 24 hours.
What’s next for a mash created with custom yeast in a custom bioreactor/fermenter? Custom stripping and finishing stills, of course. The finishing still at ICD is not a copper column or bulbous pot. It is a sleek, thin, and small packed fractional column made from glass crammed with copper pieces. It is literally a long neck of glass rising out of a metal base. As Zac describes it, glass is 400 times more energy efficient than copper. Thus, in their design, less heat escapes, so less energy is required to run the distillation. The copper pieces on the inside provides the chemical benefits of a traditional copper still, but distills much more efficiently because less heat is lost in the process. Even their waste water serves an efficiency purpose, as the heat from waste-water is transferred to incoming mash so that nothing enters the still cold. The end result is a tiny distillery, with a huge production run, operated by only two people.
What does all of this efficiency mean to Zac and David? A constantly flowing bioreactor replaces a static fermenter. That means running a distillery on floors that would not be able to hold the 6000 lbs of static weight that a traditional fermenter would require. Accelerating the entire process 10x means much less wasted space because one part of the process doesn’t have to wait for another part to catch up, which is key given property values in large cities. Energy efficiency and waste water management keep heating costs down, which is critical in a city with some of the highest energy and sanitation costs in the nation.
After all this talk of process, what does Industry City Distillery actually put in a bottle? The Distillery makes two products from a single base of beet sugar. Beet sugar was chosen because of how efficiently it produces refined sugar relative to the land needed for its cultivation. Their first commercial product was Industry Standard Vodka. Each batch of vodka is broken down into 30 different cuts and then David tastes each cut and determines the final blend for that run. For a distillery that has discarded tradition, simple heads, hearts, and tails cuts would not be sufficient.
Industry City Distillery’s second product, Technical Reserve, is designed for flavor and artistic experimentation beyond the bar. To aid this spirit’s unique mission, it gets its own special closure – a Teflon cap. Teflon was specifically chosen because it is entirely inert and will not bleed any flavor in the high proof spirit. The purpose of Technical Reserve is to deliver the purest base product and the distillers at ICD have tried to protect the purity of that base until it gets into the hands of the consumer.
Ultimately, David and Zac see ICD as an experiment in efficiency that just so happens to make high quality liquor. They want to make booze better, not just make better booze. They want to expand the discussion of what liquor means and empower the consumer to use it for more than just mixing cocktails. They want to prove that an urban distillery can be different from a rural one and that urban solutions don’t have to include any trade-offs in a product’s quality. It’s a fascinating concept, with great products, and maybe an industry-changing effect.