By DEBORAH BEHRENDS
CARBONDALE, Ill. — Karen Binder’s background as a journalist has come in handy as a distiller of spirits. While the two vocations seem completely unrelated, she’s used her skills as a researcher to determine establishing a distillery was a good career move.
“I was looking for something complementary to the wine industry,” Binder said of her endeavor.
The southern Illinois native has worked for newspapers and for the now-defunct Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council. Because the state is home to nearly 100 wineries, she wanted a business that not only complemented the industry, but that would use locally grown grain and fruit.
“First I learned about brandy, which is really distilled wine. Then I looked at other products from grapes and ended up researching stills,” Binder said.
With a still, if designed a certain way, she said she can distill whiskey, rum and gin, but moonshine is trending now. While the word “moonshine” evokes images of backwoods stills, shine runners and scrapes with revenuers, Binder said it can be done legally.
“The federal government says moonshine is simply un-aged whiskey,” she said. “Distilleries exist in every state, and in every culture, for that matter.”
Her research included a lengthy business planning process, a feasibility study exploring the pitfalls – and money pits – and connecting with two silent partners in the area. “The concept morphed two or three times,” Binder said.
She explained her original business plan for the distillery also included the creation of an incubator for agricultural-based businesses.
“There are incubators for high-tech businesses with shared office services. I thought it would be cool to offer the same type of incubator for startup ag businesses,” she said.
Eventually, she settled on plans for a distillery only, attending several distilling workshops as well as a three-day conference to learn about doing business with the federal government. “I learned a lot about taxes and reporting,” she said.
Binder said distilleries are regulated at the federal level by the Tax and Trade Bureau, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, and the IRS. At the state level, distilleries report to the Illinois Liquor Control Commission and the Illinois Department of Revenue.
“Like any industry, there’s an alphabet soup of agencies involved,” she observed.
Among the reports submitted is the formulation for the moonshine, to determine federally-approved ingredients are used safely for consumer use and that the labels accurately reflect what’s in the bottle.
“All this is a hangover – pun intended – from post-Prohibition laws, but we happily follow the law,” Binder said.
Somewhere along the way in the planning process, the distillery name Grand River Spirits was born. The spirits will have their own brands, such as Red Eye for the moonshine. The Red Eye Moonshine label was created in cooperation with a local artist using U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1944 maps of the Mississippi River.
“The Mississippi is a very influential part of our life in this area,” Binder said.
Research also led her to the conclusion a still ordered from a German company was the best because the European-style equipment is more efficient. The still was ordered in November 2011, it arrived in April 2012, electrical and plumbing work was completed in June 2012 and Binder said she didn’t feel really comfortable with the operation until last September.
The state of Illinois licensed Grand River Spirits in December 2012 and the first bottles of Red Eye Moonshine hit the shelves of local bars and liquor stores in early 2013.
“The local food movement has embraced us wholeheartedly,” Binder said, adding one of the secrets of their success is the use of fresh fruit, grain and produce grown locally.
She said chicken farmers love the used mash. The alcohol has been cooked out of the mash – made from corn flour – and is safe to feed to most livestock, except horses. “They say they notice an improvement in the quality of their eggs,” she added.
Corn flour is used to make the mash because, Binder said, it’s more efficient than using cracked corn. The flour is added to water and heated to make the mash. “If it’s not done just right, you end up with grits,” Binder said, with a laugh.
From corn flour to finished moonshine can take up to eight days, she said – mashing, fermentation, distilling, blending and bottling. The number of bottles per batch varies, but she gets about 10 gallons per still run and each gallon fills roughly five bottles.
“I’m hoping to make 2,000 gallons per year, and I purposely designed the space for that volume,” Binder explained.
The current home of Grand River Spirits, on the edge of Carbondale, is what Binder calls a startup location. She believes the business will outgrow the space in about five years. At that time, she plans to look for a larger space, not only for the distilling process but also to allow for a tasting room and loading dock.
She has two part-time employees for now, and she handles all the marketing and compliance and oversees the distilling. While planning for a launch party, Binder also wants to experiment with wheat and millet recipes.
“It’s been a great project, and there’s a great deal of pride that comes with it,” she said.
(Editor’s note: If you recognize Karen’s name, good eye – she and her husband, Steve Binder, are both correspondents for Farm World.)