SELECTING THE RIGHT LOCATION
It may seem that we’ve put the cart before the horse here and gotten carried away talking about selecting the right equipment before we’ve even considered the right location. Most of our clients don’t have the time to fully know what their equipment needs are before looking for a building. However, it really helps understanding what equipment you need because knowing you want a 20’ tall still before signing a lease on a cramped downtown shopping center where building height is limited to 18’ is going to cause a big problem.
We recommend the equipment selection be done first because then we know how much power, water, gas we will need in our distillery and can understand if we are going to need major modifications to a building. It’s also helpful in knowing if you’re operation will stay under the MAQs or if you have no choice but to sprinkler the entire facility. These can be major construction costs to discover after you have purchased a building or signed a lease, and we’ve seen many clients who have to compromise what they want to do with their distillery in order to fit into a building and, oftentimes, that unfortunately means changing the business plan too.
The first thing to look for when you are trying to find a building is what your local zoning department will consider your distillery. It is good to sit down with zoning officials or your your local Chamber of Commerce early in the process to understand how they are going to view your business. If you want your distillery to be located downtown, it’s good to make sure that they won’t consider all distilleries as industrial activity. This is also a good time to get the city government excited about your project (i.e. the jobs you will be creating and the contributions to the local economy you’ll be making). Once you understand where you can be located, the next step will be to start looking for a building.
FIRE SUPPRESSION SPRINKLERS
One of the biggest, and often overlooked, things to look for in your location is fire sprinklers. While it isn’t required that all distilleries have sprinklers, we will say that all but the tiniest probably need them. And, if you have any plans to grow in your location, you don’t want to hit a wall because you don’t have sprinklers. We won’t spend a lot of time rehashing building and fire codes, however, the basics are that you are required to have sprinklers throughout your building if you have more than 240 gallons of alcohol greater than 20% ABV in closed containers greater than 1.5L. While there are a lot of other parts to that, that one sentence covers the situation most distilleries run into.
The first way in which you need sprinklers in your distillery is if you are using a double distillation process and are charging you stripping still with greater than 20% ABV and if your finishing still is greater than 240 gallons (908 L). Having a 250-gallon still that you promise not to fill over 240 gallons is not an accepted work around in most location. The other common way to need sprinklers is if you plan on storing barrels. There aren’t many using 1.5L barrels, so all barrels will count against your Maximum Allowable Quantities (MAQ). Take the volume of your barrels and if they are over 240 gallons, then you need sprinklers (4.5 53-gallon barrels is over the limit). Even if you only have 4 barrels, that leaves you with only 28 gallons to do all of you other operations like bottling or producing more hearts or low wines. Generally, the facilities we see that don’t exceed the MAQs are not aging barrels and are using a single distillation process and don’t bring in totes of NGS. To reiterate, even if you don’t need sprinklers, having a space where they are already installed does add a nice extra layer of safety.
After sprinklers, the next thing to look for are your building’s electrical, gas and water capabilities. Most distilleries don’t use a ton of water, but you don’t want to have to sit around all day filling a 500-gallon tank with a garden hose. Electricity is normally in abundant supply, unless you are trying to run your whole facility on it. Directly heated mash tuns and stills burn a ton of power while they are coming to temperature and it isn’t unusual to need to increase the power coming to the building when electric equipment is used. Outside of that, you will be running your ancillary equipment and chillers on electricity and generally we recommend 400 amps of 3-phase power (not knowing anything else about your facility). Of course, if you’ve already selected your equipment, you can just add up the loads to get a basic idea of how much electricity you need and then check that against the building capabilities. Lastly is natural gas, which is a bit trickier since you have to look at the BTU requirements of each piece of equipment and then add in the inefficiency of a system that isn’t designed, plus the natural inefficiencies of the boiler. On average, a 500-gallon double distillation facility needs somewhere between a 750,000 BTU boiler and twice that based on how they are going to operate their facility.
While it may seem odd to say that the last thing to look for in a building is square footage, it’s actually quite true. Mainly, this is because there are several ways you can work with a small facility, particularly because distilleries need to be tall around the still, which for most buildings means they are tall all over. You can build equipment platforms, mezzanines or stack equipment to utilize unused vertical space. Alternatively, you can also try to find tanks and equipment that are tall and skinny instead of short and fat. At the end of the day, it is very helpful to take the floor space of your prospective building and fill it with the general shape of you equipment. Make sure you put in walking paths and consider how you’re going to get the equipment into the building. Drawing up a quick floor plan can answer a lot of questions about whether or not the building will work for your distillery.
A commonly asked question about a particular building is “Is this space going to be big enough for my distillery?” The answer is always the same: “It depends on what you’re going to put in it.” The smallest distillery we’ve build fit in just over 750 sq ft, while the largest is just under 90,000 sq ft. So, if you’re building is in that range, it’s probably very likely to fill it and make it work. If you’ve got a space that your heart is set on but the equipment just won’t fit or you can’t get enough power or gas to make the facility run, it’s time to go back to the business model and iterate to figure out what distillery business model will fit in the space. Once you get past this point, it gets very expensive to make major changes, so be sure you’ve considered all aspects carefully.