How to Start a Distillery: The Story Behind Eight Oaks Craft Distillery Co.

By Erica Nonni, Foodable Contributor

Chad Butters | Credit: Eight Oaks

Chad Butters | Credit: Eight Oaks

According to spirits entrepreneur Chad Butters, craft distilling is a “confluence of history [in which] spirits run deep.” Chad has made his home in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, whose history and characteristics inform his business approach. For a military veteran who has lived in many places, he is an encyclopedia of local folklore and a devotee of local farming and local partnerships. For a relative newcomer to the spirits industry, he is a model for anyone who dreams of opening a distillery.

Chad started Eight Oaks Craft Distillery Co. when he planted the first crop of soft red winter wheat just over a year ago. Next came the revival of Pennsylvania’s original moonshine and experiments with London Dry and Western style gins. Today, only about six months since Eight Oaks broke ground for its distillery, he has developed a product line, engaged local partners and investors, built an events space, and navigated the particularities of local distribution.

The story of bringing the idea for Eight Oaks to life, with the help of friends and a local community, is both an inspiring account of how to start a distillery and a testament to our country’s flourishing demand for local, craft spirits.

Getting Started

When the time came to retire from the military, Chad and his wife, Jody, decided that three values would motivate the selection of their next career: being able to stay home, collaborating with friends and family, and being part of a movement they call agritainment: our society’s increasing fascination with local craftsmanship and demand for local, traceable agriculture.

The property | Credit: Eight Oaks

The property | Credit: Eight Oaks

Distilling Is Hands-On Learning

Chad’s first move was to learn the ‘craft’ in craft distilling. He took a workshop through Cornell University and interned with Dry Fly Distilling in Washington State to gain experience. 

He brought that knowledge home and learned how it’s possible that wheat + water + yeast can produce a soft, clean vodka with notes of buttered rum: it’s the soft red winter wheat that grows especially well in Eight Oaks’ microclimate. He discovered that crop rotation from wheat to corn in springtime is a good idea (bourbon). 

The Eight Oaks team broke ground for the distillery on June 12th, 2015. They ordered a custom still to be made in Stuttgart. When it was ready, the craftspeople who built it in Germany came to Pennsylvania to install it personally.

As soon as the still was installed, Eight Oaks brought in Rob Masters of Epic Distilling in Colorado. At Epic Distilling, Rob produces a golden gin aged in chardonnay barrels. Over a span of 15 days at Eight Oaks, Rob worked with the distillery team, advising on yeast and enzyme selection and technique to create the desired flavor profile.

Chad and his team will continue to confer with friends and experts indefinitely. They call the distillery a “social experiment lab,” where visitors on any given day might be invited to taste and vote on a test batch of a new product. None of this learning has delayed Eight Oaks from bottling, branding and selling its product. The team just keeps learning, listening and developing as they go. This business of high spirits is also one of open minds and humble souls.

From Vodka to Gin to Moonshine

A distillery usually starts with vodka. Wheat + water + yeast, or sometimes potatoes or another starch that will feed the yeast. Production of Eight Oaks’ American Vodka begins in the autumn as soft red winter wheat, grown and harvested on Eight Oaks’ own farm and a few neighboring farms. The grains are milled on site, combined pure water from local aquifers and distilled in Eight Oaks’ copper pot still using a 25-foot vodka column. Finally, it is charcoal filtered. From the harvest date, it takes only four days to go from grain to glass.

These days, Eight Oaks is tasting and testing botanical blends for gins, with a view to bringing to market both a London Dry gin (more dominant juniper flavor) and a Western style gin (less juniper). Botanicals like citrus, lemongrass and coriander have done well. Mint and sumac have been less successful. Next, Chad would like to try hibiscus and fennel pollen. Whatever the blend, orris root “binds” all of the botanicals together.

The most intriguing product at Eight Oaks is neither universal vodka nor trending gin. It is applejack, which started in Pennsylvania and became its original moonshine (defined as any liquor distributed illegally without paying taxes). It’s called applejack because it was historically distilled through freeze distillation, in which the ice is removed. This historic technique does not remove naturally occurring methanol, which is bad news for consumption and moonshine’s reputation. Nowadays a modern still is used to remove the methanol.

The still at Eight Oaks | Credit: Karen Nicholson

The still at Eight Oaks | Credit: Karen Nicholson

Eights and Oaks, Stars and Stills

The “eight” in Eight Oaks comes from Chad’s grandfather and father, who both used the number in signing off letters to their loved ones. It stands for the eight letters in “I love you.” Oak refers to strength. 

The most numerous and culturally influential European settlers in Pennsylvania arrived from Germany. Called the Pennsylvania Dutch, thanks to a mistranslation of Deutsch (German), this cultural heritage has played out in ways that modern-day Germans might not immediately recognize, but which appear everywhere you look in eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey, especially if you know how to recognize a hex.

Also known as “barn stars,” hexes are prominent design features on many houses in the Lehigh Valley near Eight Oaks. Nowadays, a hex is usually a simplified, decorative five-pointed star. Some have elaborate designs including birds, flowers and propellers. A traditional version has eight points, like the one on the Eight Oaks distillery. In any form, a hex is thought to ward off evil spirits, which seems fitting for any place in the business of generating good spirits.

To Market, to Market

State regulations of alcohol production and distribution are notoriously variable. In Pennsylvania, distillers can sell directly to bars and restaurants; in other states they cannot. In New York, they can sell at farmers’ markets; in Pennsylvania they cannot. 

State governments bring decisive benefits, as well. Like other agricultural producers, distillers, brewers and winemakers are sometimes rewarded with state-supported subsidies for training, tax breaks or similar. Learning the intricacies of these laws and how to leverage their unique benefits is crucial to a small, craft distiller’s success.

It’s Still About People

Alongside lessons in choosing yeast strains and how to prepare wheat from a wet growing season (use a grain dryer), Chad has met some great people. He learned quickly that the community of local distilling is actually a national — perhaps international — community of “exceptionally collaborative” people.

Chad says there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for a fellow distiller, from advice to equipment to supplies.

It goes beyond the community of distillers, too. Wineries, breweries and distilleries in Pennsylvania and New Jersey often swap used barrels to support and share in one another’s experimentation and make efficient use of resources.

The tasting room is a creative commons for cocktail ideas, as well. Here is a recipe for a current favorite in the tasting room.

The tasting room is a creative commons for cocktail recipe development. Here is a current featured cocktail:

Applejack Old, Old Fashioned

  • Splash one dash of Angostura bitters in a highball or rocks glass
  • Add 2 oz. Eight Oaks Applejack
  • Add 2 oz. simple syrup made from local honey
  • Add 1-2 ice cubes and stir

Garnish with an apple slice or a cinnamon stick.