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MilWorking: Brian Sammons' Twisted Path To Distilling

Editor's note: This piece was originally published March 22, 2018.

Distiller Brian Sammons is a do-it-yourself kind of guy. As founder of Twisted Path Distillery in Bay View, Sammons has taken his own twisted path to the profession and an equally unorthodox approach to his craft. 

"What I've found in this industry is that conventional wisdom is not necessarily conventional wisdom because it's the best way to do something."

When he was first starting to create the distillery, he says, “My approach was just to research how [a commercial distillery] would do any particular thing… but then for each of those things I would sort of re-evaluate and look at, ‘Okay, that’s how a normal commercial distillery does something, but why do they do it that way? Is there some good reason for that?'"

He continues, “What I’ve found in this industry is that conventional wisdom is not necessarily conventional wisdom because it’s the best way to do something."

One of the first examples he sites is the water heater he designed for the distillery. Sammons explains, “The conventional way to heat up water for mashing is called a hot liquor tank, it’s a big stainless steel thing… The vessel itself is very expensive, the steam boiler to power it is very expensive, installation of it is very expensive, and in the end you’re talking about nearly $50,000 to heat up water.”

Credit Joy Powers
Brian Sammons working on the water heater and masher at Twisted Path.

He was able to create his water heater for about 1/20 of the cost and does exactly what it’s intended to do: “It takes the water you put into it and makes it hot.”

Sammons also created his own still (patent-pending) and taught himself how to weld in this process. “When I was looking for a commercial still, there wasn’t one that worked quite the way I wanted to. I wanted to be able to do what’s called ‘grain-in distilling’ and I wanted to be able to do it with an electric still … So, this is a prototype and it looks sort of do-it-yourself-ish, 'cause it is.”

He says he prioritizes the taste of the spirits, so saving money on things like the hot liquor tank and using the electric still, he’s able to use that money on enhancing flavor in a way that might otherwise be cost-prohibitive.

Credit Joy Powers
Electric-powered still designed by Sammons.

The name Twisted Path is partly a reference to Sammons’ DIY approach to distilling, but the name is analogous to his own journey to the industry. “This is sort of a third career,” he explains.

He started his professional career as a CIA agent, before heading to law school, where he met his wife. The two decided to prioritize family-life and Sammons left the CIA and started work as an attorney. “But by the time I got to a law firm what I realized was, A: I didn’t like my job. Big surprise there. And B: It was also going to screw up how we wanted to do family life.”

He and his wife decided they needed a change, and what was once a side hobby became his career. (Sammons cautions that home-distilling is illegal in the U.S. and he “definitely did not do that.”)

As part of his job now, Sammons leads tours of Twisted Path, where he dispels a number of myths about spirits, like so-called “triple distilled vodka.”

He explains, “The number of times distilled in vodka marketing to the extent I’ve ever seen it, all fake. To make vodka, to get it to this high a proof, you need to use a reflux column… And then your number of distillations is a theoretical number based on the number of plates, the efficiency of the plates and your reflux ratio. But in order to get to 190-proof, it’s a really high number of distillations. Triple does not make vodka, like according to science. Distilling something that yeast fermented three times won’t get you to a high enough proof to be vodka.”

Credit Joy Powers
Wall of different test-infusions at Twisted Path.

Another common myth? That spirits contain gluten. Although Sammons says gluten can be added after the distillation process (like in the case of whiskey aged in beer barrels), even when liquor is made from something containing gluten, the gluten cannot survive distillation.

"Gluten doesn’t evaporate. It’s like putting rocks in a pot and trying to boil it and then, you can drink the steam.”

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.