Her name is Abigail.
Over 6 feet tall and made of stainless steel, Abigail is what is known as a column still. She doesn’t look like the other stills in the distilling lab at Oregon State University.
Abigail is crucial to Paul Hughes’s distilled spirits program at OSU. Unlike the four copper pot stills in the lab, a column still can separate alcohol and water more effectively.
“A still is like a black box,” Hughes says. “You put a liquid in the pot and what comes out is the alcoholic concentration. We generally don’t know what’s going on. With Abigail, we can imbed a device for measuring temperature and we can collect the data in real time. We will actually be able to see the distilling process.”
The other stills in Hughes’s lab have names, too. Amy. Conchita. Anabelle. Serena. Stills are traditionally given women’s names, Hughes explains.
Since 2015, Hughes has led the distilling teaching, research and outreach programs to further enhance OSU’s engagement with Oregon’s food and fermentation industries. His classes focus on producing, aging, packaging, and marketing of whiskey, brandy, gin, vodka, and other distilled spirits. A big part of Hughes’s job is forging ties with Oregon’s growing distilling industry. He hopes to partner with Oregon distilling companies on research and internship opportunities for faculty and students.
“There’s an environment of innovation around processes and products in Oregon,” Hughes says. “The distilling industry in Oregon is young and most distilleries are pretty small, so my focus is on helping the industry on the product and process management side, as well as providing insight on the way stills operate.”
Oregon has 53 operating distilleries, according to the American Craft Spirits Association. Hood River Distillers, founded in 1934 and purveyor of whiskey, vodka, and jade absinthe, is the oldest. The others were established in the 1990s or later. Hughes set up his research program to answer industry questions, particularly around flavor delivery during the distillation and the maturation process. The Oregon Legislature provided funding for Hughes’s position.
“There’s a lot of commonality around the fermenting techniques used in brewing, winemaking, and distilled spirits production, but distilling requires additional steps. So, there will be a need for additional courses about those techniques,” says Hughes, co-author of the 2014 book The Science and Commerce of Whisky.
Hughes’s book added to the public’s knowledge about an industry that has traditionally been secretive, he says.“There is a lot of proprietary information about the production of distilled spirits, and the literature is quite sparse,” he says, pointing to two rows of books on a shelf in his office. “I have enough books on beer and wine production to fill a library.”
Hughes spent the first decade of his career on the beer industry. “My father liked the occasional blended Scotch and Jameson’s, so I was aware of it,” explains the soft-spoken Englishman. “A good friend of mine at the time had me try different whiskeys and demonstrated how different they can be, and it went on from there.”
Gin-making is taking up a good part of time in the Spirits Teaching and Innovative Libations Lab (STILLab). One of Hughes’s graduate students is looking at how a still’s configuration influences the spirit’s flavor. Juniper berries provide the flavor for gin. Well aware that western juniper is considered a pest in eastern Oregon, Hughes would like to develop a raw material library that includes juniper berries from Oregon.
“I’d like to test various juniper berries in our lab and see if we can predict their gin quality,” he says. “Perhaps we’ll be able to say, ‘This one from this location is good, but that one from that other location is not. So, let’s go with this one.’”
Hughes has initiated several projects in the past year and a half, including a partnership with Lisbeth Goddik, a professor and Extension specialist in dairy processing. Hughes and Goddik, colleagues in OSU’s Department of Food Science and Technology, are testing the use of fermented sweet whey, the liquid byproduct in the manufacture of cheese, to make vodka. If successful, the method would be an avenue for cheesemakers to add distilled spirits to their line of products.
That’s the spirit!