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Know Your Distillers: CJ Helms

CJ Helms: From Mead Enthusiast to Distiller at Still Austin, a journey rooted in passion and expertise. Discover the story of a distiller dedicated to crafting exceptional spirits and embracing the evolving world of craft distilling

Meet CJ Helms, a passionate distiller with a remarkable journey into the world of spirits. CJ's fascination with distillation began at a young age, fueled by his father's love for whiskey. From early experimentation with mead and home brewing, he eventually found his way to the distilling profession. His enthusiasm for crafting exceptional spirits led him to become the Distiller at Still Austin, a role that keeps him engaged in various aspects of the distillation process. His commitment to the craft, coupled with a keen palate and a thirst for knowledge, makes CJ a skilled distiller. He believes in the importance of innovation and adaptation in an ever-evolving industry and sees the craft spirits scene as a dynamic landscape with exciting prospects. CJ's dedication to producing outstanding spirits and his continuous pursuit of excellence drive the spirits industry.

Tell us a little about your background and journey into distilling.

Growing up my father was (and still is) a big whiskey fan, especially heavily peated Scotch. As a kid I would ask him what it would taste like and his response always would be, "Take a sip and you tell me." Each time I would cough and couldn't understand how adults like this drink that makes you cough and your mouth burn. Seeing this he would chuckle and tell me that that's why I shouldn't drink until I'm a lot older. I guess he was playing the long game because now he has a son who consistently brings him new whiskey bottles.

Once I was in high school I stumbled across a video on how to make mead. I thought to myself, "I can make that." From there it went on to more wild home brew/fermentation experiments. Some were good, others were horrid. Most of them however stuck in the wine/mead area. Once I started college at Texas State studying Business Management, the experiments stopped.

About halfway through my Junior year, I was back for Christmas break and my parents asked me what I was going to do with my life after college. I had no plans because I hadn't considered it. My dad wanted to know what hobbies and activities I loved and I thought back to all my fermentation experiments. My response was that I loved making alcohol. The next thing he said set me on the path I'm on today. He told me, "Ok, then go do that." That one sentence made my new goal seem simple.

That entire break I researched different distilleries in central Texas (not just whiskey but rum and vodka distilleries too). The entire time my parents would ask questions about the distilling profession which helped me fine-tune my goal and look at it from multiple directions. When I returned to school at the beginning of the new year, I printed out a little over 25 copies of my resume and over 2 weeks traveled to almost every distillery from Pflugerville down to San Antonio, Texas. To put things into perspective this was early 2021 so the COVID pandemic was still affecting everyone. Most places turned me away immediately, partly due to the pandemic but others because I was still only 20 years old at the time.

Luckily for me though a place called Ranger Creek down in San Antonio took a chance on me and brought me on as an apprentice distiller. I turned 21 a few months after starting my distilling career with them. While there I was trained in commercial distilling from a good friend and my mentor, Josh Gardner. At Ranger Creek, I learned the fundamentals of pot still production for Single Malt, Rye, and Bourbon, as well as botanical spirits. With only the two of us running a grain-to-glass facility, I was able to learn more than just pure distillation but things such as mash bill creation, blending, and honing my palate. From there an opportunity arose to be the initial hire for the 24/5 expansion for Still Austin. It's where I am to this day, distilling with our workhorse of a column still, Nancy!

What is your current role and what does your day look like?

My current role is the Distiller of the afternoon shift here at Still Austin. We are currently running 24/7 with 12 different distillers working around the clock to keep production on pace. We split the roles each week between cooking and distilling to keep things from getting monotonous. 

On a distilling week I'm tasked with running our 42-foot tall column still Nancy, as well as barreling the distillate created, and taking care of the stillage produced each shift. Each day Nancy runs slightly different due to multiple factors such as weather, mash bill, or even just the time of day. This is where it's my responsibility as a distiller to make the necessary adjustments to ensure she runs as efficiently as possible. We have digital gauges for some of our readings but the controls are still manual so it is necessary to be constantly monitoring Nancy and adjusting accordingly.

On cooking weeks, the tasks are more simple. The cooking process is transforming the whole grains we receive in our silos, into a fermentable mash that meets our requirements both sugar and pH-wise. Fermenters are chemically cleaned and sanitized constantly to prevent infection or off flavors appearing in our final products. Since we are a grain-to-glass facility, everything from pulling grains from the silos to filling barrels with proofed distillate, is all done in-house daily.

What inspired you to become a distiller?

I've always enjoyed more manual jobs growing up and prefer to work with my hands rather than sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day. Initially, I started by making mead but that switched when I found the Whiskey Tribe YouTube channel made by Daniel Whittington and Rex Williams. From then on I developed a passion for whiskey and distilled products and wanted to learn as much as I could, even though I was still unable to drink due to my age. I was able to meet the two in person at their Annual Bastard's Ball event a few years ago. But it's thanks to the knowledge and shenanigans of those two that I became a distiller.

What are some of the most important skills for a distiller?

Having a good palate and nosing capabilities are crucial to being a distiller. Not just being able to taste and smell but to have an understanding of how different faults and flaws occur. Time management is also important as well as having basic chemical/mechanical know-how and a willingness to learn. There is always something new to learn in this industry, whether it be a different technique used for either distillation or fermentation or new ideas about equipment design. The skill I use the most however would be adaptability. Everything doesn't always go according to plan, whether equipment malfunctions, scheduling issues, weather disasters, or something else completely unexpected. It's your responsibility to make the most of the situation and to come up with a solution to ensure things continue to run smoothly even if the road is bumpy.

Image Source: CJ Helms

How do you think a distiller can help in driving marketing and sales personally?

A big part of having a distiller help push the company to new heights is ensuring that they take pride in their work and that they enjoy their product. I can't say how many distillers I've met (including myself) who will ramble on about a product or new experiment being done because we truly love what we do and put forth the effort to do things properly. A good distiller will naturally spread the word about their product because they have the in-depth knowledge that goes into making it as well as the love for the product itself. At the end of the day, a lot of us are just nerds who enjoy drinking and love a chance to geek out when we can.

Define a good distiller.

A good distiller to me is somebody who first and foremost fundamentally enjoys the craft. They are constantly looking for new ways to improve themselves and the products they create. They need to have a good understanding of both the whys and hows when it comes to their equipment as well as a want to learn more about them. Lastly, they need to distinguish between faults and flavors objectively in a product and understand where it "went wrong" in the eyes of the general public. Taste is completely subjective but you need to be able to tell when something will be accepted by the general public rather than the select few.

What is the hardest part of a distiller's job?

I think repetitiveness is the hardest aspect of the job. Too many people get burnt out and lose their passion for the craft simply because they do the same work day in and day out without keeping their brains stimulated. I think it's important to keep tabs on or research other types of distillation or products to keep that interest alive and maybe transfer that knowledge to your current spirit type. It's necessary to keep your mind constantly moving and to challenge yourself with goals in mind, not just in work but in life too.

What are the current challenges the spirits industry is facing according to you?

A challenge that happening with the spirits industry right now, especially craft whiskey in the US, is that there are so many new distilleries popping up and releasing their product.  It can be seen as a challenge from a business point of view because it requires something special about your product to make it different than all the rest. Being a distiller and on the production side, I love seeing it though. It's a way to spread different techniques and knowledge throughout the industry while also requiring you to think outside the box and constantly try to improve. If you aren't constantly bettering your product then eventually you will be left in the dust.

What skill or topic you are learning currently and why?

Right now I'm going more in depth with the chemical and biological reactions that take place in the fermentation and cooking stages of the process. My reasoning behind studying these reactions is I want to be able to understand the whys and hows of the production of certain esters rather than just simply being able to tell that they have occurred. A lot of this reading and research pertains more to rum and seeing how specific esters can be made and sought after. Being able to recreate a flavor ideal without a recipe or simply wanting to get a specific flavor from one product and transfer it to a different recipe is a handy skill to have. It is like a chef being able to see ingredients individually and being able to see the end goal without having to rely on a set recipe.

What is your idea of a good life?

A good life is one that you can be proud of. It's important to be happy and enjoy yourself. Every person needs a purpose in their life. Otherwise, you aren't living but simply existing. I have found my purpose and happiness in my work. It's a bit cheesy but I'm happy, so who cares?

Which is your go-to drink and what is the perfect setting you enjoy it in?

Whiskey is my preferred spirit of choice. I do love a peated Scotch, especially something from Compass Box. Neat or on the rock depends on the day but if I had to choose a cocktail, you can never go wrong with a good Manhattan. The perfect place to drink it however is with friends. A drink always tastes better when you're sharing it with somebody else.

Your favorite 2-3 distilling or spirits books?

The Alcohol Textbook is a good read. It very much is like a college textbook so it can be a bit boring but it has a ton of good information talking about many different spirit types. 

A collection of reading material a few coworkers and I continuously go to is on a website called Boston Apothecary. It focuses more on rum production but is run by somebody who translates old-world distilling books and shows his findings when using a rectifier to get certain flavors and aromas. It is constantly being updated and always keeps us interested.

Again not a book but a huge collection of knowledge is the ADI forums. On it are plenty of other distillers with their questions, comments, and answers on many topics. It's also a good place to get feedback or hear from somebody else's perspective.

How do you take care of production waste?

All of our stillage is taken away by either companies that turn it into animal feed or by local farmers that have livestock and can take some away via tankards and totes. For the wastewater produced by our RO system, we recycle that water through our cooling system. Instead of running glycol through our jacketed fermenters and our still, we run the waste water produced through our system and use that to cool our vapors and mash rather than dumping it down the drain.

What trends do you anticipate in the beverage industry in the coming months? Where do you see the domestic craft distilling scene going? What's next for the industry?

Craft whiskey is currently undergoing what happened to the craft brewing industry in the 1990s-2000s. It feels like the everyday consumer is starting to shift away from big staple names that have been around for decades in favor of trying more unique and lesser-known brands. More distilleries are popping up (especially in Texas) and it's incredible to see. I enjoy it because it showcases that a small tweak in recipe or methodology when producing a spirit can create a completely different flavor profile. I think it's going to continue along this path and more of the market share is going to switch to craft distillery products over the next decade.

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