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Know Your Distillers: Stephen Tomori

Stephen Tomori, a master distiller who started his career into the spirit industry in Costa Rica. He was formerly a mechanical engineer, and currently oversees Kindred Spirits Distillery Consulting, where he uses knowledge to shape the sector.

Introducing Stephen Tomori, a former mechanical engineer who is now a master distiller. His interest in spirits was sparked by a special combination of enthusiasm and curiosity. Stephen grew up with a close buddy whose passion for Scotch Whisky inspired him to become fascinated with high-quality spirits. However, when he ended up in Costa Rica, his path took an unexpected detour.

Stephen's passion of experimenting with local fruits soon developed into a full-fledged exploration of distilling there, amidst the rich scenery and vibrant culture. Equipped with inventiveness and resourcefulness, he created his initial still using non-traditional materials, thus initiating an incredible journey into the realm of spirit creation.

Stephen refined his skills via painstaking trial and error, creating formulae for whiskies, rums, and brandies that delighted friends and fellow travelers alike. Eventually, a family friend noticed his commitment and skill, which launched him into the commercial distilling industry.

Stephen's skills blossomed in the years that followed, as he was instrumental in the conception, execution, and maintenance of a distillery that won numerous awards. However, it was his persistent desire to impart his wisdom and experience that inspired him to start Kindred Spirits Distillery Consulting.

Stephen continues to influence the spirits sector as the head consultant for his own business, offering customers innovative and knowledgeable guidance. His unwavering dedication to perfection extends to everything he does, from building distilleries to fine-tuning manufacturing methods.

Read the entire interview below to learn more about Stephen's incredible journey and the keys to his success.

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

I am formally trained as a mechanical engineer and have been working as a Mechanical systems design engineer since graduation. Growing up I had a great friend who had unfortunately been paralyzed in a work accident but loved Scotch Whisky. He introduced me to the world of fine spirits and I have developed a palate for some of the finer things when it comes to what can be produced.

I began my journey into distilling while living in Costa Rica. I started by using local fruits like mangoes, pineapples, and tamarind to make "beers", however, due to the amount available, I soon had to look for other ways to enjoy this hobby. I thought since the quality of the ferments was so nice, they could probably be used to make a great base for a brandy. I built my first still out of some stainless-steel fire extinguishers, a stainless-steel milk jug, a modified hot plate, and some copper tubing. 

Sure enough, the brandies came out amazing and I began sharing them with friends and others who we met in their travels to Costa Rica. At first, I took the compliments on the spirits I shared as politeness, but in time as more and more people tried them, I came to realize that by using some of the best base materials possible and truly caring about the process it would be possible to make some great spirits of my own.

After a few years of living in Costa Rica and dialing in some recipes for brandies, rums, and whiskies, we decided to move back to the States. I was approached by a family friend about my hobby in Costa Rica and was brought on board to help do the design, planning, and production for a commercial distillery. After a year and a half of engineering, hands-on work, wiring, plumbing, welding, and recipe development, the distillery opened and in the first year, the spirits I generated won 35 awards. 

I ran all the production for the first year of operation and then decided to leave that business, at first to pursue a position in a different field. The fact remained though, that I was able to help someone who had no background in distilling open and run an award-winning distillery. I thought, "If I had done that once, why couldn't I do it again?" Thus, Kindred Spirits Distillery Consulting was started. Since then, I have continued to work with a small group of talented individuals to consult with those interested in starting a distillery of their own or expanding a current one into new spirits such as whiskey, rum, gin, or agave. Since leaving that first distillery we have helped several distilleries open or expand and have continued to share our passion for generating truly great distilled spirits."

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

As Lead Consultant for my company, I'm responsible for designing and coordinating the layout of distilleries and other production spaces for clients. My day starts by responding to emails and then jumping into meetings with potential or current clients.

I enjoy the challenges of each unique distillery and love working with clients to develop the most productive and picturesque layouts possible while prioritizing safe operations. Whether it's doing test ferments and distillations for product development, coordinating tasks with my team, or meeting clients on-site for inspections and training, each day brings its own set of interesting puzzles to solve.

I take pride in being the primary point of contact for clients and ensuring that any correspondence is replied to promptly. It's incredibly rewarding to help clients overcome problems and support them throughout the process of getting set up or expanding.

What inspired you to become a distiller?

My passion for distilling started as a hobby, talking with my friend Keith about filling barrels of our own and controlling the process every step of the way. Sadly, he passed away in 2018, but I always imagined what it would be like to share a barrel with him.

Now, as an award-winning distiller, my main drive is to share my knowledge with others and help them create something they can be proud of. Each spirit has its own unique story to tell, and it brings me great satisfaction to assist clients in achieving their goals. Whether it's sourcing the best raw materials, selecting the right yeast profile for their ferment, or perfecting the distillation process, I am passionate about every aspect of the journey. From fine gins to sippable rums, and even exotic mezcals and sojus, I love helping clients work out any issues in their processes to create the best final product.

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

The art of distilling requires a unique set of skills that balance creativity with a strong work ethic. A distiller must be able to envision the final result while staying focused on the task at hand. Passion is key to driving constant improvement, pushing one to critique their work and seek out areas for growth. Distilling is truly a craft that requires dedication and commitment to excellence

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

Distillers are the unsung heroes of the spirits industry. They are the ones who work tirelessly behind the scenes to create the products that we all enjoy. Their hard work and dedication deserve recognition. When a company highlights the efforts of its distillers and staff, it not only builds brand loyalty but also offers customers an experience in a bottle that is built with time, endurance, and true passion.

Define a good distiller.

A good distiller appreciates the fringe areas around the science. One who is patient, not greedy, and willing to trust their palette in those decisions where the numbers and expectations may not be exact. A good distiller knows the degrees of volatile alcohols, the temperatures for desired cuts, and the proof that they are trying to achieve, but a good distiller never relies solely on those numbers. Rather, they treat each distillation run as its experimentation where attention to detail and willingness to trust their instincts go hand in hand with the fundamental science behind the process.

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

The hardest part is working the same processes day in and out, sometimes for years to see the final result. Maintaining the joy you had when you first started, despite the challenges you face daily.

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

The current trends of premiumization can be tough for several clients. Spirits such as Tequila, which were relegated to the role of cheap drinks to take shots of have switched over to premium beverages meant to be savored. Other spirits like Whiskey and Rum are now gaining some additional footing in the premium markets as well.

Competition in this market is not just from other craft distilleries that are starting up, mainly it is the interest taken by larger companies. It can be difficult to come into a market at a significantly higher price than what can be mass-produced by larger companies.

What skill or topic you are learning currently and why?

Currently learning all there is to know about sugarcane production and juice extraction.


What is your idea of a good life?

A good life is balanced. Nothing is more important.

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

I have always had a passion for well-distilled rum. I have a jug I like to "test" every once in a while over some ice.

Your favorite 2-3 distilling or spirits books?

Distillation Principles and Processes - Sydney Young

The Drunken Botanist - Stewart

The Compleat Distiller - Nixon & McCaw

Take us through your process of blending.

Blending is one of my favorite things to do with clients who have several barrels that are stored. The ability to taste and savor each barrel, while looking for other barrels that would pair well is an exciting and fun experience. Seeing larger blends come together to highlight the complexities of the spirit shine is exhilarating.

To start, a sample is taken from each barrel, and then individually evaluated for strengths and flaws.

A desired profile is generated by the client, something that is based on the strengths of the spirits available.

We then work, in small quantities, blending portions of the available barrels into batched samples which are evaluated in both cask strength and then at the desired proof for bottling.

Adjustments are then made in the proportions until the desired profile is achieved, and noted. The corresponding barrels will then be blended on a slightly larger scale, and tested for quality and similarity to the small-scale test. If the quality is on par with the small-scale test, large production blending can take place.

How do you take care of production waste?

These days, supporting green initiatives is an important goal for many operational distilleries. One of my clients is an energy company that converts waste products into natural gas. In many instances, they would enable distilleries to cut costs on having this material taken away and allow them to recycle or reuse this waste.

How do you create complexity in the fermentation stage?

The key is to innovate with the options you have when it comes to raw materials, don't stick with the tried-and-true options. Explore rare varietals and other uncommon materials for use.

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

Premium spirits have been gaining popularity in recent years, with Tequila and Whiskey leading the pack. However other categories, such as Gin, Rum, and American single malt are becoming more popular. The premium versions of these spirits will only continue to increase in the market, greatly increasing the number of premium options available to consumers.

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