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Tim Mokes On The Dynamic Role Of A Distiller

Tim Mokes, the Head Distiller and Production Manager at Boardroom Spirits, a Family-Owned Craft Spirits Distillery in Pennsylvania, shares about the Art of Distilling and the skills required for it.

Tim learned the art of brewing and fermentation while he was working as a Brewer and Baker in his early years. Having specialized in Brewing, Tim later went on to take a role of a Head Brewer at Tower Hill Brewery and worked for a year until he joined Boardroom Spirits. Having joined the distillery more than 7 years ago, Tim created some great award-winning spirits as a Distiller. After having a vast knowledge of the distilling industry, five years later, Tim joined as a Production Manager and Head Distiller at the Boardroom Spirits. He now takes care of everything around the distillery right from where the spirits are made up till when they are packaged and sent out for distribution.

What has your distilling career been like? Tell us a little about your background.

I have an extensive background in brewing and fermentation, at home and professionally, but I credit most of my success to a 15-year background working in a cabinet shop. Understanding processes and workflows are the keys to operating any manufacturing operations. Obviously, knowing how to run the stills and fermentation is necessary, but without the general production experience, all the other pieces won’t fall into place to maximize efficiency.

How do you think the Spirits industry has evolved?

The craft industry seems to be branching into two directions – hard expansion into the RTD market and very diversified portfolios, or super focused into one niche product that is produced really well. There will always be the major brands who churn out consistent products and dabble in trends of flavors or different formats, but I don’t see a lot of those offshoots having a ton of traction for the long term.

Tell us a little about your day-to-day role.    

My daily routine consists of maintaining an ever-evolving schedule for my employees, ensuring that the production and packaging teams have all they need to operate efficiently, and then keeping track of inventory of finished products, supplies, materials, etc, both physically and in our software.  

What's unique about Distillery that you like?

I enjoy the freedom of product and process development. While not everything becomes a finished product, it really allows for the discovery of potential ingredients and processes. We are always interested in becoming more efficient and streamlined in order to maximize our output, yet not sacrifice quality. The automation of our stills has really allowed us to accomplish a lot, with a lean staff. 

What were some of the challenges you faced when you distilled your first spirit?

My biggest challenge was learning how to operate a new still. A still as technologically advanced as ours required a good deal of learning, but as I built out the processes and programs it became a very easy still to maintain. Our distillations are now very maintenance-free and repeatable due to the programs we create to manage distillations for each specific product.  Another hurdle that I didn’t identify from the start was the difference between mashing for beer vs mashing for whiskey. I was over-complicating the process, coming from the brewing world. I had to come to the realization that I’m not creating the final product in the mash tun, I’m only creating the very building blocks of what will become a good whiskey. So I had to set aside some of the standards that I was used to in beer mashing, and adopt a different process for whiskey.

Boardroom Spirits Portfolio

Boardroom Spirits Portfolio

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

Having an understanding of how I actually produce our spirits really helps to educate our marketing and sales team to promote what we make, as opposed to just selling a slogan or label. It creates a cohesive message across our brand and what we’re all about.

What are some of the essential skills required to distill?

Understanding fundamentals such as raw ingredients, fermentation, and process flows are staples to operating the distillery. Also, learning optimal points to make cuts for different types of products for the greatest flavors, aroma, and yield. How the spirit is handled after the distillation is equally important, from proofing and finishing, or barrel aging. The whole process is a great balancing act of science and processes vs creativity and feel.

Boardroom Spirits Distillery

Boardroom Spirits Distillery

Define a good distiller.

A good distiller knows how to make the right cuts, knows when and how to make just the right adjustments to dial in the plates and temperatures for a real quality product. A good distiller also knows how to manage the workflow on the production floor. Keeping up with tank transfers, proofing, macerations and blending, and prepping for packaging. Knowing the state of everything on the floor and what the next moves are is crucial.

What advice would you give to future distillers?

My best advice would be to learn all you can, accept that you will make errors, and use them as stepping stones to learn from. Also, keep in mind that it isn’t typically a glamorous job, you aren’t often gazing across the glory of your production floor from the still platform. More often you’re cleaning tanks and pumps, fixing the labeler on the bottling line, and mopping the floors. But the end result of all the labor can be very rewarding.

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

For a cocktail, I enjoy a Manhattan with Rye, or a G&T to keep it simple. I also like a good west coast style IPA, a proper Pilsner, or a well-made Belgian golden ale. The tasting room bar is nice, but at home, it's the best.

Boardroom Spirits Distillery (Left), Tim Mokes (Right)

What do you do when you are not distilling?

I enjoy spending time with my wife and 3 boys, hiking, going to the beach, or watching movies on the couch. Having been a former baker, I still love making soft pretzels, pizzas, and yeasted doughs in general; the process is as satisfying as the results!

What is your idea of a good life?

Try to live carefreely, and enjoy what I have. Healthy family and friends and a roof over my head keep me happy, with a drink in my hand.

Header Image: Tim Mokes. Source: Boardroom Spirits Website

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