Making whiskey at Flag Hill in New Hampshire

While touring Flag Hill Distillery in Lee, New Hampshire  I had the chance to interview their distiller Brian Ferguson.

Inside the rickhouse at Flag Hill Distillery, NH
Inside the rickhouse at Flag Hill Distillery, NH

Brian says:

Everyone in my family owns farms. My mother’s side of the family had a dairy farm. My father got out of dairy farming when I was young, but I still was raised with 100 acres of land, it was still a farm. And he’s very technically savvy, he does machine tools now, has a real good mechanical background. I always wanted to play guitar, he didn’t like that, so the decision he made was to buy me a beer kit. He said anything you make, you can drink, knowing that I’d have to learn chemistry, physics, and I would have to learn technical skills: I learned how to weld, solder. I couldn’t buy this stuff so I had learn how to make it.

It was a really good idea on his part because I got really into it – then he had to reneg on his deal because it turns out once you make the equipment, you can make a lot of beer! So the whole “whatever you make, you can drink” deal had to fall by the wayside really quickly, when I started making 15 to 20 gallons of beer a week. That’s a lot of booze for a 17 year old kid! So then we had a new agreement. Then I really got into making wine. During college, I was writing business plans for breweries. I decided that market was saturated, and wanted to go in a different direction. Distilling was starting to turn the corner in 2001 but by 2006, when I entered college, it was becoming a public thing – people were starting to really know about it.

I got really into whiskey, spirits, vodka, rum. I got lucky and I met Thomas McKenzie in upstate NY. I worked for them for years, and Thomas started teaching me. Worked under Thomas for a couple of years, then moved to Grand Cayman, and I was head of distilling for a spirits company, making rum.

When I moved up here to NH the intention wasn’t to buy this place. The intention was to work here for a couple of years and then start a distilling company in Pennsylvania, where there is labor and agriculture – the inputs that you need. That’s a real issue around here. We’re trying to automate, because it’s really tough to find people who want to do agricultural work.

The previous owner that I was working for was looking to retire, and it just all made sense. I bought this place in 2015. But we had started down the path of making whiskey before that. We made a decision: let’s go full-bore whiskey.

Everyone else was into small barrels at the time, which make inferior product. They don’t age faster, but they oak faster. It’s easy to get oak, -simple physics: Heat, pressure, stir.  The hard part is patience. Now, there’s no insulation in the rickhouse. The goal is that when it’s 80 degrees F outside then its 90 or 100 degrees inside, and when it’s -20 F outside, it’s -20 F inside. The reason that we do that this barrel is going to age with ebb and flow of the seasons. In New Hampshire this graph of temp vs time looks like a sine wave; this drives the liquid in and out of the wood; that dissolves some of the caramelized sugars, which go into the solution. If you were in the Caribbean the temperature swings would be different, so the resulting aging inside the barrel would be different. There’s a delta T there of 30 degrees, every day. In Scotland it is pretty temperate.

Every place on the globe has its own temperature pattern/regionality. It’s not that it takes longer to age whiskey in Scotland, it’s that it takes longer to get oak. So that’s why we don’t have any insulation in this room: I want this whiskey to taste like Lee, New Hampshire. I could put this same whiskey in two barrels, and put them in two different parts of the globe, and they’re going to make two totally different whiskeys. Not just because of the variables in the barrels, but because of the different climate. We think that somewhere between 12 to 15 years is the right number of years to age whiskey here. Some of the stuff is around 11 to 12 years old back here. We’re going to have an 11 year old brandy release party in the Fall.

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Corn and rye are grown right there on the farm, and stored in a silo. More silos will be built soon.

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Grains and then stored in these smaller (yet huge capacity) silos right outside the distillery.

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Grains flow into here, where water and yeast are added.

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Then we have distillation

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Next we have more distillation here.

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Then aging in oak barrels.

Flag Hill discussion

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