Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rigged for Success – Fairborn’s Flat Rock Distillery rides Ingenuity to Gold in National Distilling Competition

“Our major problem was that we weren’t making enough whiskey!”
– Shawn Measel, Flat Rock Distillery

“It’s so funny. We walk by the still every day, shake our heads, and say, ‘The damned thing actually works!’”

Shawn Measel, one of the three proprietors of Fairborn’s Flat Rock Distillery, was breaking down the origin of various pieces and parts of Flat Rock’s homebuilt distiller.

“These parts were duct work from a machine built in Stuttgart, Germany. Those were water pipes from a factory. Those were steam pipes.”

Brad Measel, Shawn’s older brother, chimed in, “Our still’s not one of the big, beautiful copper stills like the one they’re putting in at Party Source [aka NewRiff Distillery in Bellevue, KY]. Those are like $500,000. Ours comes from leftover pieces and parts from our old job sites.”

The Measel brothers, along with their former office manager, James Bagford, turned a floorful of repurposed rigging equipment into Flat Rock’s incubator for StillWrights, their now-available line of distilled spirits. The StillWrights lineup includes a straight bourbon, flavored and unflavored moonshines, and – soon – silver, spiced, and bourbon barrel-aged rums.

Four of StillWrights’ moonshines recently took awards in the 2014 American Distilling Institute  competition for independently produced spirits. Their key lime pie moonshine took gold and was named “Best in Class.”

Less than a decade ago, however, rather than winning medals, the three were hauling metal.

From Millwright to Stillwright

“Shawn and I are both millwrights,” said Brad. “My father was a millwright. My grandfather was a millwright.”

“Millwrights are industrial machinery movers,” explained Shawn, patiently, after I demonstrated my lack of knowledge about what a millwright was. “The origin is back in windmills, grist mills, sawmills. If you wanted one built, a millwright got everything in place and assembled the machinery. [Millwrights] evolved into what they are today during the Industrial Revolution. Today, say you’re putting together a tool and die shop – we’re the ones who will set up your punch press. We make sure factory lines run the way they should so the workers can do their thing.”

Shawn and Brad’s father, Don Measel, opened Pyramid Riggers in the early 1980’s. Shawn, Brad, and their other two brothers worked there. It’s a tense business, they said. Millwrights’ busy seasons are during factory shutdowns – 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas breaks, and the like – and they are required to hit very strict deadlines. Pyramid generally kept a core staff of 20-25 people on payroll, but that number would swell to 75 at peak times. 

“When the [heavy industry] started leaving Dayton…we had a lot of work for a few years – ‘05, ‘06, ‘07 – as plants were moving out of town. But we could see our niche going away, so we knew we had to come up with something else. We started to do some research on what works well in an economic downturn and alcohol production just kept coming up.”

“Landscaping also came up as recession resistant,” added Shawn, “but that was just too much work! So we started studying the microdistillery business. We wanted something we were passionate about that we could do with a minimum of employees and with less stress.”

As the plan emerged for the distillery, named for the family farm near Medway, they brought in their cousin, James Bagford, who worked at Pyramid as the office manager and compliance expert. “James was really good with regulations, and when you start distilling, there are all sorts of issues with the state and federal government. We needed James, because he’s good at that!”

James added, “It’s really different from homebrewing and home winemaking. With those, you go to the store, pick up a kit, and you’re good to go. You can have decades of practice before you open up a larger winemaking operation, but with distilling, you can’t do that. Legally, you can’t even practice, so you have to make sure you have everything in line before you start.”

Setting up the line
“As we were closing down the rigging business…we just kept our eyes open as we were going through our projects,” said Brad. “If there were ever any stainless steel or copper pipework or anything we thought might work, we just kept it! We laid out a whole building floor of stuff over a year.”

Brad Measel shows off the top
of Flat Rock's homemade still.
Shawn added, “We sketched it all out on paper and did a couple of designs. We’d start in and go, ‘Hey! We’ve got a new piece of pipe. Could we use this?’ and we’d make a few changes.” They first built an “experimental” 27 gallon still, which led to the construction of their 300 gallon main still, based on a design adapted from one they saw Louisville’s Vendome Copper & Brass Works.

On most distillery tours, guides spend a great deal of time talking about how the design and shape of a still yields a unique flavor. When I asked how that applied to the unconventional design of the Flat Rock still, Shawn laughed, noting that physics is much more important than aesthetics. “That whole mystique, the shape and all that -- it’s a lot of P.T. Barnum, “’Hey! Watch this hand!’ while my other hand is doing something else” stuff. I mean, if you dropped half a million on a still, you gotta say, ‘Our stuff is better because our still is shaped like an onion.’”

As they gathered the pieces for their operation and gradually converted their buildings from manufacturing to distilling, the Flat Rock team became students of the technical process from grain to barrel. “We’re largely self-taught,” said Brad, “I tell you, on the Internet, man, you can get on there and learn just about anything you want.”

In addition to powerful Google-Fu skills, they relied on their millwright experience to create an efficient system for production in quantity. “Shawn and I had been in so many industrial plants – auto plants, the Lima army tank plant, big bakeries – we’ve seen a lot of production, so we could say, ‘The flow should go like this, and we need racks for this, and these things should go here.’ We wanted to make it as easy on ourselves as we could.”

They also believe the attention to detail required in their millwright work translated neatly to distilling. With the batch size they produce, they’re able to keep tabs on everything from how “happy” the fermenting yeast is to precisely maintaining the proper temperatures during the mashing and distilling processes, since problems at any stage can create impurities in the final product.

“The big distilleries can’t do that in a million-gallon run,” mused Shawn. “Everything goes into their barrels – guts, feathers, and all. That’s why a lot of them age their whiskey for so long – they’ve got to mellow out those defects – aldehydes and acetones and other nasty stuff. We don’t have that problem.

“And our still kinda talks to us. In the still there’s a copper dome. As the vapor hits the dome and condenses, boils, and recondenses, it jiggles. And when we hear that thing rattling away like a jazz drummer going to town on a high hat, it’s letting us know that we need to really keep an eye on the temperature,” Shawn added, throwing in sound effects and air drums for good measure.

Throwing the switch

Flat Rock fired up the still for the first time in 2010. They sunk the savings from building the still into the purchase of barrels to age their final product. They originally planned to call their spirits “Flat Rock,” but a trademark dispute with a Canadian winery led to the coining of “StillWrights.”

“Our first plan was to make our bourbon, because we knew that had to age,” explained Brad. “Then we wanted to make our ‘Chateau Cash Flow,’ something we could get on the shelves and make money with. We thought that would be rum, but we struggled to come up with a rum that we liked…We decided to look for something else, and we tried making moonshine. We were on the second batch and we were like, ‘Wow. We should have done this earlier!’”

Moonshine, the spirit they describe as “American as Revolution, Apple Pie, and Badassery,” does not have a precise legal definition. It’s classified by the federal government, according to James, as a “distilled spirit specialty,” meaning there are no particular criteria for production and aging, which is different than rum, bourbon, and other distillates, which have very specific guidelines. StillWrights unflavored moonshine clocks in at 104.7 proof, while their flavored versions are 70 proof.

Putting the barrels down. (photo courtesy Dayton City Paper)
The bourbon caused some real trepidation for the team. “We’re six months in, and I start worrying,” Brad recalled, “What if this stuff isn’t any good? There’s our family business down the tubes. So we called in a consultant who worked with some big distilleries and he said that we might make a couple of minor tweaks to the process, but we were spot on.” Shawn excitedly interjected, “He told us that our major problem was that we weren’t making enough whiskey!”

The first batch of StillWrights 90 proof bourbon is aged in 15 gallon casks for two years. When that bourbon is all out of barrel, they’ll empty their 25 gallon barrels, which will have been aged for three. Eventually, they’ll move on to their four-year 53 gallon barrels, which will be their standard moving forward. Some of the used barrels are being used to age their rums, which should be released in July and August.

StillWrights’ unique bottle design, which neatly complements their “Coiled S” logo, has an international flavor. A French company has a design competition every year for college seniors and they mass produce the winning bottle. Flat Rock’s design company happened upon the bottle just as it was released, immediately saw the connection, and snapped it up.

The Goods

After giving me a tour of the facility, the Flat Rock team took me to their recently-completed tasting room for a sampling. Brad served as bartender, deftly pouring half-ounce tastes, his right forearm wrapped in a tattoo of tally marks – 31 of them, one for each year he’s been married. (“He initially did Roman numerals,” cracked Shawn, “He didn’t think it through.”)

The unflavored moonshine is dangerously easy to drink. It has a very even corn flavor with very little afterburn. The flavored moonshines were unique to my palate. I’m used to flavored liquors having one-note tastes, but these, produced in conjunction with Mother Murphy’s flavoring company, had multiple layers of flavor. The “Best in Show” key lime had complex flavors of graham cracker and meringue alongside the tart lime. The “peach cobbler” had savory notes of toasted oat to go along with the peach. The apple pie tasted like…well…apple pie. They also feature a margarita and a cinnamon version.

The bourbon is quite enjoyable. It has an undertone of a scotch-like peat, and a little splash of water brings out considerable floral and vanilla notes to go along with a backbone of newly harvested grain. The flavors are all very distinct and, overall, it’s a very clean bourbon, with some maple syrup, corn, and cognac flavors at the end.

They say that their lineup will change as the market changes. “Moonshines are a hit right now,” Brad said, “but they might end up as a fad. We want to be agile enough to make whatever’s hot. But there will always be demand for rum and bourbon.” They indicated that they might eventually try branching into gin, which Shawn enjoys. “When I drink gin, my face hurts from smiling so much.”

“Our two brothers kind of think we’re crazy,” said Brad, pouring a little more bourbon for us as we watched a storm roll in. “Dad passed in ’07. I hope he’d be proud of us. Give us a couple of years. When we’re making some money, I know he’ll be proud of us. Until then, he’d be like “Get your ass movin’!”

StillWrights bourbon retails for $35 per bottle; the moonshines for $25. StillWrights can be purchased at the distillery’s tasting room -- as well as Arrow Wine South, Belmont Party Supply, Air City Wine, the Lebanon Kroger and Vandalia Carryout.

Flat Rock Distillery is located at 5380 Intrastate Drive, Fairborn. Tours, which include tastings of all their products, are $10 and can be arranged at -- by calling (937) 879-4447, or by emailing

[This story appears in November 11,2014 issue of the Dayton City Paper.]

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