Hermann’s Copper Mule Distillery opens

Native son Don Gosen was a long way from home, in upstate New York, working for an insurance company when he got really interested in the craft adult beverage market. Whether he wanted to find an outlet outside of work to spread his creative wings, is hard to say, but he has always had an interest. 

He had gone to high school with the Held boys (father Jim had Stone Hill Winery), here in Hermann, so he spent a lot of time around the Stone Hill Winery cellars and liked the craft of wine making. He was also a beer can collector and wrote to breweries all over the U.S. asking for samples of labels and empty beer cans.

“I got to know the brewing industry very intimately as a 10-year-old and could tell you where all the breweries were located in the U.S.,” he said. 

Later, in his adult years, even though he was home-brewing at the time, he wanted to take the learning curve a step further, so he volunteered at a Troy, NY brewing company. He also became a certified brewmaster.

“I spent a lot of hours learning the trade and finally decided I wanted to do the same thing back here in Hermann,” said Don. “As early as ’93, I began looking at properties.”

He started his first brewery on the Riddle Farm, which was also a mule farm and later became a part of Tin Mill Brewery. He left the business about five years ago, but was itching to jump back in—this time in the spirits business. After all, as Don says, “Half of the distillation process is just making beer.”

“My background in beer-making was very important,” he notes. “It allowed me to jump in quicker than someone who might not know about cooking, mashing and fermentation, because I’d done that for 15-plus years.”

He says distillers say brewers are lazy, because they make the beer and then they stop.

“A distiller takes that beer and distills it [further] to make spirits, which really all starts out as moonshine,” he explains. “We take the fermented mash—grain starch that is converted to sugar—often called beer, and distill the mash.”

A large copper and stainless steel pot cooks the grain mash where it ferments before the distilling process. He says this is just taking the alcohols out of the mash.

He points to a tall glass and brass distillation column that looks like it could be on Captain Nemo’s submarine from the Jules Vern book, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

“It controls the temperatures, the flows of those alcohols, so we can get rid of the bad stuff and only keep the good stuff,” he says. “The first alcohol that comes out of that mash is acetone, and nobody wants to drink acetone,” he explains.  

Looking at the glass column, there appear to be five duplicate stations within the column that will break down the alcohol further, for refined spirits—your basic moonshine. 

“All bourbon is whisky, but not all whisky is bourbon,” says Don. “Whisky and bourbon start out clear, before they go in the barrel. The difference between whisky and bourbon is tied to state laws that have everything to do with regional sales and marketing. 

Whisky is an all-grain mash that will be put in a barrel. Most of the Irish and Scottish whiskeys (note spelling), go in used American barrels.

“Bourbon is a whisky that has been put into a new white oak barrel,” says Don. “It’s got to go in at a certain proof, have at least 51 percent corn and needs to age for a specific time. Whisky has to stay in the barrel at least two years to be called “bourbon.”

Don says Copper Mule focuses on Missouri bourbon. They haven’t been producing bourbon for very long, so they have a two-year wait.

The characteristics of white-oak staves that make up whisky barrels are important for imparting flavor into the moonshine stage of the spirit as it ages. Wooden barrels expand in hot weather and contract in cold, allowing whisky to move in and out of the wood, picking up flavors from the sugars in the barrel, such as caramel and vanilla. White oak also has cell growth that plugs the vascular system of the tree. This makes for water tight barrels. The barrels are charred inside before they are filled with whisky in the making. 

“The charcoal serves as a filter,” says Don. “It helps scrub some of the contaminants out of the whisky, as it moves in and out of the barrel. 

The barrels are then stored in a non-climate controlled facility, so the whisky can move in and out of the wood. 

“It’s that movement in and out of the barrel that makes good whisky,” he says. “Some experts say that 50 to 60 percent of the quality of a good bourbon comes from the barrel.”

Copper Mule currently makes a four-grain bourbon. Yellow corn, white corn, soft-red winter wheat and barley are used. Due to the two-year waiting period, Don has had to rely on another distiller to provide whisky for sale while he got the distillery up and running. They don’t distill it at Copper Mule, but they age it, blend it and bottle it for sale. He couldn’t find a distiller that could match the recipe he wanted, but by blending two different whiskies, he was able to get close to their base product. 

Now they are putting their own distilled product in new oak barrels. How long does it take once the mash is cooked, to put the clear whiskey in the barrel? 

Don gives a surprising response—“four days.” “Making a lager beer is 21 to 30 days,” he explains, but the distillation of spirits is very rapid. It’s a three day fermentation that happens at a very high temperature, followed by distillation, “but then the waiting begins,” he says. 

The name “Copper Mule Distillery” comes from the mules that were raised on the farm where the distillery was built. This is part of the Kallmeyer Farm and Joy Kallmeyer, Don’s father-in-law and Joy’s dad and grandfather all raised mules. Copper plays an important role in the material makeup of distilling equipment for its heat conductive properties.

“Our first bourbon to hit the market is called “1893,” and that’s to honor the other side of my wife’s family,” said Don. “That is the Wohlt side, and her great-grandfather Gustav Wohlt was one of the founders of Hermann Distilling Company back in 1893.”

He’s producing his 1893 whiskey one barrel at a time and each barrel comes with a production log.

“In the beer business, we were putting out hundreds of thousands of gallons,” he shares. “Here, I’m doing 50 gallons a week—it’s handcrafted and I really like that part of it.”

Don says producing bourbon whisky in Missouri goes hand-in-hand. 

“We’ve got not just white oak, but managed white oak forests, the barrel makers and the best corn in the world,” the distiller explains.

He actually wrote a piece of legislation called the “Missouri Bourbon Bill.” Missouri’s industrial producer, McCormick Distillery said the bill wasn’t needed. However, the bill’s language states the distiller must use Missouri corn, a move applauded by the trade group, Missouri Corn Growers Association. Mo. distillers also have to use a Missouri-made barrel, such as those produced by international Independent Stave Company, based in Lebanon, Mo., with a stave mill in New Florence.

“The Craft Distillers Guild was very instrumental [in getting this legislation passed], last week, so now we have a definition of a Missouri bourbon,” said Don.

He says the definition is state specific, unlike Kentucky bourbon, where those distillers can use Missouri corn and barrels—it just has to be made in Kentucky.

Not so for Missouri’s craft distillers and Don says “It’s going to be great for Missouri agritourism.”


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