The craft beer and winery experience has exploded onto the scene. Over the past decade, we have seen more and more local breweries and wineries pop up all across the country, and consumers are drinking it up. Depending on the state you live in, a similar trend may be observed among artisan distilleries.
The Broken Beaker is one of the newest in the Indianapolis area. Located in the center of the Mass Ave strip in downtown Indy, they are surrounded by local eateries, bars and other nightlife hotspots that residents flock to for weekend festivities. But they stand apart, offering a refreshingly new experience. Perhaps this difference can be reflected in the way they distill their own high-end vodka right on site. Or the fact that there are very few local distilleries in the Indianapolis area (or Indiana in general), juxtaposing against the backdrop of a craft beer mecca. Maybe it’s their unique theme, paying homage to the wonders and mysteries of science, that nicely wraps the experience up in a periodic table of excitement.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the husband and wife team behind the Broken Beaker to learn more about their unique concept, the process of distilling, what separates a good vodka from a bad, and the local legalities regarding artisan distillation.
Chemist + Engineer = The Inspiration
When asked how they came up with the concept, Heather, an engineer by day, said they first got the idea to open a distillery ten years earlier while visiting friends in Oregon. They were inspired by the amount of distilleries there, and the unique types of liqueur that were being produced. Heather recalls, “There were all types of crazy liqueurs. Liqueurs I had never heard of before, or didn’t think you could make into a liqueur, and it was an amazing experience. We were kind of leaning in that direction anyways because we wanted to differentiate ourselves. We wanted to hit the basic spirits – the vodka, the whiskey, the gin, the rum – but from there, where do we go?”
But it’s not just enough to want to open a distillery. Thomas, a chemist, stresses the importance of your product’s story. He says you can’t just think of yourself as producing and selling some type of alcohol. It all depends on branding, how you want to market the product so it stands apart and offers the consumer something new. Given the nature of their professions, science was the obvious choice for concept.
Their vodka products are currently branded under the Pendulum label, inspired by physics, and they are hoping to expand into “Isotope Liqueurs,” a tribute to chemistry; “Hypotenuse Gin,” relating to math; and “Mitosis Whiskey” for biology. You can buy bottles on site, or enjoy entirely unique cocktail concoctions served out of laboratory beakers, some even over dry ice to create a visual, smoky perception! You can also tour the distillery located in a room right next to the dining area to learn more about where and how the process occurs.
Everything’s an Experiment: The Process
“Everything’s an experiment” is one of their taglines. “We do a brand new weekly infusion every Wednesday, and so every Wednesday it’s an experiment. What we’re essentially doing is, well, do this and this and this taste good together? And so far they’ve all worked out well, but it’s an experiment so we’ll see what happens,” says Heather.
And because of the delicacy of the distilling process, the same can be said for every batch of vodka they produce. But, Thomas notes, the constant focus is always on quality. He attributes this to the artisan character of their product.
So what separates a good vodka from a bad? Heather says that one of the benefits of making it yourself is you can taste it every step of the way to identify the bad compounds versus what they themselves would want to be served, using that as guidance when selecting what to serve to customers. “It’s really interesting because now in hindsight, I’m used to tasting where that cut is between the bad stuff and the good stuff, and I’m sitting here thinking when I was in college, the stuff that I was drinking tasted a lot like the stuff that first comes off the still, which is bad for you, is bad tasting, and that’s why you had the hangovers. But boy was it cheap! And now I know why,” she jokes.
When it comes to buying vodka off the shelves, they advise not to go too cheap. “With the cheap stuff, manufacturers have a high volume to produce so they are very liberal with their cuts, scooping in the bad stuff at the beginning and at the end, which leads to a bad taste and bad hangover. You don’t have to buy super expensive, but never go cheap.”
Thomas and Heather also recommend using wheat to ferment over corn, even though corn is arguably the most popular source due to its inexpensive cost and access. They vow that wheat provides more flavor and is more forgiving than the flavor offered by corn, making for a better product.
There are a lot of steps to the distilling process, and it is not uncommon for one batch to be slightly different than the one before it. In (very) layman terms, here’s a quick overview of the process:
- Choose your grain (in this case wheat) and convert it from starch to a sugar by applying high heat.
- Add yeast, which will eat away at the sugar and turn it into alcohol.
- Let ferment for five days to a week.
- The distillation process is basically the act that immediately follows fermentation, where you filter out the solids from the liquids, tasting along the way to identify (and remove through boiling) the compounds that taste bad.
Again, that’s a very brief description of the actual process. If you are interested in ever trying it out, Thomas and Heather highly encourage taking a class and touring as many distilleries as you can. They gave a special shout out to Six & Twenty Distillery in South Carolina.
It turns out, it is much harder to open a distillery in Indiana than it is a microbrewery or winery, as evidenced by the disproportioned ratio of Indianapolis-based distilleries to breweries (two to, like, fifty). This is mostly due to current Indiana liquor laws.
There is risk involved when opening any business, but for distilleries, the stakes are much higher. The old Indiana laws prohibited tasting rooms. Heather recounts, “It’s not like beer or wine where you can make a little bit in your basement until you get the feel for it. You had to get a permit, pay a whole bunch of money for the equipment, and hope you could do something with it.” You also couldn’t sell directly to the public. Instead, you had to find a distributor and pray they would push your product.
Indiana passed a new artisan law roughly three years ago, permitting a tasting room. Now local distilleries can have more control over their product and how much it is pushed, as well as establish more of a connection with customers.
The reason you are more likely to see more wineries and breweries in Indiana is that you can legally ferment certain amounts of beer and wine in your house, allowing owners time to perfect their product before setting up shop. That’s not the case with distilleries. “There is no quantity you can make in Indiana in your house without a federal permit. Other states are more lenient.” Heather elaborates that the big difference between the competition among breweries/wineries over distilleries is that the entry point is much easier and cheaper, both for equipment and the legalities already discussed that favor beer and wine over spirits. Before opening, Heather and Thomas had several investors lined up, but they wouldn’t invest until they could sample the product. They described this as a cyclical catch-22, because they couldn’t produce the product until they could afford the equipment and space to do so.
Now that they are up and running, they are eager to expand their selection to encompass other spirits, and are excited for the future of artisan distilling and what the possibilities the new(ish) artisan distilling law offers.
Their most popular drink, Heather says, is their Bill Nye Elysium that mixes a strawberry-basil infused vodka, grapefruit juice and orange zest syrup. My personal favorite was the Tiny Rick, combining jalapeño-infused vodka with raspberry and jalapeño syrup, and grapefruit and lemon juices making for a delicious mixture of heat, sweet and tartness.
Other crafty cocktails include the Molecule Mule, French 76 and the E=MC?. To check out their menu in its entirety, click here.