My name is Neven Vorkapic and two weeks ago, after an 18-hour journey from my native country of Croatia, via stops at Paris and Minneapolis, I came to Cedar Ridge Distillery to learn how to make great whiskey.
This is my story.
For the last fourteen years I have worked in IT, primarily in marketing and sales. However, my dream and passion have always been to start a small, independent craft distillery in my country. I come from a family that has had a tradition of distilling for generations, with the knowledge and skills being passed from father to son. I have been distilling since the age of 8 when one autumn I first helped my father and my uncle to distill some brandy and every year since then I have either assisted or run the still myself. We produce various fruit brandies, primarily plum and pear, from fruit raised in our own orchards. In the distillery that I plan to start I would like to continue the family tradition of making fruit brandies, but also produce other spirits – whisky, gin and vodka – based on local ingredients.
This all sounded like a good plan except for the fact that I did not know how to make whisky! So, I was looking for a distillery where I could learn about production methods of various spirits, especially whisky, and perhaps learn a little bit about the distilling business in general. My lucky break came in the form of Mr. Bill Owens of the American Distilling Institute (ADI). I first met Bill in October of 2015 at the London Distilling Expo. We had a short, but constructive and memorable chat, so we stayed in touch during the following year. Then, in October of 2016, I joined Bill and a group of fellow spirits experts and enthusiasts for a four day tour of Speyside distilleries in Scotland. Not only was the tour fantastic – we got to taste some delicious single malts! – but I also had a chance to discuss my future plans with Bill. He offered to help me – he suggested that I take part in ADI’s internship program that would place me for a couple of weeks in a craft distillery somewhere in the United States. This sort of learning experience was exactly what I was looking for!
Bill and Ms. Christy Howery of the ADI sent me a short list of distilleries where I could do the internship. After briefly researching the distilleries from the list, Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery became my top choice. Not only had Cedar Ridge been recently voted the 2017 American Distilling Institute Distillery of the Year, but their whiskies and spirits had also won numerous awards at the 2017 ADI Conference and other spirits competitions. Furthermore, they produce an extensive lineup of spirits, from brandies and gins, to vodka, rye, single malt and bourbon. Even more so, they have a winery that produces over a dozen different varieties of wine. I was very impressed by their extensive and varied production as well as numerous accolades that they had won.
I e-mailed Mr. Jeff Quint, the founder and CEO of Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery, introducing myself, explaining what my plans were, and asking if I could do my ADI-sponsored internship there. Jeff responded very quickly and within a few days we ironed out all the details: I would come to Cedar Ridge and help with various steps of the distilling process thus learning how great whisky is made. Just a few short weeks later I flew in to Cedar Rapids via Paris and Minneapolis, and started my internship at Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery.
These two weeks working with the Cedar Ridge team have been nothing short of amazing! I learned how to work with each type of grain, starting with milling and mashing, to distilling, barrel filling and bottling. One of the most important parts of the entire internship was working with brewers and becoming familiar with the mashing process for each type of spirit produced at Cedar Ridge. Also, aided by my previous experience of running the still, I quickly got acquainted with the stripping still used at the distillery, and just one day after I came to Iowa the team entrusted me to operate the still by myself during the night shift. So, not only did I have a chance to get hands-on experience in distilling whiskey, but I also got a chance to help my colleagues in their work.
>Besides milling, mashing and doing stripping runs, I also learned things such as the specifics of making cuts in the second distillation, barreling and aging the spirits, and, of course, bottling and packaging. One of the most significant benefits was the opportunity to see how a real, thriving distillery functions in real time, and how the team responds and deals with the problems that occur from time to time, just as they do in any operating, growing business.
Cedar Ridge is an exemplary distillery in many ways and after seeing it all from the inside, it does not surprises me that they won the award for the ADI Distillery of the Year and all those medals and accolades for their spirits. It is truly an amazing place to visit and see how things are done!
Today is the last day of my internship at Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery. I am leaving tomorrow for San Francisco, where I will visit Bill and Christy of the ADI, and join them on a small tour of local distilleries. Then, a couple of days later, I will be flying back to Croatia, back where I started, except now I will possess the experience and knowledge of how great whiskies are made.
Reflecting back on these two weeks that I have spent at Cedar Ridge, I think not only about everything that I have learned, but also about how I was welcomed by Jeff, his family and the entire Cedar Ridge team, and about the kindness and friendliness of everyone I have encountered. I am struggling to find the right words in the English language to fully express my gratitude and thanks for everything that all these wonderful people have done for me to make me feel welcome and to make sure that I learn all that I need in order to start my own distillery.
As I have previously mentioned, my plan is to start a small craft distillery in my country that would produce not only traditional fruit brandies, but other spirits as well – whisky, gin and vodka – based on local ingredients. I believe that my country, especially the region where I live, with its mix of temperate Mediterranean and cold mountain climates, offers excellent quality ingredients from various grains and fruits to local botanicals. As I go forward I hope that I will do right by those ingredients and utilize them in production of various spirits in true “grain to glass” fashion. I also hope that I will distill and produce whiskies and spirits that will express the knowledge and uncompromising excellence that I gained at Cedar Ridge.
Cedar Ridge Distillery and all the people that work there are truly a group of amazing professionals and, above all, wonderful people. Furthermore, Jeff and his family have been my family away from home for these two weeks and that is something I will remember and appreciate for the rest of my life. Also, Bill and Christy of the American Distilling Institute have been instrumental in this whole process.
This whole internship experience has been truly incredible, and it has far surpassed my wildest dreams.
I thank you all for making this possible.