Engineered Spirits - Shelling Corn

Core Values of Engineered Spirits

I grew up on the farm and there were many tasks that had to be done every day, depending on the season. In late fall and winter and into spring you fed cows, cut wood and made sure there was enough wood in the house to last a few days in case it rained or snowed. Spring was the time to check fences and plant gardens, and summer was time to pick a lot of vegetables and haul hay. Fall came back around and we were harvesting crops, saving seeds and looking after the cows again.

By the time I was 13, no one had to tell me to bring in wood, roam the forest to find cows that didn’t show up at feeding time, or walk the garden to pick ripe vegetables. Dad was a full-time engineer and, in winter, he didn’t get home till after dark. Mom was an accountant, so the first part of every year, she was working late to get everyone’s taxes done. They didn’t have to wonder if there was wood in the house, if cows were being fed and found, and the furnace was being banked to keep us warm. They didn’t tell me to do these things, and I didn’t consider them chores. I did these things because they were an integral part of farm life and needed to be done. No one else was there to do them. They could trust that these things would be taken care of and they didn’t have to worry.

For someone to be considered trustworthy, they must perform well time and time again.. The things they are doing, the results they are producing must meet or exceed your expectations. You don’t have to worry about them. Our distillery will be small, and pretty much every product will be single barrel or small batch. The only way for us to  perform well time and time again is to keep detailed logs, noting variables like the temperature outside and whether it is raining. These are very much like the inspection logs I had to keep while monitoring construction projects for roads and utilities. 

So, while a lot of our runs may be unique amongst the brandies and seasonal gins  we are looking to provide, we hope when you see our label you’ll know you can trust what we put in the bottle. What you’re drinking may be new and possibly one of a kind, but you’ll know that the water is chemical free and the fruit and grains, if not grown on the farm, are sourced as close to home as possible, from people we trust and can tell you all about. 

Taking Care

Engineered Spirits - Wildflower Reserve

Down on the Farm

We were supposed to have started logging operations on the farm after Labor Day. Now we’re into October and the job hasn’t yet started. Time moves slowly on the farm. But eventually it does move forward.

With the help of a great professional forester, I personally selected 200 mature trees on our 114-acre farm for timbering. (It had to be me because everyone knows I’m the tree-hugger around here.) Seventy percent of those I selected are trees over 18 inches in diameter: hickory, oak, ash, maple, basswood and walnut. Some were larger than 30 inches. Wonderful trees, but they had achieved their maximum potential. If we’re going to maintain the health and vitality of our beautiful forest, it’s time to remove a few to make room and light for the younger trees around them, so they can do the same.

Almost a third of the trees I marked were ash trees, many of them on the north-facing slope of the ridge behind the main house. As we watch the emerald ash borer creep closer to our farm, it seems inevitable that these trees will all be standing deadwood in just a few years. For the sake of the forest, and our own safety, it’s best to remove them now, while they still have some timber value. Luckily, the insect only seems to attack mature ash trees. We’re hopeful that removing the bigger ones will enable the young ones to continue growing and thriving, long after the borer has moved on along its devastating path.

There are a few places on the farm, though, that are just too special to touch. We’ve set aside the hollow around the back pond as a wildflower reserve. We won’t be removing any trees there during our timber operation; we’re just going to let Nature take its course. We made that decision in the months before I had discovered the wealth of native wildflowers and fruits that are already growing in this special place, so now I’m really glad we did. 

Since spring, I’ve been adding more native plants to the reserve. For the species we already have there, like the pawpaws, adding more specimens promotes healthy genetic diversity in their population. Pawpaws develop root suckers that grow into additional plants to form a “patch,” or colony. But all the members of a patch are clones that cannot cross-pollinate to produce fruit. So, if we want to keep this delicious native fruit coming, it’s important to introduce new ones near the colonies we already have .

I’m also adding a few additional native species, like wild geranium and woodland phlox, to fill in the blank spots on the canvas. I feel like they could have been growing here previously, but may have gotten trampled out by the cattle who used to visit the pond when part of this area was pasture. Adding new species that are likely to do well here will promote even more species diversity on the land that’s in our care.

I was raised by my father to take care of my tools. My Southern church-going mother taught me to take care of other living things. Both of them taught me that we were put on this earth to care for it and be good stewards of its natural resources. And sometimes that means you have to make hard choices, such as which tree to cut.

I’ve always taken those lessons to heart and I carry them with me every day. But especially, when I spend time in the woods on our farm. That’s when I know, for sure, this is where I was meant to be. And exactly what I was meant to be doing.

Reliving History

Engineered Spirits - Misty Upper Field

Down on the Farm

I’ve been gardening in Tennessee for most of my life now and I am often asked how we grow food and flowers here without pesticides and other chemicals. I’ve been an advocate of organic methods for years and I try to get better at living that way all the time. But one thing that often strikes me about these conversations is that there seems to be a general perception that ideas like companion planting, making compost, collecting rainwater, etc. are new ones. 

Growing up in rural Tennessee in the 70s, we did all those things. They were practices that my mother taught me and her parents had taught her, and their parents had taught them. Even when I was a teenager, our family didn’t have access to bagged potting soil and mulch, power tools, or modern pesticides and fungicides. Those conveniences were just plain expensive. So instead we pushed around our wheelbarrows of aged manure, compost and leaf mould to improve the soil, mulched when we had leaves or straw to use, and hoed the weeds that came up when we didn’t. Most of the time we handpicked any bugs that were eating our vegetables. Sevin dust was available at the co-op, but we avoided using it because we felt it must be bad for the butterflies and bees. We knew we needed those to pollinate our fruit trees. We harvested our produce by hand, cooked it, canned it, or froze it, and then saved the seeds of cherished varieties to keep them going.

It was a lot of work, but I remember it fondly, because time spent shelling peas or shucking corn was also family time. I guess it was not so very different from the techniques people had used for centuries here to grow food to eat and flowers to enjoy, in the years before Home Depot, Walmart or Amazon.

So, what we’re doing at the farm is not so much trying something new, as it is returning to something older. We’re using the resources we have there already, or that we can get locally for free. 

Even though we’ve got a lot to do before the distillery can open its doors, you can already see these ideas slowly taking shape all over the farm. We could have torn down Papa’s old workshop, but instead we’re going to renovate it and use it as our headquarters. The old trench silo will have a new life as our barrel storage house. We’re restoring the spring house to its bygone glory. The trees that have fallen down over the years will now decompose in our permaculture beds, nourishing the farm’s clay soil for our botanicals. To reduce how much we have to mow, we’re planting a wildflower meadow in the orchard. In a few years, we hope we can just mow the paths and leave the rest tall. And so on and so forth. 

We realize we won’t always be able to accomplish everything we want in the way we want to, and many of our projects are going to take even longer to complete than they would if we just did the convenient thing. But these are our guiding principles. And that’s why the projects I mentioned are already underway. Because, when it comes to making a long-term change, there’s no time to start like the present.

We’re mindful of that present and we’re looking forward to the future, but we’re also turning to the past for inspiration and wisdom, when people lived on their own land, within their own means, and bartered or bought the things they couldn’t produce themselves from neighboring farms and craftspeople. No matter how many mistakes our ancestors may have made in life, no matter how many things they got wrong, there are quite a few things they got right. And we’re here to celebrate that.


Engineered Spirits - A fine spring morning

Core Values of Engineered Spirits

To assess the quality of something, a person typically assigns a value to it. This value doesn’t necessarily need to be money, but it usually costs something to get something. I would say that quality is important, but it is up to the provider of something to tell the world why it’s special.

The farm I grew up on is special. It has abundant natural resources that are as Nature intended them and we plan to keep it that way. We didn’t grow up using herbicides or pesticides on our crops. My mother and I were the herbicide and the pesticide. Getting up early to go out with her in the fields, pulling out the weeds, removing the tobacco worms by hand before it got too hot, or chopping down the thistles with shovels. It was work and it took time and a lot of energy, but it also had other benefits, like keeping me out of trouble. There is a quality of life that is special there, and we intend to keep that quality of work and life moving forward.

Quality ingredients make quality food and beverages. I like to know the provenance of the ingredients in anything I make. I’m pretty picky about vegetables and beef. If you have trained your eye to look for the characteristics of what makes good ingredients, half the product is already made. Our farm’s spring water has enough minerals to provide great nutrients for the yeasts we intend to use and a neutral pH. So it is of good quality. We may use UV lights to treat it, but we won’t add anything to it that would change the flavor, such as salts to manage hardness, or chlorine. And luckily, it runs all year.

We are always looking at ways to improve. But there are lines we won’t cross. We look forward to trying new methods to grow the ingredients we need without all the chemicals. Will it mean we have to grow 10% more so that Nature gets her share? Probably. But if we can protect the soil and water for the future, I guess that groundhog can have a couple ears of corn.


Engineered Spirits - A View through the Trees

Core Values of Engineered Spirits

A phrase I grew up hearing was “honest and hardworking”.  People would say that about someone and I knew that person was respected. I guess there are other ways to earn respect, but being honest seemed to be one of the best accepted.

The other day, I was asking Uncle Ralph some questions about growing fruit and he warned me that, “You might be leading your ducks to a poor pond.” Other than making me laugh, this phrase also contained a lesson. Even though Uncle Ralph is an expert in botany, he is humble about it and didn’t want me to blindly follow his advice without doing my own research. He was being honest in that, as much as he knows, he doesn’t know everything.

Honesty typically speaks to other characteristics like that. If someone is honest, they also tend to be humble, social, helpful and thoughtful. They probably put people at ease. If someone is honest, you don’t worry about them trying to deceive you.

Being honest doesn’t always have immediate rewards and, sometimes, it has less desirable consequences. Sometimes it causes you to reflect on what you believe and sometimes you have to change that too. But as long as you’re honest, you don’t have regrets. Why would you want those? Life is tough enough as it is.

If someone asks an honest person something they don’t know much about, they’ll truthfully say, “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to go look that up.” Without thinking anymore about it, you know an honest person will do exactly what they said and will get back with them with an answer. 

Some people will say this or that product is handmade or handcrafted. That’s a popular buzzword in the distilling industry nowadays, with few definitions. When we say one of our products is handcrafted, we’re being honest. We mean that we cooked, fermented, distilled, bottled, and labeled everything you taste (in most cases, we grew it, too). If we sourced a base alcohol, we will tell you that upfront, so you’ll know exactly what you’re drinking. We’ll also be transparent about everything we used during our process, botanical or otherwise, so that if you ever have a question, we’ll have an answer. And if we don’t know, well, don’t worry; we’ll go look it up and get back to you.

We aim to be part of that honest and hardworking group. Being honest may sound really hard, but we’d rather have your respect. And no regrets. 


Engineered Spirits - Papa’s Workshop

Core Values of Engineered Spirits

I believe that ingenuity is a skill that can be learned. 

Having ingenuity means you have the ability and the desire to question. For most of my life, I have been notoriously annoying for asking lots of questions. I always want to understand why something was done a certain way. When someone says “because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” I see opportunities for improving. Asking why and exploring what has changed in the last ten years or so can lead to exciting things that may be able to drive the idea, process, or product to a new place. 

I’m not saying tradition doesn’t have its place. It always helps to remember where we came from and why things were done the way they were, so we can always look back on what we have learned. And sometimes that chocolate pie recipe just can’t be made better than Granny made it.

I grew up watching my family solve everyday problems on the farm and it was almost always something different. A different day, a different problem, a different solution. From figuring out how best to lay out a fence, fix a hay baler, or how best to preserve our produce from the garden, we were always thinking about the solutions to these everyday problems, since there was so much work to do. 

When I was fifteen, I had to put up a fence by myself and run a quarter mile of wire. So, I did what I was taught and looked at what I had. I had a six-foot tall steel post, three 40-pound rolls of sharp, barbed wire, and a pickup truck. I could have carried those rolls of wire by hand, walking or rolling them, as I had been taught to do, but I had an idea. I tied the post across the bed of the truck, put the roll of wire on it, secured the end to a post and took off driving. That wire unwound itself and it was a lot less effort, a lot less time, and I ended up with the same result. 

I use that same approach to many things I do now, from fixing light switches to cooking. What do I want as the end result? Who am I serving? Whatever it is, it has to be good, not just to me, but to them. 

At Engineered Spirits, we will put this thought process into every product. We will stick with tradition by having good, locally-grown ingredients. We will use those as simply and efficiently as possible to make a product that we want you to love. And we will look to the future and other innovative ingredients we can use to make beverages we hope you’ll love just as much. 


Engineered Spirits - Limestone towers above the Berry Road

Core Values of Engineered Spirits

When I think of rugged people, the first thing that always comes to my mind are the characters in westerns. Some of the first I saw growing up were John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. I can’t forget to mention Sam Elliot; his voice alone just drips a sense of ruggedness. The modern western railroad drama “Hell on Wheels” showed the rugged men and women of westward expansion in a great tale of human vs. human, human vs. machine, and human vs. his environment. They all faced challenges. We all do today. 

Challenges are relative. We all have some degree of talent to do things, but not everything we do is easy. Nor should it be. So, what makes someone rugged? Someone who will do something that’s hard, and probably fail at first, or at least not achieve exactly what they hoped. My first attempt using alternatives to sugar for molten chocolate cakes was probably the worst thing I ever made, but I kept trying. Six tries later, they were pretty good. But I don’t think just figuring out how to make sugar-free molten chocolate cake means I’m rugged. 

You don’t have to be a railroad worker or a farmer, a mountaineer or an explorer to be rugged. I think that being rugged means you have a dream you are working toward that will be difficult. It will not happen overnight, and it will cost more than just money along the way. You may have to struggle. You may have to endure some hardships. You may have to fight many uphill battles. You may get knocked down and have to start over again. And you may also have to learn some things and pick up another dream along the way.

Ruggedness is continuing to try even when things get tough. Pushing yourself physically, mentally, emotionally. Working to do something that could even surprise you in the end, that you didn’t expect. And that’s what we are doing here.

Currently, we are wrapping up the purchase of the land. There’s a lot of emotion, it’s family land. We are working hard, and there’s a whole lot more work to do. Determining how to finance the distillery in this economic environment will be difficult. But we are researching every opportunity to not only end up where we want to be, but to do so in a sustainable, responsible, mindful way. That’s definitely not the easiest path for making a distillery and most people wouldn’t even consider it right now. 

But that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to work with the land we have, the farm that we love and we are going to make a product that celebrates those who share those same values. 

We will be rugged.


Engineered Spirits - Road to the back field

Core Values of Engineered Spirits

I did my share of farming when I was a young man and it is hard work. Farming, though, is not a talent for me. I discovered one talent I did have, though: cooking. I learned to cook by necessity, since my mom and dad had to work and I liked to eat. 

And not just eat. There is a way to cook that I have to equate to music. A person can play music, but a musician can make magic. I ate well.

Thus, I learned through my grandmother, aunts, mother and my dad, how to prepare food. And not just from the grocery store. We raised hogs, beef, chickens, and we hunted. That’s a plethora of things to eat,  along with a half-acre garden that produced enough green beans, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers/pickles, etc. for 12 people to eat throughout the year. And since I was the oldest grandchild, I was there helping with all of it.  

Working daily with the women in my family made me understand how hard they worked while my dad and uncles were away. It was from those ladies I learned there is no time to sit around, waiting to be told what to do. There is a lot of stuff to be done, so we all have to work together. 

They made me think beyond myself and they taught me how to be polite. I knew they’d be there for me if I needed them, but they’d also teach me a lesson if I didn’t act like somebody.  Selflessness and caring about others and their well-being was something I witnessed first-hand everyday. The women of my family taught me to think of others, to be aware of unspoken needs and, in general, how to live a life that helps others see they are appreciated and how they can give of themselves as well.

So, here’s the start of being somebody. A way to put those cooking skills to use, to be with family and to share experiences. Working with your family is a bond difficult to describe. No one is getting paid at the end of the day, but you have food canned, so you can have green bean casserole at Christmas, wood in the wood pile so you’ll  be warm, and lessons you’ll take with you to share with everyone you meet on the road back home.