Steve Strong found inspiration for the name of Pillar 136 Gin, the newest spirit from SD Strong Distilling, just outside the front door of his distillery. The name refers to Pillar 136, one of many such structures that provide support in Parkville’s Commercial Underground caves.
A hard liquor distillery stashed in a cave evokes romantic images of moonshine and bootlegging. In fact, Strong believes that he owns the only legal distillery located in a cave. Standing in a brightly-lit space next to fermenters, a mash tun and still made of copper and stainless steel, Strong hardly looks like an outlaw. He’s tall, gregarious, energetic and eager to chat about his gin and vodka. He opened the distillery in 2012 and sold his first bottle of vodka in 2013.
At the moment, he’s mashing 200 gallons of a neutral base spirit, water and enzymes with flour. This finer form of grain differs from the coarse grind of corn, rye or malted barley he uses for vodka or whiskey. Nearby, several Missouri-made oak barrels hold SD Strong rye whiskey for aging. Once cooled, this gin mash will head to fermentation tanks. Added yeast will convert starch into sugar and produce alcohol as a by-product.
“Fermentation usually takes seven days,” says Strong. A fast fermentation falls between four to five days.
Afterward, the fermented mash is loaded into the still. During this distillation process, Strong attaches a Carter-Head to a pipe that runs from the still’s holding pot to a collection vessel. The Carter-Head contains a basket that holds botanicals and is placed before the condenser.
Alcohol vapors wash over the mix of the botanicals in the basket and extract flavors, infusing the vapors. These vapors pass through the pipe and into a condenser that collects the distilled spirit.
“A botanical basket will infuse seven-and-a-half gallons,” says Strong. “An entire 100-gallon batch of gin uses multiple baskets of botanicals over a seven to eight hour process.”
Strong will cut the distilled spirit with water until it is 90 proof before bottling the final product as Pillar 136 gin.
As any connoisseur knows, botanicals produce the distinct taste and aroma of gin. The mix and amount of botanicals is where the art of distilling gin comes into play.
“It took longer to devise the recipe for gin than I thought it would. About six or seven months,” says Strong. He distilled a half-dozen or more batches during the testing phase. “I started with 15 different botanicals and distilled them to develop the flavor.”
Strong experimented with different ratios and combinations before he arrived at his final recipe. Juniper is the sole ingredient present in all gins. Pillar 136 Gin also uses angelica root, fresh zest from lemons, limes and blood oranges, cassia, ginger, licorice root and orris root. Orris root has a strong floral and spicy bouquet, reminiscent of galangal root, but less bold and peppery.
Pillar 136 is extremely smooth at first sip. Citrus and ginger follow the spirit’s initial sweetness. The bouquet begins with juniper and rounds out with hints of citrus, ginger and cassia. Overall, the citrus-forward gin stands apart from juniper-heavy gin.
“It’s not a London-style gin,” says Strong. “This makes a great gin and tonic.”
At 90 proof, Pillar 136 is stronger than the 80 84 proof typical of most commercial gin. Strong figures that the higher alcohol content gives consumers more bang for their buck.
Gin is not aged. Once bottled, it is ready for consumption; however, Strong notes that Pillar 136 tastes different in the bottle from the initial batch after about 20 days.
He says, “The different botanicals round out and become smoother.”
SD Strong gin and vodka is easy to spot on store shelves. The brand’s label displays a rendering of a dashing, mustachioed strongman created by local artist Valerie Jahraus.
“Valerie’s Great-Uncle Charles Copeland studied under Thomas Hart Benton during the Thirties and Forties,” says Strong. Benton is Kansas City’s own famed painter and muralist. “She made a composite of several of her uncle’s illustrations to create this image.”
With such a distinctive look and refined spirit, Strong is eager for his cave-distilled Pillar 136 Gin to shine in the light of day at home bars, saloons and retailers across the region.