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In Conversation with Ryan Whidden, Head Distiller at Big Storm Brewing Co.

Photo for: In Conversation with Ryan Whidden, Head Distiller at Big Storm Brewing Co.

29/09/2022 In the interview below, Ryan Whidden, Head Distiller at Big Storm Brewing Co., talks about his passion for whiskeys, how he got himself into distilling, his role at Big Storm Brewing Co., and his idea of a good life.

While working as an Analytical Chemist at a local pharmaceutical company, Ryan developed an appreciation for craft beer due to the number of local craft breweries in the Tampa Bay Area. This led him to pursue a certificate in brewing science from the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. Later, his passion for whiskey led him to do MSc in Brewing and Distilling through Heriot-Watt University. He is currently working as the Head Distiller at Big Strom Brewing Co. Learn more about him and his journey in the spirits industry below.

What has your distilling career been like? Tell us a little about your background.

I’ll start with I’m a huge whiskey fan. I’ve done the bourbon trail in Kentucky many times and visited several small craft whiskey distilleries and a Tennessee Squire with Jack Daniel’s. In my house, I don’t have a liquor cabinet; it’s a whiskey cabinet. Even with such a passion for whiskey, I didn’t initially start my career as a distiller. My background is actually in chemistry. I started as an Analytical Chemist at a local pharmaceutical company. While working there, I developed an appreciation for craft beer due to the number of local craft breweries in the Tampa Bay Area. This led me to pursue a certificate in brewing science from the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. It was not in spirits, but it got me one step closer to working in the industry.

From there, I was able to land a job as the Quality Manager for Big Storm Brewing Company. When I started the job, I was as inexperienced as they came. Still, after a few years of performing every job, duty, or task around the brewery, I became comfortable in my position and content with sticking with brewing. And then Covid hit.

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As most know, it devastated the service industry, and breweries were not spared. We went from being on the rise and breaking our sales records every quarter to right back to the bottom. Our saving grace came in the way of the state of Florida granting us our distillery license to make sanitizer to help with the high demand. Once the need for hand sanitizer cooled down, I was asked if I would like to take over as the head distiller and start our spirits program. This, of course, was an immediate yes from me. Starting a spirits program with little experience was challenging. It was a lot of trial and error, research, and long days, but eventually, I caught on to what worked for us, and we’ve been cruising along ever since.

We are constantly trying to innovate and develop new products, which requires more knowledge and understanding of the distillation process. This led me down the path to pursue my MSc in Brewing and Distilling through Heriot-Watt University, which I am currently working on.

How do you think the Spirits industry has evolved?

The spirits industry has evolved over the last few years due to the influx of a younger demographic of spirits drinkers. This is especially the case with the industry shifting its focus to RTDs. We are noticing that younger consumers want a product that tastes good and is refreshing that isn’t overly boozy tasting.

Image: Ryan Whidden

Tell us a little about your day-to-day role.

A typical day for me involves everything from R&D of new products to sweeping up at the end of the day. I am lucky enough, though, to have a salesperson who is way better at making sales than I am, and I have to give credit to the packaging guys at the brewery. Without them, bottling a batch would take me a long time.

Tell us about your spirits range and what makes them unique.

Since we are still somewhat new to the spirits, our main focus has been a line of flavored vodka and vodka soda RTDs. Since we are in Florida, we use sugar cane as our base for our vodka. In my opinion, it gives a slightly sweet aftertaste that sets it apart from vodkas made from other sources. We are currently expanding our distillery, which will increase our production and allow us to venture into other spirits categories such as whiskies and rums.

What's your elevator pitch to a bartender when pitching your brand?

Our elevator pitch would be we are a local brand using Florida sugar cane with pricing comparable to all other flavors on the market. Our products are on par in taste and quality, just like you would expect from big-name premium brands.

How do you help bartenders with depletions of your brand?

We help build drink menus around our brands and are more than happy to have promotions to help get the products moving.

What do you cover in your product training with bartenders?

In a typical training session, we would cover tasting notes, drink ideas, and the distillery's history. We have even had bartenders come to the distillery to get background on how the products are made.

Big Storm Brewing Co

Image: Big Storm Brewing Co

How do you think a distiller can help drive marketing and sales personally?

A distiller can help sales and marketing by being an approachable face in the distillery. Having people know who you are and how much work you put into the spirits gives the brand a more personal touch. When consumers feel connected to something, they are much more likely to follow and give their support. As a small business, we rely on that support from the locals to make us successful.

Define a good distiller.

A good distiller is someone who puts pride in their work. The spirit being produced reflects the hard work the distiller puts in by knowing their product and the outcome they want to achieve and executing each task with precision. The distiller should be proud of what they made and want to share the spirit with everybody.

Which is your go-to drink, and what is the perfect setting you enjoy it in?

My go-to drink would be bourbon. For me, nothing is better than sitting on the porch with a neat pour of good bourbon in a heavy-bottomed rocks glass paired with a nice hand-rolled cigar.

What do you do when you are not distilling?

When I am not living my dream of being a distiller, you can find me being a family man with my wife and two kids or working on my jeep.

What is your idea of a good life?

My idea of a good life is at the end of the day, I can look back on what I did and be satisfied. Did I achieve my goals, take risks and reap the rewards I wanted? Was I a decent person, etc.? If I can look back and answer yes to all those questions, then it’s a good life.

Interviewed by Aakriti Rawat, Beverage Trade Network

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