Ann Arbor Distilling Company’s Alyssa Hughes Talks Production Philosophy

. February 29, 2020.
One of Alyssa’s favorite Ann Arbor Distilling Company drinks— Fall gin and tonic with Water Hill cherry liqueur and orange zest. Photo Credit Zack Belsky.

When Alyssa Hughes, the new interim head distiller at Ann
Arbor Distilling Company, first started reading about alchemy as a teenager, she had no idea that her fascination with the topic would lead to her to become a cheesemaker and, eventually, a distiller of spirits. While the connection between alchemy, cheesemaking and distilling might seem obvious, Hughes explains how those elements came into play to bring her to where she is today.

When did you become the head distiller at Ann Arbor Distilling Co.? I’m actually more of an interim head distiller where it’s a bit more like a trial period. I’ll be announced officially as head distiller in April.

What was your position like before you became a distiller, and how has it changed with this interim position? Before, I was developing products but I didn’t have any say (in which ingredients were used and in what amounts), and before that, I was an apprentice, experimenting with making spirits that probably won’t really go anywhere (into production). As the head distiller, I’m now the one developing the spirits.

How did you develop your interest in distilling? I was always interested in distilling in a more esoteric sense, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a distiller as a career until very soon before I got hired. My background is in production management and business, so I knew that I wanted to work in a production facility. But my interest in distilling does go back to my early teenage years when I was reading about Zosimos of Panopolis and other old alchemists; distilling was a big part of that practice. What fascinated me most about distilling was not so much the idea of distilling alcohol at that time, the fascination was more with the distillation of the soul— the betterment of yourself. Kind of like stripping away the unnecessary byproducts of life and trying to keep the essence of who you are. With everything I make here, I very much try to put that essence into it.

What did it take for you to become a distiller? When I became an apprentice here [at Ann Arbor Distilling Co.] it was a little bit more fast-track than a lot of the other apprenticeships out there. I started doing distillations my first week here. Normally in an apprenticeship, you wouldn’t get to touch the still until much later, sometimes not until the end of your first or second year. It was a ‘trial by fire’, which is absolutely nothing new to me. I’ve done trial by fire all my life.

Alyssa Hughes (left) who started off as an apprentice, now has her own apprentice, Ian Shackleford (right).

How did you bring your skills as a cheesemaker into your work as a distiller? My favorite aspect was the production management. You plan ahead, trying to prefill orders before they happen, ordering raw materials in time to be available when they are needed. It really is a skill. It’s not something you can go into thinking it will be easy. (My experience as a cheesemaker) translated very well to being a distiller and, funny enough, both jobs use a lot of the same equipment and processes.

Do you have any product ideas right now that you haven’t gotten around to experimenting with yet? I’m really waiting for blue lotus to become legal because I would love to make something with it. It’s very floral and has a melony smell to it. I’d probably pair it with grapefruit and cucumber. It does have some very slight psychoactive effects that are probably on par with wormwood (used in Absinthe). I’m not a chemist, so I can’t go into the details further than that, but people drink blue lotus tea for the same reasons that we drink chamomile tea, so it’s a very calming flower.

What concoctions are you most excited about now at Ann Arbor Distilling Company? We have a very interesting brandy category, which I’m very excited about. But we’ll also be doing a Fox River Black Label whiskey, where we’re hoping to work with brewers to age our whiskey in beer barrels, while they age their beer in our whiskey barrels.

Ann Arbor Distilling Company
220 Felch St., Ann Arbor
734-882-2169 | annarbordistilling.com
Tasting Room Hours: 4-10pm, Tuesday-Saturday. 2-8pm, Sunday.
Happy hour from 4-6pm, Tuesdays-Thursdays.

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