Interview with Peter Wheeler

Interview with Peter Wheeler

Posted by Mary on Aug 25th 2015

Peter Wheeler and Malcom Willmott are the founders of Spirits Unlimited and co-authors of “Spirits Unlimited: A Complete Guide to Home Distilling.” I had the opportunity to interview Peter, a chemist with over 40 years of brewing and distilling experience, about his role in the legalization of hobby distilling in New Zealand. He also shared his thoughts with us on the current movement for legalization of distilling spirits in the United States led by the Hobby Distiller’s Association (HDA) and even provided us with some tips on fermenting and blending.

It All Started With Making Wine

Peter was first introduced into the “dark art” of wine-making by a cousin when he was only 12 years old. In college, he started making cider and begin distilling a mixture of rice/sugar on a kitchen stove with a copper coil. To Peter, brewing was the ultimate combination of microbiology and biochemistry, both of which he was educated in as a chemist, and his fascination continued to grow. He focused on rum in the 1970s and 80s, running a 200-gallon, gas-fired still. However, home distilling like this was still illegal in New Zealand up until 1989 with the repeal of the Custom Distillation Act.

“As a result of the 1980s oil crisis, the law was changed so that anyone could own a still to produce fuel,” Peter explained. “We thought that alcohol was the best fuel—especially in the form of rum, gin, or whisky.”

This was when Peter and Malcolm Willmott founded Spirits Unlimited. Malcom had already been designing stills for years, but now that distilling appeared to be legal, they decided to fine-tune the designs and Spirits Unlimited made their first still available to the public in late 1991.

“So Malcom and I produced lots of stills—hundreds—and advertised, ‘Make fuel for $5 per liter!’” Peter told me. “We were making and selling stills and ingredients easily two years before anyone else had the balls to copy it….The response was amazing, so the product range just grew and grew. We were producing some very nice ‘home-size’ stills along with a few flavor mixes, but of course, distilling then was strictly controlled by Customs [the NZ equivalent to the United States’ TTB]. Every few months, Customs would ring and ask, ‘How many have you sold?’ Oh, no.”

“Finally we had the talks with the Government Minister in charge of Alcohol duty and suggested that as homemade wine, beer, and home-grown tobacco were already tax-free, why not include spirits? The commercial producers predicted that thousands of drunken citizens would fill the streets, and hundreds would die of poisoning. Of course, that never happened, and the law was changed in 1996.”

Should the United States Follow New Zealand’s Lead and Legalize Hobby Distilling?

I asked Peter what he thought were the pros and cons of legalizing home distilling in New Zealand, and he was hard-pressed to find any negatives.

“Honestly, legislation make no difference as the little bit of revenue the government lost would have cost much more to police it,” Peter pointed out. “Time has made a huge difference where quality stills and ingredients have got better and better. We are long past the ‘cheap is best’ mentality, and now you can buy excellent stills producing clean 92 – 94% spirit. The diluted, flavored product is equal to any and better than a lot. And in Australia, home distilling remains illegal but nobody seems to have noticed. They carry on like here in New Zealand.”

Peter is also familiar with the HDA here in the states, and his advice is in line with the HDA’s current efforts: “I encourage them to avoid the old moonshine approach as the product wasn’t that good and show by chemical analysis and qualified chemists just how good the product can be. Sure, you can make bad booze, but you can also make equally-poisonous preserved fruit at home.”

Recommendations and Favorites

Peter shared that he particularly enjoys crafting vodkas and whiskies: “I like a clean, well-made vodka because it’s so flexible. You can make a great fruit punch or a spicy liqueur from your cupboard. For pride, a great smooth aged Malt Whiskey takes some making and beating. We hold a nationwide StillMasters Competition each year and I am always amazed how classy some of the entries are.”

He recommends that distillers keep it simple, saying that a “clean alcohol with a top flavor concentrate will make most drinkers happy. Sure, do a bit of blending. Maybe add a bit of extra something to your wash, molasses for rum, juniper for gin, grapes for brandy, and grain for whiskey. But remember that a real sour mash can be a difficult beast to do properly on a small scale.”

Finally, I asked him if he would share some tips based on his extensive experience in the distilling industry, and Peter shared the following: “To ensure the cleanest alcohol to back blend with concentrate, we use a white sugar base for most of our ferments coupled with a high-yield reflux still so the spirit is free from too much character. However, we know that there is nothing that beats age, even if we accelerate barrel aging, so we make a rum base with molasses (7Kg/25 L) or a peat smoked barley base (14Kg extracted in water/25 L) ferment and distill through a pot still, always dumping the first 50ml and keeping the body from the tails up to around 85˚C. Aged separately on chip and given a finishing boost with a top grade extract, we have the basis to blend up anything from a pale gold light spirit to the heaviest, meaty sipping style.”

“Most of all,” Peter advised, “Enjoy.”