iStill - Innovation & DistillationInterview with Drs. Edwin van Eijk.
Published: 11th October 2018
We recently interviewed Drs. Edwin van Eijk, also known as Odin, iStill’s founder and inventor. There is no doubt the iStill has had an impact on how spirits are distilled. It’s true to say we’ve seen nearly as many iStills as we have traditional copper pot stills in our recent visits to Scottish Gin Distilleries. We wanted to know how Odin came to make the iStill and what the benefits are to using 21st century technology over traditional stills.
What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Drs. Edwin van Eijk. Most know me by my nickname “Odin”. I am iStill’s founder and currently function as both its CEO and Chief Innovation Officer.
What is your background?
My background is in Business Administration with a specialisation in Change Management. After a career in management consultancy, I felt I needed a change. Making something tangible – contrary to selling billable hours – felt like the only good direction for me.
Via my wife, who is Hungarian, I got introduced to fruit brandy distillation. It was love at first sight. I loved its creation process and how every step and every decision the distiller takes influences the final product. How to ferment, what fruits to use, what distillation equipment to use, and where to cut for heads, hearts, and tails, were all amazingly interesting.
Soon after diving into the spirits design and production processes, I got my first spirit design jobs. First there was demand for gin recipes and procedures from North America. Europe followed quickly. And it seemed like a natural transgression for my customers to follow-up by demanding my help at creating vodka, rum, and whisky as well.
The feedback I got from my customers taught me that the specific distillation equipment one uses has a big influence on flavour profiles. But what and how? I was intrigued and wanted to learn and test all assumptions out there.
What is an iStill?
An iStill is basically the sum of all my learning, my ideas and – quite frankly – all the mistakes I made in the past. Based on my experience as a distiller and a consultant for various categories of drinks, I designed a distillation machine that is based on 21st century technology. The iStill is a distilling machine that helps the craft distiller make better product more efficiently by the extensive use of automation, robotization, and the internet.
How did you come to invent the iStill?
As I wanted to learn more about the influence of distillation equipment on the whole spirits (and taste) production process, I thought it a good idea to fit digital probes to the first still design I made. It would allow me to sort of look inside, right? And since I grew tired of taking notes and keeping track of progress all the time, I then added a computer to do that for me. Since the number of distillation cycles in any distillation device hugely influences purity versus taste, I then created a valve to flexibly allow for a change in the number of distillations taking place. Soon after, I automated and robotized this valve for better control and easier operation.
I learned a great deal about distilling that way. But most importantly: I learned that this first iStill I had now created, was faster and more efficient than anything else out there. And taste wise it could make both the purest and tastiest spirits. All in one machine! By trying to learn more about distilling, I had – almost accidentally – created a distillation machine that outperformed all others.
How long did it take you to invent the iStill?
Around 3 years.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when creating the iStill?
By far the biggest challenge was the traditionalist view many held. We had invented something new in an industry where romantic tradition, not scientific innovation, was the norm. Convincing distillers to even look at our stills took a lot of time and effort. In the end, I feel we succeeded via a combination of free knowledge sharing via the iStill Blog and paid workshops. Since we are now the world’s largest producer of craft distillation equipment, that strategy seemed to have worked quite successfully.
How long does it take to make an iStill?
We currently manufacture for around 200 distilleries per year. For 2019 we expect that number to grow to 300. The way we have set-up our production process is an integral part to our success. We build iStills in batches of 4 to 8 at a time. This saves the customer both time and money. From selecting the first metal sheets to testing, takes around 6 weeks per unit. Due to high demand, our current lead times are closer to 4 months now, unfortunately.
What spirits can you make with an iStill?
Since iStills can produce both pure products (like vodka) and taste rich spirits (like gin or whisky), the unit can produce all spirit categories: brandy, gin, rum, vodka, and whisky. If you add the agitator, boiler radiator, and indirect heaters, the craft distiller can even use the iStill for mashing and fermenting.
What training and support do you provide to new iStill owners?
We expect all of our customers to follow our 4-day workshop. During the workshop we train craft distillers from around the world in my theory of distillation, and in how we applied it in the iStills. The students are trained in mashing, fermenting, and distilling. In such a way that when their iStill arrives at their distillery, they know how to assemble, connect, and run it. Annually, we educate around 200 distillers.
Product development is another service we offer. Some customers want our expertise to help design their gin or whisky or any other drink. Since we want our customers to become successful, we love helping out with recipe development. Over the last few years, we have co-designed over 150 gins and 50 other spirits.
Contract distilling is another service we provide. Many customers want our help in creating a first batch of – say – 1,000 bottles. To feel out the market or to help them bridge the time it takes to set up their distilleries.
Finally, via Portfolio Distilling, we are establishing an international distribution network. For craft distillers and by craft distillers.
What are the benefits of iStill over using a traditional copper pot still for distillation?
Control: using an iStill means reproducing a recipe time and again becomes a no brainer. Ease of use. No more need to spend 6 to 8 hours a day behind the still. The iStill will do that, so the craft distiller can focus on the parts of the process that actually make money: marketing and sales. Efficiency: the 21st century design means that a 2000 litre gin run, for instance, only costs EUR 48, in terms power consumption. Online and real time support: via the WiFi module we can help trouble shoot remotely.
Do you think technology will play an even bigger role in distillation in the future?
Yes. We now see a big surge in craft distilling. Many craft distillers open up and take on Big Alcohol by branding, local or regional attention, and interesting flavour profiles. But in the future, with a more crowded market place, both taste consistency and lower production costs become essential. The only way to get there is via more modern technology.
What do you see as being the next big technology innovation in the world of distillation?
I think we just released that! It is an innovation that is called Dynamic Cuts Management.
Over the years, we have learned that vapour speeds inside the distillation column is the single most essential element in creating (or better: harvesting) certain flavours. Total control over those vapour speeds creates a whole new level in terms of quality spirits production.
Dynamic Cuts Management looks at those vapour speeds in the column on a per second basis. Vapour speeds, but also air pressure, air resistance and (ambient) temperatures are taken into consideration to continuously – and automatically – help create the exact flavour the master distiller is looking for.
The iStill seems to have revolutionised the distillation process helping many craft spirit makers establish their own distilleries. You must get a great sense of pride knowing that your invention is used to make fantastic spirits all over the globe?
Yes, I am both proud and humbled by our success. To have people flying in from all over the world every single day… taking the time to visit us… having dinner with us… listening to what we have to share… taking the tools we provide and turning them into award winning spirits and successful businesses. It’s like living my dream.
We’ve visited a number of distilleries in Scotland who use the iStill technology, have you seen large growth in orders from Scotland?
The Scottish market is very important. Both in terms of size and reputation. We are happy and proud to support so many Scottish distilleries with our workshops and stills. To further signal our support to Scotland, we have designed a line of copper columns, so that traditional single malt whisky distilleries can now also benefit from the innovations iStill has to offer.
What’s next for iStill?
There are still quite a few things on our innovation agenda. We are working on a new type of fermenter. Since fermentation is where both alcohol and taste is created, the new iStill Fermenter will take control over all of the underlying formation processes, reaching a whole new level. Mashing is next in line.
Apart from that, I am dedicating a big portion of our resources to Portfolio Distilling. I believe that, with all the steps of the alcohol production process under control, craft distillers are finally ready to take the next hurdle: global distribution of locally created craft spirits.