written by Catie Joyce-Bulay
DISTILLING HAS BEEN AROUND for thousands of years, so a distillery isn’t your typical tech startup. When a group of techies with a love of whiskey got together at a weekend-long startup event, however, that’s just what happened. Five years ago at Tri-Cities’ Fuse Coworking Space, teams of entrepreneurs were tasked with creating business plans for new tech ventures. The exercise was mainly just for fun, but at the end of the weekend, four members of the team with an idea for a tech-focused distillery decided to turn it into reality.
“We took the approach of taking traditional craft distilling and then finding ways to integrate new and innovative technology,” co-founder Kris Lapp said.
Most of the team didn’t know one another before starting Solar Spirits and none of them had any prior experience in distilling before beginning production in 2015, but each brought their own expertise to the company. Khurshed Sharifov owns a personal wealth management firm, lawyer Brett Spooner is in charge of the company’s legal matters and Lapp, who heads up sales and marketing, owns an IT and media company. They brought on Travis O’Briant, a financial analyst, as another partner to work on growth and scaling.
CEO and head distiller Jim Batdorf draws from his background as a processing engineer. A primary focus of the company is renewable energy and sustainable practices, said Batdorf, who holds a PhD in chemical engineering. Batdorf installed a thermal solar system to provide the power for heating and part of the distillation process. Thermal solar uses thermal oil and differs from solar electric panels typically associated with solar power. “They are more efficient than solar electric systems because they use the solar energy for heating and do not have the losses associated with conversion to electricity and back to heat,” Batdorf said. He recently retired from InEnTec and now works full time at Solar Spirits.
Batdorf had some experience in home-brewing beer and fits easily into the distiller role with his science background. He enjoys the chance to be inventive. “We kind of let him be a nerd back there with all the equipment and just tinker around,” Lapp said. “The difference between him and somebody else is when he finds something wrong or something that’s been done incorrectly, he has the background to pick up on the issue and he can fix it.”
Among other projects, Batdorf is developing a continuous still, which will use less energy and be easier to operate. He is working with students at Washington State University as part of their senior chemical engineering design project. “They’re providing a complete detailed mathematical model, and we’re optimizing the energy input, the heat recovery, the composition coming out,” he said. “It’s been a great collaboration, and they’re learning a lot. When it’s done, it will have a lot of resources behind it that a small distillery like us wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”
The distillery also takes other steps to reduce resources in its award-winning spirits, like milling its own grain sourced from local farmers for its whiskey. Batdorf has engineered a system of pipes that lead directly from the mill into the mash tun, where the mash is boiled. The spent grain is then given to a local farmer and used as food for livestock.
All of its other spirits—vodka, gin and brandy—use cranberries as their base, rather than the typical wheat or corn. The cranberries are fermented into wine before they are distilled, and Solar Spirits is working on ways to make this process more sustainable as well.
Distiller Dan Watts, who graduated from Washington State University’s oenology program, complements Batdorf’s skills with his knowledge in fermentation and plant physiology, which allows them to create a more natural end-product. An example of this sits on a shelf between the production room and barrel-aging storage—neat rows of bottles with colored liquids inside, Watts’ experiments with improving natural coloring they use instead of the artificial compounds typically used to color spirits.
From start to finish and in between, Solar Spirits has found ways to infuse tech advances into this ancient craft. When the team saw there wasn’t any software available to track the full production cycle of the distillery, which is necessary for state and federal regulations, they decided to develop one themselves. They are currently beta testing it on their own production with hopes to market it to other craft beverage producers in the future.