Interview with Mark McKale, President of Innovative Distilling Technologies

QUESTION: Mark, you’ve developed a remarkable innovative product in a traditional industry. Tell us a bit about your background and the origin of this product.

Mark McKale: Innovative Distilling Technologies based in Windsor, Canada has developed the SmartCap. The SmartCap is a customized polyethylene cap that fits over the head of a white oak barrel to significantly reduce evaporation. I spent most of my career at the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, Canada. I held various positions in operations but spent most of my time and focus on spirits maturation in wood casks. Evaporation from the barrel is a very significant economic and environmental issue at commercial scale distilleries. In a large distillery storing up to 2 million barrels the losses are enormous. Over 11 million liters of pure ethanol evaporate into the atmosphere every year!

After my early retirement I set out to develop a product that would significantly reduce evaporation without affecting the spirit maturation. After years of development with mold makers, spirits consultants and partnering distilleries the Smart Cap was born.

QUESTION: Innovation in a business that has been around for centuries is not always easy. Tell us a bit more about the SmartCap.

Mark McKale: The SmartCap is a rugged polyethylene cap that forms a vapor tight seal over the head of wood barrel. The key is the seal that conforms tightly to the contour of the barrel just below the head hoop. A special Thermoplastic Elastomer is used that actually expands when exposed to ethanol vapors increasing its sealing properties dramatically. Various seal depths are available to accommodate the varying dimensions of spirit barrels.

The head of a barrel standing on end is particularly vulnerable to evaporation since it is not exposed to the liquid. Over time it dries out and shrinks creating both warpage and fissures. Sealing the head of the barrel not only traps this fugitive vapors but also creates a very humid environment above the head that promotes wood swelling and sealing of fissures and cracks.

It’s important that SmartCap stands up to the rigours of industrial warehousing. The rugged construction allows barrels to be stacked seven high without damage. It also stands up to the inevitable forklift contact associated with barrel handling processes.
Before releasing the product, we engaged in many years of testing and refinement to ensure the product performs as designed.

QUESTION: You mention the testing. Tell us some the details of proving out the product.

Mark McKale: We enlisted the help of partnering distilleries, analytical labs, spirits consultants a local University and a recognized organoleptic assessment firm.
We conducted two separate tests over more than two years at neighboring distilleries. We enlisted a spirits consulting firm to precisely measure the loss reductions versus a control group. We also did extensive chemical and organoleptic testing to ensure there was no impact on either the chemical or organoleptic profile of the product.

QUESTION: What were the results of the testing you and your partners conducted?

Mark McKale: We concluded that the SmartCap was very effective at sealing the head of the barrel. Loss reductions averaged over 20%. In a large distillery storing 2 million barrels this translates to a reduction of over 2.2 million litres of pure alcohol per year or sufficient spirit to fill over 5.5 million bottles. The organoleptic and chemical testing was equally encouraging. There was no detectable impact on taste, aroma or chemical makeup.

QUESTION: Those are impressive results. Tell us about the economic impacts you see for a distillery.

Mark McKale: As you might guess the economic benefits are staggering. Conserving spirits is only part of the equation. By conserving huge volumes of product and improving yields from each barrel you reduce the number of barrels required to be filled and stored to support a brand and the warehouse space required to store them. In a large distillery this could equate to 100,000 fewer barrels that need to be purchased and stored. It also reduces the volume required to be distilled and all the grain energy and water required in the distillation process.

QUESTION: This reduced footprint must have significant environmental impacts. Can you tell us a bit about the environmental benefits?

Mark McKale: The environmental impacts are dramatic. The most obvious impact is the reduction in ethanol evaporation as VOC emissions. The reduction for this same 2,000,000-barrel distillery is close to 2,000,000 kg’s per year. Projected across the entire industry this translates to roughly a 100,000,000 kg/yr reduction! As mentioned, there are many other upstream benefits. Approximately 5% fewer barrels would be required conserving vast amounts of white oak. The reduction in white oak requirements in this same distillery translates to about 5,000,000 kg’s or roughly 2 million board feet or the equivalent of 5,000 mature white oak trees.

The reduction in grain requirements are equally important. For this same distillery, distillation requirements would be reduced by 2.2 million liters per year. This equates to 6000 tonnes of grain would be grown on roughly 750 hectares of land that could be re-devoted to food production. Across the industry this translates to conserving close to 40,000 hectares of cropland. The energy and water use reductions are equally impressive. The product is 100% reusable and recyclable so the environmental footprint is minimal.

QUESTION: With the reduction in distillation requirements the energy savings must be substantial.

Mark McKale: Yes, distillation is a very energy intensive process. In this same example distillery a reduction of 2.2 million liters of alcohol distillation annually equates to an energy savings equivalent to about 12,000 barrels of crude oil/yr. There would also be spin off energy savings in reduced grain growing and transportation requirements and barrel handling and movement within the distillery. Across the total beverage distilling industry we’re estimating an energy savings potential equivalent to 700,000 barrels of crude oil annually.

QUESTION: What do you see next for the SmartCap

Mark McKale: Distilling is a very traditional and conservative industry so initially we see the uptake as cautious and tested. Over time as the benefits prove out, we see the volumes growing exponentially as the economic and environmental benefits are crystalized. The industry will move forward, and we will be there to lead the way to environmental sustainability and improved bottom lines.