In this interview, I chat with Tom Maas, the CEO of Dancing Goat Distillery.
Q. You were established by a group of friends and family – how did that come about?
A. It really is all about family…..My son, Nick and I are descended from my father, Duane Maas, who was a renowned global distillery engineer for over 55 years (from 1960 to 2016). He made a very big impact on both of us in his knowledge and commitment to quality. I have been associated with production and marketing of 3 of the top whiskies in the world (Jack Daniels, Canadian Club and Jim Beam) throughout my 40 year plus career in the business and always wanted to create from my own distillery. Nick shared my passion and in 2015 we started planning how we would make it happen.
Q. What challenges did you experience when starting your distillery?
A. Biggest challenge is breaking through the clutter of all the craft distilleries out there today. We are committed to our brands and want to establish with the trade and consumers that we are a quality dishing house. We refer to ourselves as the house of 90 because we will not bring out a brand unless we can get a 90 plus rating from independent reviewers. Our two current products Limousin Rye and Deaths Door Gin both have multiple 90 ratings. Our challenge now is to make certain the consumers know about them.
Q. Your Limousin Whisky is finished in a solera system as found in Jerez, Spain. How does this work in practice for whisky?
A. Although it is a true solera system in that the barrels are interconnected, it does not function the same way that a Spanish style continuous feed system works. Our whiskey rests in the wood to get the most interaction from the Limousin Oak. The purpose of the final aging is to marry our blend of barrels together and soften in the wood, similar to the way Cognac is rested before bottling.
Q. How will technology change whisky in the future?
A. Our philosophy is Mother Nature is the best and creating great whiskey. We also know that you cannot create a technological solution to taste. We honor the traditional ways and are really not looking for technological solutions to make our whiskey. That being said the controls you can put on a still in this day and age are very good for control and consistency.
Q. How are you pushing boundaries?
A. We take pride in the fact that we are one of the only distillers in the US to use the global style of aging whiskey, using used cooperage. 99% of the American craft distillers are using only new cooperage. There is nothing special about new and we prefer the subtleness we can add to our distillate by using vintage cooperage and better controlling the amount of tannin that gets into our finished whiskies. Our style is a softer, more flavorful product because we fell it has a better balance ion flavor between grain and wood.
Q. What is the hardest part of making whisky in your area?
A. Nothing hard about it…we are having a blast.
Q. How have you changed in your method of distilling since you started?
A. Change comes from experimentation, we are always searching for unique new methods. Not change for change sake, but change for taste sake.
Q. What is the main difference between old and new distillers?
A. Many new distillers are learning. Learning can lead to new discoveries. We consider ourselves old and new as my experience in distilling over 40 years in the business is much different then what Nick is discovering as he learns. We were able to spend some time with an old friend of mine, Fred Noe a few weeks ago and its fun to get the old and new generations together for discussions.
Q. What is on your whisky shelf at home?
A. My shelf is littered with Mason Jars of different blends of our aging whiskey. We have spent the past 5-6 years developing a variety of aged whiskies that we are looking to blend into goat tasting whiskies. I am looking at 17 jars right now.
Q. How would you introduce people to whisky who see it as something only those “in the know now”
A. Experiment and keep notes. There are a lot of well publicized whiskies that aren’t as good as their press clippings, and there are a ton that are unknown and fantastic. The key is don’t drink what gets the highest rating, drink what you like. The only way to find out is to taste and experiment.
Q. What is the funniest experience you have had with whisky?
A. I worked hand in hand with Booker Noe for several years and just loved his zest for life. There are too many funny moments to rate as the funniest but here its an example. We were doing a tasting of Bookers in LA in the mid 90’s a rather diminutive reporter asked Booker how he should drink Bookers Bourbon, which is barrel proof (124-126 proof). Booker looked at him and giggled, He then said “I know how drink it but if I were you I’ld drink it in my pajamas because after one drink you’re going to fall asleep.”
Q. Tell me about yourself and your interests outside of whisky.
A. I am an experiential guy. I have no problem paying for experiences. I have seen all types of musicians in person, Sinatra to Pearl Jam, Pink Floyd to Celine Dion. I will pay scalers fees to see the MLB Home Run Derby and my favorite NBA players. I’ll travel to New York and see what’s interesting on Broadway and I’ll drive to Green Bay to take friends to see Lambeau Field for the first time. I am a voracious reader and love historical fiction. I find it the easiest way to understand history.
Q. Tell me a nice whisky related story or two. Something funny, heart warming or interesting.
I like to tell people about my initiation into the whiskey business. When my father was building a Canadian whiskey distillery in the 60’s in Ontario I was the cleaner for a group of engineers overseeing the construction process which were staying together in a local house. After clean up every day I got to go to the construction site and I had a little bike that I would ride around and deliver messages throughout the 600,000 square foot facility. One day I was asked to bring yeast to the stillman (thats what they called them them, not master distillers). I brought the yeast over and helped him unwrap the bricks and dump them in the 10000 gallon fermenter. After we were done the stillman asked me how old I was..I told him 11. He said good for you, you just made your first batch of whiskey. I like to tell people I got my start by making my first batch of whiskey at 11.
Q. What should you not do when setting up a distillery?
A. Be impatient