When two pals on separate events prompt to Mena Killough Pratt that she apply to compete on Moonshiners: Grasp Distiller, a competition reality show on Discovery Channel, she brushed them off. She had solely been distilling spirits since April, in spite of everything, so why step into the ring with of us who had been doing it their complete careers?
“I used to be like, ‘Who am I to assume that I may compete with masters? I simply began, I’m going to seem like an asshole,’” she advised Queen Metropolis Nerve.
Then a casting agent from Grasp Distiller reached out to Pratt on Instagram, so she rethought her place, taking a look at it as a studying place.
“After it got here up in three other ways, I used to be like, ‘OK, I’m going to take this as an indication. I’m simply going to use. No massive deal. If I get on the present that will be cool. It will be a very cool method to step up my data, and I can study issues from different individuals and actually push myself … like, ‘Alright, I’m going to be on nationwide TV, I don’t need to seem like a dumbass so I’m going to dive down this wormhole and actually focus right here.’”
And dive down the wormhole she did. Not solely did Pratt make it onto the present — recording an “Absinthe Version” episode in August that aired Jan. 5 — she turned the primary lady to win the competitors, taking residence the Grasp Distiller title for her absinthe, which she had by no means made till she was confirmed as a competitor.
Her nationwide tv look was only one sudden facet of a whirlwind 12 months that introduced her from bartending to creating hand sanitizer to distilling liquor. She additionally based Green Fairie Apothecary this 12 months, by way of which she gives items and companies tied to herbalism and spirits.
Following her Grasp Distiller win, we visited the workplace the place she works as head distiller for the Wood & Grain Project, Unknown Brewing’s spirits program. We talked about her many crafts and the way they’re all related, amongst different matters.
You’re an herbalist, mixologist and distiller. Which curiosity got here first?
Herbalism first. I imply, I’ve beloved booze all my life, although (laughs). I went to natural college [at the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine] in 2012, however earlier than that I used to be doing therapeutic massage remedy, therapeutic arts, and I acquired all for vitality work after which plant spirit drugs. Then from there I dived down the natural wormhole. My mom is from Thailand, so I grew up with a whole lot of topical ointments that we used, and never understanding till years down the highway that my grandmother who I by no means met was an herbalist in Thailand.
I used to be listening to a podcast they usually had been speaking about herbalists, like, “Begin asking round your elders in your loved ones, you’re going to seek out herbalists.” It’s like a factor within the DNA. I discovered it on each side. On my dad’s aspect, one among my grandfathers down the highway had made Dr. Hays Elixir, and I grew up with my drunk uncles making an attempt to promote his elixir.
So that you’re persevering with in that vein with Inexperienced Faerie Apothecary?
Yeah, I simply began that this 12 months. I had led healing-arts courses centered on vitality work, physique work and herbalism, however I had gotten to the purpose of simply giving a lot of my vitality that I discovered that I used to be having a tough time with boundaries. So after I went again to high school for horticulture to additional broaden my understanding of vegetation, I acquired again into bartending and serving and stuff [at Kiki bistro and Tattoo cocktail lounge in Plaza Midwood]. After which I began actually nerding out behind the bar and bringing my data of vegetation to creating actually attention-grabbing profiles with Kel Minton, Kiki’s beverage director.
So I labored with him to create new concoctions in Kiki and found Amari [cocktails], the place there’s a whole lot of these conventional recipes which were round for 200 years. They had been formulated by herbalists. So I acquired tremendous , began researching that and people bitter taste profiles, and their therapeutic facet so far as the digestive system.
And what impressed your curiosity in distilling?
Behind the bar at Kiki and Tattoo, like if an individual appeared down, then the thought for a bespoke cocktail, I’m going to place mimosa or lemon balm on this cocktail to assist raise them up a bit of bit. So I actually beloved that degree of management with taste and serving to to uplift individuals on the identical time. So I wished to see what the impact is with the flavour and the energetics of vegetation going into the bottle as a substitute of popping out of the bottle. I believed there could be extra room to broaden and study, too. I’d been distilling floral waters for a number of years, however distilling spirits is a complete different factor, and it’s cool to convey that data and bridge the hole into spirits.
How did you hyperlink up with Unknown Brewing?
After COVID hit america, like all of the eating places and golf equipment, Kiki shut down and I used to be out of labor. I used to be making an attempt to get my unemployment and my profile was identical to, I used to be in some bizarre loop, so I didn’t have any cash coming in. Then I heard that Brad [Shell, owner at Unknown Brewing] was in search of some assist.
They had been making hand sanitizer and dealing 24 hours a day, in order that they wanted any individual to work the second shift. I talked to him and I used to be introduced in they usually mentioned if I didn’t suck they had been going to show me to do spirits and right here I’m. The factor that had been actually nice is having that begin of simply working with the ethanol and never having to fret about individuals ingesting it. It positively made me really feel a bit of bit extra comfy.
You had been mentored as a mixologist by Kel Minton and Christina Marie. Who taught you the nuance of distilling?
Brad Shell, the proprietor right here. He’s the one which educated me in his methods.
How lengthy did that take till you had been comfy being on this room by your self and in control of the entire course of?
On the finish of the week he had me doing it alone. (laughs) However I’m nonetheless studying. Once I had my nonetheless arrange in another way and I wasn’t getting the proof down, I’ve by no means configured a nonetheless like this, so there have been conversations about, “OK, with this set-up, how excessive can I push this to get my proof down?” I’m all the time checking the temp, I don’t need to blow something up.
How did you get into absinthe, particularly?
So after all being an herb nerd I’m going to be drawn to the spirits which might be very herbaceous. My final month at Kiki and Tattoo, I used to be actually centered on absinthe cocktails. The entire artemisia vegetation; one of many predominant elements is wormwood, and that’s Artemisia absinthium, after which there’s mugwort, Candy Annie, that complete group of herbs I’m actually into. So I used to be simply enjoying round making cocktails, anybody who was simply on the bar and could be like, “No matter, simply make me something that you simply’re enjoying with,” I used to be like, “You’re getting absinthe!” (laughs)
So did you begin making that upon your arrival at Unknown?
No, I made a whole lot of vodka, whiskey, gin, agave spirits. It wasn’t till I received Grasp Distiller: Absinthe Version that my boss was like, “We gotta do that!”
You develop all of your substances in home and also you’re aware of each step, from planting the herbs to distilling the spirits to mixing the drinks. How does that assist your course of?
I feel it’s tremendous invaluable. Even on that episode of Grasp Distillers, I don’t assume I’d have received that competitors if I didn’t have the data that I had behind me, and understanding after working with a whole lot of the vegetation. After they threw the curveballs, like, “Oh, you’re going to do a two-hour maceration to get the colour,” fortunately I had been doing extractions, making issues with these vegetation for therefore lengthy, I used to be like, “OK, there are two doable ways in which I could make this occur accurately to one of the best of my talents.”
And when issues come up right here, if one thing’s not working proper with the vegetation, I’m like, “I’ll want a bit of bit extra of this taste, I must crack it this fashion to assist it launch the oils,” or, “This a part of this explicit plant I’m simply going to make use of as a substitute of throwing the stem in there, as a result of that’s going to present it extra of a woody taste.” I feel it’s paramount.
Your distillery has a whole lot of vintage trying gear — these small copper stills particularly. Is that useful for absinthe or simply private style?
Oh (laughs), for one it’s my private style, however the older model stills, the alembic and the ergot colorateur, these are primarily copper stills and it’s actually vital, the form of the nonetheless, the way it pushes the distillate over. For the massive nonetheless, since we make vodka and we’re doing a whole lot of stuff with heavy-flavored fermentations, as a lot as we will break up the distillation and have it occur a number of occasions within the nonetheless, the cleaner the spirit goes to be, so to talk — you’re not going to have these off flavors. However with absinthe and a number of the botanicals, we wish all these flavors to return by way of. That’s why it took me so many tries to configure the nonetheless to let it open up and never lose as a lot taste.
It does make a distinction. When Heaven Hill [Distillery in Kentucky] had their fire a few years ago [in 1996], their stills had been destroyed, they usually made a duplicate identical to the stills that that they had, however they had been making dents within the stills to be like the opposite ones, as a result of every explicit nonetheless imparts its personal character on the distillate. So you’ll be able to have two precise stills which have two completely different life experiences they usually’re going to make a delicate distinction in taste.
You’re releasing 100 bottles of absinthe by way of the Wooden & Grain Undertaking on Jan. 16. What ought to we find out about it?
It is a conventional absinthe with winter botanicals. See, the expertise adjustments with the various kinds of herbs and completely different seasons, as a result of I’m harvesting the whole lot I take advantage of, apart from the mint, which was native, however the stuff out of my backyard, there’s not as a lot daylight [in winter], so there’s not as a lot chlorophyll, and there’s going to be much less important oils, so that you’re going to have a distinct taste profile. So it is a cool undertaking to discover that distinction.
You appear to be proper in your aspect, and this room is the proper place so that you can nerd out and create. Is that this one thing you would have anticipated again in March of final 12 months?
Undoubtedly not. As soon as I began actually diving down the wormhole with Amari, I used to be like, “I actually need to study to distill, this appears actually cool, I must maintain at it after which finally issues will open up.” I used to be already taking a look at completely different faculties for distilling after which this chance got here up. In the event you advised me this time final 12 months that I used to be going to be distilling spirits and on the Discovery Channel I’d be like, “Muahahaha, don’t misinform me.”
Grasp Distiller airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Discovery Channel and in addition streams on Discovery+.
Turn out to be a part of the Nerve: Get higher related and become a monthly donor to assist our mission and be a part of 1000’s of Charlotteans by subscribing to our email newsletter. And when you’re in search of the humanities in Charlotte, subscribe to the paper for essentially the most in-depth protection of our native scene.