Michael Kuryla on how he made the world’s 7th best whiskey

Michael Kuryla from Don Michael Distillery shares with us the ins and outs of the world’s 7th best whiskey according to experts.

Peru’s Black Whiskey has been winning the hearts of both experts and drinkers around the world. Brought to life by Michael Kuryla’s Don Michael Distillery, Black Whiskey is the world’s only whiskey made from Andean Black Corn. 

2021 has been a great year for Don Michael Distillery, with Black Whiskey ranking #7 on the Top100 On-Premise Spirits list. This ranking comes from Black Whiskey’s win at the 2021 Bartender Spirits Awards, where judges awarded Kuryla’s spirit with a Double Gold medal and 96 points. That’s not all, Black Whiskey also took home a gold medal at the 2021 USA Spirits Ratings

Don Michael’s Andean Cream and Andean Vodka were also award-winning expressions at both competitions. The Bartender Spirits Awards rewarded both the spirits with a silver medal. Meanwhile, the Andean Vodka took home a silver medal and Andean cream a bronze at the USA Spirits Ratings. 

Both competitions are judged by a panel of highly acclaimed spirits experts across the US, in both the on-premise and off-premise areas. These awards prove that Don Michael’s spirits are not only great for sipping at the bar but are also a top-notch addition to your personal liquor collections. 

Today we spoke to Michael Kuryla, Owner of Don Michael Distillery, who took us through the essence of the brand and gave us the scoop on Black Whiskey’s grain-to-glass formula. 

Michael Kuryla

Michael Kuryla, owner, Don Michael Distillery

Tell us a little bit about yourself, how did you get into the world of spirits?

I started out by fabricating stills for myself and for others.  I even built a distillery for a client in the jungle of Peru.  In the end, my wife and I came up with the idea to use Andean Corn to make a bourbon-style whiskey.  We shut down our construction company and dedicated ourselves full-time to working on the recipe. Five years later Black Whiskey is world-renowned!

What was the inspiration behind the brand?

The inspiration was "Andean Whiskey," the whole idea of using Andean corn to make a bourbon style whiskey.  Interestingly enough there are about 53 varieties of corn that originate in Peru, 60+ from Mexico, and only 12 from North America.  

These types of corn that are only grown in the Andes Mountains are very distinct and result in a special kind of whiskey.  With that in mind, the brand just naturally carried over to Andean Cream and Andean Vodka as well.

According to you, what makes a great spirit?

That's easy....one that I like to drink.  I think people get hung up on price, brand, and social influences, and drink stuff they think they should.  I drink what I like.  I modeled the mash bill of our whiskey after wheat-bourbons in the US because that is my preference.  

Our whiskey is 60% corn, 30% malted wheat, and 10% malted barley.  Let me finish off by saying don't cheat.......we don't add any fake flavors or color, everything we do is 100% by the book and done right.

What does your typical day look like?

LOL, I wake up at 5 AM.....my wife wants to kill me. 5:30 AM I work out with my wife, she still wants to kill me.

Things get better after that.  We usually make it to the distillery early and stay late. My job has shifted from managing production and distilling to managing clients, customers, and expanding markets. I miss the days of just being able to make whiskey.

Read Next: The Andean Old Fashioned you must try

How often are you firing up the stills and how long does a batch take?

We have 5 stills. Our main 6000 liters still is working full-time, day and night. Depending on the availability of corn, we usually cook six 10,000 liter batches a month. Our other stills are now being used for gin, brandy, and some new products we have in the works.

Don Michael Distillery

Don Michael Andean Distillery

What goes into developing a stellar product? 

A lot of hard work. Testing, tasting, and really making sure you have something special.  Every one of our products is great.  I'm not just saying that.  Our sales and market penetration speak for themselves.  We will NEVER release a mediocre product just to make money.  We do everything to the best of our ability. Yes, it costs a bit more, but in the end, it's a reflection of who we are and our products are amazing.

Are you using any new technology? 

As it turns out Black Corn is different and distinct from other corn, we have tried regular corn and the end product is nowhere near as good.  On top of the corn, we have developed a unique bacteria profile that we add to the end of the fermentation which gives our whiskey an amazingly special flavor and aroma.  But, what else do we do differently?

Are you familiar with Lost Spirits or Cleveland Whiskey and accelerated aging techniques? What we have done is incorporate information from a number of different patents, and another year of testing to create our own "reactor",  that in combination with regular barrel aging turns our whiskey into something truly unique. I'm not just saying that. We run the before and after through a GC machine to compare levels of various indicators, furfurol for example, and our 3-4-year-old whiskey is comparable to a 12-year-old whiskey.  

Sounds cool, but in the end, what really matters is whether or not your target market loves your whiskey. I would say so, we have won more medals than I can count, including two triple golds, a double gold, and a bunch more.

Tell us a funny story or a memory that always makes you smile.

Starting out was not easy.  One thing is cooking 50-liter batches and stepping it up to 300L batches but when your move on to 10,000-liter batches it's a whole different ballgame.  I remember plenty of mistakes we made where thousands of liters of mash ended up covering half the distillery floor, fermenters overflowing like crazy, experiments that just didn't work outright.  Fortunately, we figured everything out and production is completely streamlined.

What excites you the most about your brand?

It's awesome.........more than that, we are working with the Peruvian Government to register Andean Whiskey as a new type of whiskey recognized worldwide.  The same way one refers to Canadian Whiskey or Japanese Whiskey, Andean Whiskey will be something people are looking out for!  On top of that, the Andean Black Corn we use really is something special, no one in the world is making a whiskey like ours.

Are you working on something new right now? 

Always! We will be rolling out some single-barrel versions next year.  We also have a bottle already designed for a Honey Whiskey.

What's your favorite way of drinking Black Whiskey? 

Old Fashioned!

Don Michael award-winning spirits

Don Michael Distillery's award-winning spirits

So you're drinking your Old Fashioned, what's playing on your speakers?

Rammstein, unless my wife is around.

If you were to drink an Old Fashioned with one person (dead or alive), who would it be, and why?

I think Ernest Hemingway. He was one of the greats in every sense of the word. 

If you were to pick one drink to drink for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

Sticking with my Old Fashioned. There are plenty of different whiskeys to use and lots of good variations.

What have been the biggest challenges and achievements of your story so far?

The biggest challenge has been staying strong for three-plus years waiting on the whiskey to age to perfection.  Years of hard work, cooking, fermenting, distilling, and filling hundreds and hundreds of barrels.  

We finally had our first batch bottled and ready as money was running out, and sales were fantastic.........then covid hit. It was rough. We managed, and in April this year, we sent our first container to the USA.  Then in June our second container to Taiwan.  We are now preparing a third container for the US and another shipment to Germany.

According to you, what are some drinks trends we are set to see in the near future?

Whiskey in general is coming on strong all over the world but especially in the USA.  People are really into trying new things, allocated bottles, barrel strength, and single-barrel versions. The whiskey market has become more dynamic and trendier.

Where are you currently selling?

Florida, Texas, Illinois, NY, and NJ, TN. Also Germany, Australia, Taiwan, Peru, and Canada.

And lastly, what have you been drinking lately? 

Old Fashioneds mostly but I have been cheating too! 4 oz Black Whiskey, 2 Oz Sprite, and a cherry!  Not sure what it’s called but I will come up with a name for it. 

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