Tim Ferris: Deep diving whisky maker

Published 12:18 am Tuesday, March 1, 2016


Out of the grist and wort, wash and wines, comes the heart of Defiant Whisky. Of the many technical terms in the distillation process, heart is literally the clear spirit that drips from the condenser spout of the still. Figuratively, heart is what deep-sea diver and Blue Ridge Distillery founder Tim Ferris puts of himself into every bottle.


Before Tim took the dive into the risky, highly competitive business of making whisky, he had started Defiant Marine in 2009 with $400 and was diving to go to work at depths down to 560 feet. His resume today includes 38 days working out of a hyperbaric chamber that threatened claustrophobia on the ocean floor. On the relatively brief excursions outside to work on an oil and gas job, hypothermia could strike in three minutes without proper saturation diving equipment and procedures. Saturation diving involves breathing heliox, a helium/oxygen mixture, and multiple days of precisely timed decompression when the job is done. Come up too quickly, and the body explodes.


Tim says that James Cameron had many diving details right in his deep-sea movie “The Abyss,” except “actors were not talking in helium voices.” With an obvious sense of humor, Tim imitates the high-pitched squeak, “Hard to take people seriously sounding like this.”


But underlying his easy smile, Tim is as serious as one needs to be to salvage an Egyptian cargo ship loaded with vehicles that had sunk on top of a WW1 German ammunition freighter. “We had 152 mm Howitzer shells on the sea floor around as we worked. After the job was done, our team had to get to the airport…finding our way through Arab Spring rioting and checkpoints anchored by tanks.”


When Tim says “team” you can hear obvious pride. As far as Tim is concerned, his diving and whisky businesses are team efforts. “I remember on the Egypt job, as my team assembled in the heat, coming together in Defiant T-shirts, Defiant caps, carrying Defiant duffle bags…like a band of brothers…fantastic! No-quit guys living their convictions…specialists with their honors on the line, going in with just enough doubt to be cautious and stay alive but willing to defy nature.”


As an example of the talent and heart of the team, Todd Mumma is a nuclear plumber, underwater welder, and Defiant Whisky stillman. Talking through a dark full beard, he tells of a ferry in Alaska that ran aground on an underwater mountain. The bow was hung up on the tip and the stern was settling down on the submerged slope. The Defiant team had to free the vessel before it slid into 700-foot depths. While the ship slowly tipped, Todd went down through the decks to weld an isolation patch over the breach.


“We had been on the go with this kind of work for about six months, when I thought it’d be good if we all got some R&R,” recalls Tim. “We went to Scotland to tour distilleries.” While sipping, the thought came that making Scotch was not all that different than deep sea diving. Both ventures involved pipes, welding, water, pressure, temperature, and attention to details. “We can do this,” said Tim. Team members agreed to “let’s do it” as a worthwhile activity between diving trips.


Sitting in a lawn chair in the main room of the building that he built as HQ for Defiant Marine near Bostic, N.C., Tim gestures left to right across the distillery equipment that spans most of the width. “From malting through maturation, we took nothing for granted. At Defiant Marine we got used to figuring out what had to be done, often following no rules because there were none. So, when it came to Defiant Whisky, despite about 200 hundred years of rules, we questioned everything anyway, wanting to be sure of the best way.”


The first step in whisky making is malting during which barley malt is ground into grist. “What you see is our second custom barley mill,” says Tim. “The first wasn’t good enough. I wanted more refined grist to help improve taste right from the start. I’d also have more high quality by-product to feed my cattle, sheep, and pigs.”


As an aside, farm fresh meat will be on the menu of Tim’s restaurant at his Camp Golden Valley resort. This former 550-acre Girl Scout camp is being transformed into the home of an expanded distillery and a mountain retreat with modern facilities, horseback riding, lake fishing, and porch-view vistas. Tours are available, but all of that is another story.


Next, grist and water are mixed in a mash tun. The result is the liquid wort that Tim wants to be purer than typical. Wort is then fermented in washback tanks that yield the wash that goes into the still.


“Only whisky distilled in Scotland can be called Scotch,” explains Tim. “But I wanted a single malt that made me think of the Highlands and my Scottish ancestors. So, we learned what was being done at the hundred or so malt whisky distilleries in Scotland, learning that the wash of a single malt Scotch was usually distilled twice. We decided to use the Scotch spelling of whisky rather than Irish or American whiskey with the ‘e.’ Then we decided to learn more about the 28,000 or so distilleries in Germany. That’s why we now have a German copper still capable of triple distillation.”


Distillation separates “low wines” from the heart. Rather than maturing heart in oak barrels, Tim and his team defy tradition by dropping toasted spirals of oak into 350-gallon stainless steel tanks to finish the precise process of balancing flavors, aroma, and character.


“We had an old former moonshiner stop in early on and he said, ‘Boys, I think you’re onto something here.’ More formally, we were voted Best New Whisky of 2013 and have been getting great reviews.”


For example, Cocktail Enthusiast wrote, “Pleasing drink from start to finish.” The Huffington Post, “Insanely smooth and round.” The Whiskey Reviewer, “Revolutionary.”


To judge for yourself, Defiant Whisky is sold and sipped in the Carolinas.