Bartender magazine and 4bars.com.au caught up with Dennis Potter during his Australian visit late October. The following is and edited transcript of and interview conducted by Simon McGoram.
So this is your first visit to Australia. What brings you out on this visit?
“Australia is our number one export so it is really important for us to make sure that we are here one, two or three times a year just to take a pulse of what’s going on and also to try and forge those relationships that we’ve been so good at in the US. Luckily Bill asked me to go so I was pretty happy about that to say the least.”
What had Bill told you about Australia before you came out?
“Well he’d told me a little bit. Bill has a son Rob who is my age and Rob kind of handles a lot of the international growth that we’re looking at so we did have discussions, but it was more along the lines of this is a hot, hot market. I mean, like I said, it is our number one export market as of last year going past Japan. It was basically one of those things where the relationships we were building here probably happened faster than we ever thought. Also he [Bill Samuels] wanted to send me out because it’s a different perspective: I’m not a Samuels, but I run the distillery, I do all the environmental stuff and if you see the same people and interview the same guy year after year you may not give that whole breadth of knowledge that you would if you mix it up a little bit.”
I did see on you biography that you’re the “Director of Distillery and Environmental Operations”. What does that mean and what does the job entail?
“Well the title is what it is: I run the distillery which is obviously, primarily my job, but at the same time we have this aspect of our business and operation that involves the environment whether it’s recycling or converting by-products to energy. It has become such an important part of what we do that we thought it was important to actually put that in the title because you don’t see that. Typically in the Sates you’ll find someone that might be an EH and S [environmental, health and safety] manger and it’s always kind of tied together. We have someone who just does health and safety and we thought that it was important to really give environmental its own little separate piece as it really is a big part of what we do.”
“What you’re finding now is that there are a lot of environmental solutions that are coming out that make damn good business sense.”
I see that you were partially responsible for the development of Maker’s Mark’s anaerobic reactor. Can you tell us exactly what an anaerobic reactor is?
“It’s funny that you ask that because that is what it’s called, but we’ve kind of changed it a little bit to be called the ‘energy production facility’ because it is easier to understand. The anaerobic reactor is just, well basically what we’ve done is we’ve taken an organism; a bacteria that naturally exists in the environment – it’s in this room right now – and built it up enough where we have enough numbers where we can actually take those bacteria, isolate them in a reactor – basically a tank – and then feed a high organic waste stream in there where they’re designed by nature to eat up and consume those organics and break them down. You end up with a by-product that’s methane so it’s a bio-gas.
We collect that bio-gas and then we use that to fuel our boilers because the biggest energy user of our facility is running the boilers because we create a lot of steam running the mash tun and the stills and ours are natural gas fired so by having this bio-gas we can actually utilise that to displace a portion of the natural gas that we’d normally use. Right now this is accounts for about 10 percent of our natural gas use and we’ve been running the plant for a year. I think as production increases that percentage of what we’re displacing will increase so I’m hoping that in the next couple of years we’ll be up to 15 percent and who knows maybe one day 20.”
Are you seeing the Bourbon industry as a whole being open to environmental issues?
“I think so. I think that it is probably something that has really evolved over the last five years… A lot of the distilleries have been around for over 200 years, you do the same thing everyday, you get the same recipe, so it is difficult to foster change. But what you’re finding now is that there are a lot of environmental solutions that are coming out that make damn good business sense. They affect the bottom line and, yeah, that helps drive it. But I do think that there is also a commitment from a lot of the distilleries to be stewards of the environment whether it is through recycling or creating a facility like ours or just maybe sponsoring environmental groups or setting aside part of the property for wetlands or native grasses.”