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Issue date: June 23, 2000

Spirited entrepreneurs Spirited entrepreneurs (June 23, 2000)

By Leslie K. Martin

Inspired by a vacation in France, David Classick and Andrea Mirenda formed Essential Spirits, a Bierschnaps distillery in Mountain View.

@vcredit:Matthew Walker

Mountain View residents David Classick and Andrea Mirenda had been looking for a business idea that would combine their considerable skills and provide retirement income while expanding their social lifestyle. They considered opening a hardware store, running a bed and breakfast, and even thought about recycling Freon.

But it wasn't until they went on a European vacation that the idea of distilling spirits captured theirs.

In France they found themselves enjoying the family conviviality of small bistros where the patrons enjoyed each other's company while sipping flavored schnapps. Schnapps is a pure, colorless, unaged alcohol typically made from grain or fruits.

Married for 20 years, the couple was impressed with the quality of the beverages and intrigued by the process of making them. Mirenda, 43, likened the process to an art form. Classick, 50, said, "It requires somebody who is able to master the subtleties and complexities of cooking."

Noting that one cannot obtain a degree in distilling, Classick added, "This is a craft, not a profession. One has to be taught." The couple learned from a third-generation master distiller from France, who also made their copper still by hand.

Classick, a quality process engineer, and Mirenda, a marketing director, continue to hold full-time "Silicon Valley jobs," but believe the creation of their company, Essential Spirits, is a career plan they can comfortably live with, and on, in the future.

Essential Spirits led to many firsts.

The couple now owns the first alambic still in North America; are the first in America to brew Bierschnaps (their beverage is cleverly labeled Classick); have the first establishment in California to obtain a brandy makers' license, a distilled spirit plant license, and a small beer manufacturers' license; and, in a traditionally male-dominated trade, Classick points out that Mirenda may be the first woman in the business.

But being the first isn't always easy, especially when it comes to cutting through red tape.

"If we had known what we were getting into," Mirenda said, "it's doubtful we would have started this."

"The ATF had never issued a license for this before," Classick said. "No one in the city knew what to do with us. The fire department wanted to treat us like a petroleum plant because alcohol is an inflammable liquid."

The smallest details created problems. Due to a coding error on the part of a shipper, the FDA at customs confiscated their unique bottles--which were manufactured and imprinted in Europe--even though they were empty.

At Essential Spirits in Mountain View, Classick points to a striped piece of tape. "This line on the floor legally separates the brewery (two stainless steel brewing tanks) from the distillery (the still)," he said, laughing. "It's very important."

Mirenda and Classick agree the company demands all their combined knowledge. Mirenda said, "You have to be a chemist, an artist, a mad scientist, chef, lawyer, and politician."

"It cuts across a lot of disciplines," said Classick, who first learned how to deal with pressure and plan for the future as a point man for a squad in Viet Nam.

But their first batch of Bierschnaps, brewed in April, rewarded their perseverance.

The process of brewing and distilling Bierschnaps is an exacting one. To get five precious gallons of 100 percent alcohol, 100 gallons of Essential Spirits California Pale Ale, a 5 percent beer, must be brewed and distilled.

"Beers all have a unique character," Classick said, "and when you distill them, that character comes across."

Hops are added to the malt-extract ale, which is boiled and then transferred through a heat exchanger to a second vat where the mix is cooled and allowed to ferment. After fermentation, the beer is cooked at 173 degrees in the alambic still.

According to the Essential Spirits Web site, alambic distilling is a brewing technique first used by the Chinese around 3000 B.C. Alambic refers to the shape of the still, and comes from the Greek word ambix, defined as a vase with a small opening. Alambic pot-type stills are traditionally used to make cognacs.

The proprietary design of the still's center cylinder, called the analyzer, purifies the alcohol to an unusually high degree. Copper is a catalyst that causes chemical reactions in the ale to purify, preserve and enhance the flavors in the still.

The finished product is 80 proof Classick, The Original American Bierschnaps. It is distributed by Frank-Lin Beverage, with a shelf price of $33 to $35 a bottle.

Mirenda said that the malty essence of Bierschnaps is a perfect complement to beer. Bierschnaps can be sipped as an aperitif or mixed in a cocktail. The couple invented their own cocktail recipe, the effervescent and refreshing Lime Ricky.

Classick said creation provides a satisfaction they don't see in many of their Silicon Valley colleagues. "It's the nature of the business," he said. "There's a need for the human soul to get something real."

Mirenda said that the business is one that allows them to blend family and social activities. Their son is the company Web master, their daughter the bookkeeper.

The next step, Classick said, is to sell stills to others who want to learn and continue the craft. "It will probably cost you half a million dollars to start up, depending on facility costs," Classick said, adding that it's not such a high price to pay for something so essential to the spirit.

For recipes and more information on where to find Classick, see the Essential Spirits' Web site at:

Leslie Martin is a writer who covers Silicon Valley business and can be reached at: LMARTIN@AOL.COM. 


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