Rock steady: Bottling booze as life metaphor at Marble Distilling Co.
July 20, 2018
At 9:05 a.m. I slip through an open back door of Marble Distilling Co. and step right up to an assembly line. Wedged between a guy brandishing a heat gun to shrink-wrap bottle seals and a manually operated tabletop label roller unspooling one long ribbon of paper backing, I receive clear instructions for a simple task.
"Line up the crotch of the 'M' logo with Lincoln's head," quips assistant distiller Julius Grisette, wrapping a rectangular black sticker depicting our nation's 16th president around the skinny neck of a freshly filled and corked bottle of Marble Vodka, batch #13.
"Easy enough," I reply. And it was. My longtime fascination with small-scale manufacturing was fulfilled as I joined MDC's impromptu "bottling party" last Sunday at its production facility on Main Street in Carbondale.
Head distiller Connie Baker told me there's no rhyme or reason to MDC's bottling schedule. Instead, the company will post an open Facebook invitation for volunteer workers when a big purchase comes in. Last weekend, that would be six pallets of Marble Vodka, scheduled for shipment to Texas on Monday morning. Translation: 84 cases of six bottles apiece per pallet—3,024 bottles of 80-proof booze—one of Marble's tallest orders yet.
It took our team of six, then seven, about three hours to finish just over a pallet of cases that morning. While the process isn't super technical, it does require laser-like focus, so as not to spill the liquor; overheat and melt the cap wrapping; wrinkle a sticker; or misplace a label. We worked briskly and kept conversation short to maximize concentration.
For about 180 minutes I drifted into a zen-like flow. Each motion became measured and sequential—slide bottle sideways, unpeel sticker, bend at waist to eye level view of bottle, center label a quarter inch below lip of bottle neck, press and swipe left side, right side, slide bottle left to the belly label station. Occasionally I'd take a moment to scoop up the stream of paper backing from the stickers and whip it violently yet swiftly into a giant plastic trash can. As anyone with obsessive-compulsive tendencies understands, such constant repetition is supremely soothing.
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Since chitchat was minimal during my brief stint as an unpaid (though spiritually compensated) factory worker, there was much time to ponder the process. In a way, I realized, bottling booze might be a metaphor for life. Some lessons from the assembly line:
Every task, no matter how small, is significant—respect the process.
Bottling Marble Vodka goes like this: Fill, cork, shrink wrap, sign batch number and "bottled by" info, neck label, belly label, sustainability tag, build cardboard carton, box, glue, sticker carton, pallet, shrink wrap.
To complete these steps, six to eight volunteers worked three-hour shifts (six total, Saturday and Sunday) at the distillery. That's roughly 40 citizens who chipped in; had even one person skipped a stage along the way, the end result could not have been possible. Every cog in the wheel must function to achieve motion.
Teamwork makes the dream work.
From where I stood, I guessed that at least five people touched each bottle—one to fill; another to cap and seal; a neck label-presser (me); belly label-roller (Grisette); box packager.
Baker, however, estimates many more, perhaps as many as 15, "If you count from grain to glass—farmer, miller, head distiller, assistant distiller, bottling crew, shipper, distributor, retailer," she says. Together they'll produce and bottle more than 8,000 cases this year.
Sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, you'll end up in the same place, regardless of pace.
Life might not be a race, yet all of us seemed to work as fast as we could without making mistakes. For me, sandwiched between two other workers, it became a silent relay—fast enough to feed Grisette next in line, and always racing to get ahead of the person behind me, which meant a 30-second bloody mary break. The goal: stay busy and maintain accuracy. Sometimes you gotta catch up, and that's OK.
Being askew (occasionally) isn't the end of the world.
Just don't make it standard practice. Strive for consistency. Who has time to stress over minor imperfections? Nobody on an assembly line. Ultimately, a pen smudge or tilted label on a bottle of small-batch Marble Vodka reveals human error, which lends character to the finished product, anyway.
Invite your work closer to your heart.
Not only figuratively. Yes, I'm a nerd about craft spirits (and certainly a sucker for complimentary hooch). Also I discovered that physically pulling bottles just a few inches closer to my workspace made my stickering task run most efficiently.
Details matters—pay attention!
I called out a black speck floating in one bottle—cardboard, probably—and sent it back for a refill. Quality control is crucial to save face later.
Get heated, risk consequences.
At one point, Baker inserted a stick thermometer into a tall glass beaker of vodka to demonstrate how distillers check proof. When a spirit is bottled hot, she explained, the alcohol percentage (proof) can rise. If a federal agent ascertains that a bottle is over proof or under volume stated on the label during a random check, the company could be back-fined for product already bottled. Last year Bacardi Canada recalled thousands of bottles of Bombay Sapphire labeled 40 percent alcohol by volume (80 proof), despite measuring 77 percent ABV (154 proof). Though it's unclear if this serious goof was linked to temperature, it's worth noting: Stay cool!
Please handle with care.
As any of my friends who own breakables would attest: It's a miracle I left MDC's production facility without breaking something. That honor was held by another worker who cracked glass while loading carboard cases. Baker's response was gentle: No big deal when a clear spirit like vodka spills, but sticky-sweet Moonlight EXpresso or Gingercello is a real drag to clean up.
You're stronger than you appear.
Heat-gun dude remarked that my back would be mighty sore after three-plus hours of bending at the waist repeatedly. True, I ached a bit. But it wasn't the crippling strain he predicted. Trust your inner strength, and shrug off naysayers.
"It's not about selling booze," says Marble co-founder Carey Shanks. "We're living our passion…and there's a bigger mission: sustainability. Sierra Club just named us among five (companies) to drink if you wanna save the planet."
Change is inevitable.
A fluid groove can be hard to leave. My shift was scheduled to end at noon, but I was in such a steady flow that I didn't step away—hesitantly, I might add—until 12:23 p.m. If it weren't for second-shift volunteers literally lining up for my job, I might have continued all afternoon. Know when to quit!
As it has for centuries, booze brings people together.
"We had a couple meet on the bottling line, fall in love, (and) marry here at the distillery," Baker says. "That's LIFE!"
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