British chemist and whiskey expert to head OSU’s new distilled-spirits program

November 2, 2015
Paul Hughes
Paul Hughes, head of OSU's distilling program, stands next to a brandy still in OSU's distilling lab. Photo by Gail Wells

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has hired a whiskey expert from Great Britain to lead its new research and teaching program in distilled spirits.

Chemist Paul Hughes, who spent the past 10 years teaching and conducting research in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, joined OSU in October. He will develop and teach classes and conduct research on producing, aging, packaging and marketing of whisky, brandy, gin, vodka and other distilled spirits. He’ll also teach the laws and rules governing the making and selling of liquor.

Distilling is the newest option in OSU’s popular fermentation sciences undergraduate program, housed in the Food Science and Technology department.

“We have well-established fermentation courses in wine, beer and cheese,” said Robert McGorrin, head of the department. “With distilled spirits, we’ve filled a key niche in our overall program.”

A big part of Hughes’s job will be to forge ties with Oregon’s growing distilling industry. He hopes to partner with Oregon distilling companies on research and internship opportunities for faculty and students. “My intent is to get around to all of Oregon’s distilleries by next June,” said Hughes.

Oregon’s approximately 80 distilling companies produced more than 400 products in 2015 and generated $69 million in gross sales, almost 13 percent of Oregon’s total liquor revenue, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

The teaching program, still being formed, will include undergraduate courses in chemistry, microbiology and other fermentation-related topics, similar to those that are already part of the curriculum, McGorrin said.

It will likely also include courses from the agricultural sciences and engineering, Hughes said.

“There’s a lot of commonality around the fermenting techniques used in brewing, winemaking and distilled spirits production,” he said, “but distilling requires additional steps. So there will be need for additional courses about those techniques.”

He also stressed the importance of business knowledge, especially in an up-and-coming craft industry like distilling. “Making distilled spirits is costly,” he said. “It’s important for someone starting out in the field to have a good awareness of the business aspects – raising capital, procuring raw materials, process control, marketing, regulations, those kinds of things.”

Hughes will also acquire modern equipment for OSU’s pilot distilling lab, including instruments to monitor the distillation progress and gauge the quality and purity of the final product. OSU’s distilling pilot plant now consists of a new copper brandy still donated by King Estate Winery.

He sees an opportunity to lend a regional flavor to Oregon-made distilled spirits by using home-grown ingredients.

“For example, most fruit-flavored spirits, raspberry vodka and the like, often get their flavor from syrups added in afterward,” he said. “But there are techniques you can use to distill the flavors right into the product.”

He also noted OSU’s strengths in flavor chemistry and sensory analysis. “I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues in Food Science and Technology to do some fantastic flavor work, enhancing the subtlety and complexity of some of these distilled spirits,” he said.

Hughes was raised in England, receiving bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of London, a master’s in business administration from the University of Surrey and a diploma in brewing from London’s Institute of Brewing and Distilling. He has published more than 60 papers on chemistry, flavor science, brewing, distilling and hops. He is coauthor of the 2014 book “The Science and Commerce of Whisky.”

Author: Gail Wells
Source: Paul Hughes