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In this episode of SciShow Talk Show Hank chats with Chad Larrabee of Montgomery Distillery about the science of distilling alcohol. Special guest is Jessi Knudsen CastaƱeda of Animal Wonders with Groucho the hedgehog.

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(Intro plays)

Hank Green: Hello and welcome to this Sci Show Talk show! The time on Sci Show where we talk to interesting people about interesting things. Today, we have Chad Larrabee. He is the lead head distiller at the distillery that we are, what, a half a block away from?

Chad Larrabee: Yeah. Yeah it's about like that, yeah.  

HG: I have imbibed your products on numerous occasions in and outside of your distillery. When, uh, when the news broke that there was going to be a distillery in Missoula, I was very excited, uh, and you are just making how many spirits now? 

CL: Um, well I got right in front of me right here, we got the gin, we got the vodka, and we got the aquavit. 

HG: Oh that's new.

CL: Yeah the aquavit's pretty new. 

HG: I have not had that. 

CL: Yeah. Um, but that's what we're bottling right now and then we're also making an aged version of both the gin and the aquavit. Um, and we're also making a rye whiskey and a single malt whiskey.

HG: And the whiskeys take a long time. 

CL: Yeah. Yup. We got them sleeping in fifty two-gallon barrels, probably for the next couple years. 

HG: So your job, as lead distiller, you're kind of a chemist? You're a...yeah. 

CL: There's a lot of chemistry going on. Yeah. Yeah. I don't know if I could call myself a chemist. I don't have a degree in chemistry, so...

HG: Well, you don't... No, you don't. I have a degree in chemistry and I wouldn't call myself a chemist. Cause I don't practice. 

CL: Right. 

HG: But you do! Which I think is really cool. I've been down there, I've seen your still. It's very impressive. Um, and, uh, but I am, uh, not entirely, you know I've done distillations myself on a much smaller scale. 

CL: Right. 

HG: But I'm pretty sure that what you do is a little bit more complicated than what I do. Maybe, walk me through the process. 

CL: Right. Okay. Um, so we start off with a grain, um, I brought a couple samples over here. 

HG: Show me a grain.

CL: We've got, uh, right here, so this is the base for all of our clear spirits right here. Um, and we've got hard, red, winter wheat. Um, unmalted. 

HG: Where is this from?

CL: Uh, We're sourcing that out of Dillon, Montana. So, um, a couple hours south. Um, just your average wheat. You just take that, throw it right in the ground and it'd sprout. 

HG: Yeah?

CL: Yeah it's ready to go. Um, so what we wanna get out of that, though, uh, is all the sugar that's locked up in there. And we need to turn that from a complex carbohydrate 'cause all the sugar stored as a, or the energy stored as a starch.

HG: Yes when you eat wheat you don't notice it tasting like soda. 

CL: Right. 

HG: It's not sugar. 

CL: Yeah it's not sugar. Nope. Um, but through an enzymatic process, we're actually going to break down those starches. We're going to yield out of that fermentable sugars. So simple sugars, that are, you know, like glucose, maltose, maltriose, the big three that we're looking for. Um, those are one or two units of glucose and that's stuff that yeast can digest. Um, and they're gonna excrete alcohol, so we're gonna get a beer out of that. We're gonna take it and throw it in the still, and we're gonna start trying to purify it by removing out, uh, everything that we don't want. 

HG: So your first step is a beer. 

CL: Is a beer, yeah. We make a lot of beer. 

HG: Kind of. You probably don't- wouldn't like the taste of it, though. 

CL: Yeah, probably not. It's more like a, it's like a really alcoholic, cream of wheat cereal. (Both laugh)

HG: I don't know why we don't drink that. 

CL: Yeah, you know. 

HG: That's probably what the first drunk people drank. 

CL: Definitely. Yeah definitely. You know, they probably had some grains sitting around and some rain fell in there and some wild yeast got in, and somebody started drinking it. And was like, "Oh yeah! This is good." 

HG: "I feel different!" (CL laughs) But also good.

CL: But yeah.. so once you make the beer, though, it's going into the still, and the first run we do is something called the stripping run, uhm, and the.. it's called the stripping run because you're literally trying to strip off the alcohol. And so we run the still really hot, really fast.

HG: So you've got like a mash-y alcohol-y thing and you just wanna get the alcohol out.

CL: Yeah, right. And we're just gonna pump that straight into the still. So cream of wheat cereal, high abv (alcohol by volume) right into the still. And we're gonna heat it up. And we're gonna heat it as fast as we can. And everything that's gonna wanna evaporate, is gonna evaporate off. It's gonna leave behind a lot of water, and the solids of the grain. 

HG: The differentiating point here being that water has a lower evaporation point then alcohol.

CL: Right, correct. Yeah, so, uhm. Most of what we've got going on in there, you know, besides the actual solids, as far as volatiles go, um.. you know, we've got a lot of ethanol, but we've got probably about 200 other compounds kicking around in there.

HG: Yeah, which you don't want.

CL: Which we don't want, but we're gonna get to that later on in the process.


CL: In the beginning, yeah, all that stuff's evaporating all together. Um... what we collect is then called a "low wine", um, or a crude spirit. And that's, you know, that's again something you probably don't want to drink, or, you know, imbibe.

HG: For taste or for health?

CL: Both. 

HG: Yes.

CL: Yeah, both. Uhm, it probably wouldn't kill you, it would definitely get you drunk. I don't... you still wouldn't wanna drink it, unless you're real desperate, you know. 

HG: OK. (both laugh)

CL: But we'll collect all that, that low wine. Then we're gonna go... we're gonna head back into the still with it. Um... And, to make the base for all of these products, we have to, we have to get the purity of the ethanol up to at least 95%. And that requires some specialized equipment. Um, there's different types of distillations you can do. There's the most basic, is the alembic distillation. Um, and that's for... or a pot distillation. So it's a real simple, like, moonshine still, stuff like that. That's probably the first of type distillation anyone ever did. What we have are these, these fancy rectifying columns, and what they're gonna allow us to do is purify that ethanol up to that 95%.

HG: So, um, basically you're doing a chemical separation. So, one of the, like, hardest parts of chemistry is, you have a bunch, you have a vial full of stuff, and you wanna get one thing out of that. And there are many different ways to do that. There's all kinds of chromatographies, uhm, but distillation is one of the original ways, and that is differentiating by the boiling points of all of these different... different substances. So what is it about the rectifying column that uh.. or columns, that allows you to do that more effectively?

CL: Right, great question. Um, so we have a plated column. Um, and.. it uh.. divides up the column in all these different sections. And what you're gonna see if you could get in there and take a temperature reading.. what we're doing is a fractional distillation... and so if you can get into each one of those plated sections and take a temperature reading, you're gonna find a different temperature, it's gonna get cooler and cooler as you rise up through the column. And, um, because of that temperature range in there, you're gonna have higher concentration of something that has a, you know, a boiling point at that temperature. 

HG: 'Cause anything above that would have already condensed out.

CL: Right, exactly. Um, and so the way our system works, um, is that basically, whatever the most volatile substance is, in the pot... whatever we put in there, that's gonna naturally find an equilibrium somewhere in the column. And as we remove the most volatile stuff in the system, it's going to keep, kind of, shifting the next most volatile thing up the column.

HG: Right.

CL: Until we hit that sweet spot where we're getting that really nice ethanol.

HG: The really pure stuff.

CL: The real pure stuff, yeah, that's the stuff we want. So, um, I'd say, everything that goes through the system, um, if you took the total volume of it all, we're only taking out about 50% to use, to make the actual spirit, that we're gonna bottle. The rest of it's gonna get recycled.

HG: That's not bad.

CL: Yeah, I guess.

HG: So, I mean, you're losing a lot of ethanol in that process, so, along the way, as... you know you're not... you can't get a hundred percent of the methanol out, just in a methanol fraction, you get methanol and ethanol.

CL: Right. Right, yeah. They've a very similar boiling point. So, yeah. Um... So, yeah, that's part of the reason why we're losing that other 50%, it's getting lost, because it's mingled in with all these other components. Um, but we can save some of that, and run it back through the system, and actually recycle some of that back out, later on.

HG: And what is the purpose of having your other grains involved?

CL: Right, so we've got.. we've got a couple of different types here. We've got these two, which are unmalted grains, and we've got a rye, and wheat. And then we've got the malt. And, so, malt is pretty interesting. And uh, have you ever chewed on some malt before? Do you like Grape-Nut cereal by any chance?

HG: I do.

CL: Give that a try.

HG: Oh yeah.

CL: You taste that?

HG: Mm-hmm!

CL: Yeah... yeah, um...

HG: It has that little... that little malted milk balls flavor.

CL: Hmm, yeah, you put some milk on there or something, and go to town.

HG: Yeah!

CL: No, we're really fortunate that we have this great malting facility up in Great Falls, of all places, that makes an incredible amount of malt.

HG: Well, yeah, cause that's where like.... doesn't... Coors has a plant, like a big thing...

CL: We're lucky. Yeah, no, we get to... we get to source all of our grain locally, which is really important to us. It's great that we actually, like, get to take something like grain, add all the value to it that you get out of this product right here, and all the money gets to stay right in Montana. So we're real proud of that. And then, malting, yeah, you don't see a lot of these facilities.

HG: Yeah, what happens. How does malting happen? What do you... It's important for making beer, obviously, because Coors owns the plant, and it tastes completely different. What just... what happened here?

CL: So, if you were to chew on some of that stuff...

HG: Oh yeah, cool.

CL: Yeah, it's hard. (CL laughs)

HG: (chewing) Nothing is happening. It's like little rocks.

CL: Yeah. Little rocks. If you really get into there, maybe it's start like, gonna get a little chalky...

HG: I'm gonna keep sucking on it.

CL: ...chalky flavor going on. Um.. So basically, what's going on here is you're gonna take.. if you took that wheat, you could malt it. Yeah?

HG: (chewing) Got it.

CL: (laughs) Nice. It's not sweet though, right?

HG: No.

CL: No, there's nothing sweet there, there's nothing... you know you don't want to eat that. Uhm, and so with this malt, with this, it started off in a very similar shape and form. Uhm, but what they do up in Great Falls, or what you could do in your kitchen, basically, is take that seed, and rehydrate it, give it some water, start to let it sprout. It will form a little tiny rootlet, called a "chit". And once you see the chit, you know that, uh, that the seed has started to grow. It's actually activated all of these enzymes that are gonna start breaking up that carbohydrate, that we were talking about earlier, into an energy source that seed can use to grow out the roots, and its leaves, until it can get the sunlight and start photosynthesizing. And, and you know, getting its energy from there.

HG: Because of course the whole purpose of the seed is to both be, you know... there's a little part that's actually gonna be the plant, but it's mostly just fuel for surviving until you can add some leaves.

CL: Right, right, exactly.

HG: And that's the stuff that we're eating and that we're turning into alcohol.

CL: Right. Right, we wanna get at that energy. So what the malting process does is we activate those enzymes which is gonna help complete that process. We don't actually want to all the way through, and lose all that energy, by allowing the plant to grow, so they actually heat it. They kiln dry it, uhm, and kind of stop that process, but preserve the integrity of the enzyme, so that we can use it later on, we can reactivate those enzymes, through a combination of just rehydrating, and then getting up to the right temperatures, and then finish that process, convert all that starch, and um..

HG: So that gives you different starting starches, which... how does that affect your end product?

CL: What we wanna do as distiller is actually turn all of the starch into a fermentable sugar. Brewers actually want a little bit of residual sugar left in the beer to kind of give it some body, um, and that's done through the manipulation of temperature, for the most part, and how long it's rested at certain temperatures. What we're trying to get at, there's a couple of main enzymes in there, one is alpha amylase, one is beta amylase, which we... people have alpha amylase in their saliva.

HG: Which is why if you chew grains long enough, it will taste a little bit sweet.

CL: Yeah. Yeah, sure.

HG: And actually break that down, a tiny bit, in your mouth.

CL: Yeah, you're gonna get.. you're gonna start getting these kind of longer chained sugars. Uhm, dextrins. They're still not fermentable, but yeah, you can actually start getting something out of 'em. And that's the alpha amylase, kind of, at work. And it.. Cleaving up the starch. And the way starch looks is kind of like this branched little limb, with these kind of things coming off of it. And the alpha amylase is gonna get in there, and start hacking off all the little limbs and branches, and kind of chopping it all up. And then you get the next enzyme coming in, the beta amylase, and that's actually gonna chop it up into little smaller units of sugar, that we can actually ferment.

HG: That's what... That's awesome. We work so hard ... to... get drunk. And we're all indebted to you for your, for your efforts. And now Jessi from Animal Wonders is going to show us a guest, and I have no idea what it is.

HG: Jessi, what did you bring us?

Jessi Knudsen Casteñeda: (laughs) A pincushion!

HG: Yeah, it's a... it's a mammalian sea urchin.

JKC: Isn't it amazing? Look at his little face!

HG: Oh my god.

JKC: This is Groucho, he is an African pygmy hedgehog.

HG: So they come bigger than that.

JKC: They do. And African pygmy hedgehog is just... it's not an actual species, it's just kind of a common name.


JKC: So it doesn't really come from Africa. It's smaller than the wild ones you would find. It's actually a hybrid between an Algerian and a four-toed.

HG: OK, so it's a four-toed Algerian African pygmy hedgehog.

JKC: Yeah.

HG: They have four toes though.

JKC: Yeah.

HG: Do other... do all... there are hedgehogs that don't have four toes...

JKC: Yeah.

HG: OK. (HG & JKC laugh)

JKC: So these ones are the domestic kind, these are... They also domesticated some long-eared ones too, the European long-ear and the Indian long-ear. But these are the most commonly kept as pets, the African pygmy hedgehog. Uhm, and his name is Groucho.

HG: Hi Groucho. Are you.. how.. you apparently sense mostly through smell...

JKC: He does.

HG: ... is the impression I'm getting...

JKC: Oh, you can hear him.

HG: ... from the sniffing.

JKC: Let's see if we can hear him... (Groucho hisses) Yeah. OK, so that's not really sniffing. He's not... He is smelling the world, but the noise that you're hearing is not him smelling. It is actually his defensive noise.

HG: Yeah, it's like a hiss.

JKC: Yeah, yeah. And if he's... if I touch right here... (Groucho hisses) he doesn't like that.

HG: Don't do that.

JKC: No. He doesn't like that. So the reason that he is making those defensive noises is because he's nocturnal.

HG: Oh, he's like 'can I go back to bed, please?'

JKC: Exactly. So we woke him up and he's in bright lights, and he's gonna be defensive, because that's their main defense. They don't really... they can't run very fast, they don't have sharp claws, you know.

HG: Yeah, but the... covered in spines isn't bad.

JKC: Yeah.

HG: When you first brought him out, he just was a ball of spine. (gasps) oh my god, that's cute.

JKC: Hi buddy. I know, I know.

HG: Yeah, it really does look like a really big sea urchin.

JKC: Yeah, yeah. And it's pretty pokey. I mean, here, touch it with your bare hand.

HG: I mean, yeah..

JKC: It's pretty pokey.

HG: I wouldn't bite... try to eat that.

JKC: No. But if something did try and eat it, that's why he does the hissing, and that's why he does that little jump, when I was.. There we go, that jump. It's 'cause he's trying to poke 'em.
Now it's not like, he's not really.. he's not a rodent. He's not related to porcupines, he's more closely related to moles. So he's gonna have sharp little dagger teeth.
Um, but these quills do not come out. They're specialized hairs, but not like a porcupine, where they come out when you touch them, they stay in there.
Um, and you... look at them, look how you see, uh, they're crossing, crisscrossing every direction. When they're really calm and relaxed, and not threatened at all, all of those quills will go down, and they'll, you know, look like a cat or dog's hair, that all goes one direction. And you can actually pet them and it'd be, you know, not smooth, but...

HG: Yeah.

JKC: ...but not pokey. So when they get threatened, they're going to flex their back muscles, and their two longissimus dorsi's right there are going to kind of flex against each other and it's gonna create that crisscrossing of the quills, so that you can't get in there. And if you still try and get in there, and get their soft little belly... yeah... they can just roll right up into a ball.

HG: You roll into a ball.

JKC: Yeah. And his face is really close to his bum. (laughs)

HG: Yeah, right. Just stick my head in my butt, and sniff.

JKC: Would you like to hold him?

HG: Sure.

JKC: You got to balance him on that hand.


JKC: If he backs up, you have to use that other hand.


JKC: OK. So they're gonna wake up at night and they're gonna sniffing around (laughs), looking for insects. And they're called insectivores. They're opportunistic omnivores, but they're called... they're specialists, they're insectivores, and they're going to look for different kinds of insects. Their favorite thing is worms.

HG: Hmm.

JKC: And they can smell a worm 3 inches underneath the ground. So that's a pretty powerful sense of smell.

HG: Did you just lick me? You are, you're licking me.

JKC: Be careful, he might bite. (laughs)

HG: OK. 'Careful, he might bite' is not my favorite thing for you to say. (laughs)

JKC: Would you like to hold him now? We can pass the... pass the hedgehog around. Um, you can see that he's waking up more, he's getting more um, used to being up. Here you go buddy.

HG: That's how I feel in the morning too.

JKC: It takes a little bit.

HG: Yeah. It's like... at least a half an hour before my spines aren't standing straight up.

CL: It's so... It's kind of like bald under there.

JKC: Underneath you can see there's some fur around his face and on his belly he's gonna be furred. But these guys, yeah. They live in about 70...72 is optimal, degrees Fahrenheit.

HG: That's what I like.

JKC: Nice and relaxed, you don't have to work too hard to thermoregulate. Yeah.

CL: So when he curls up into a ball, will he actually roll away if he wants to?

JKC: Like Sonic?

(all laugh)

CL: Yeah.

JKC: That would be very cool. Uhm... No.

HG: That's terrible news.

JKC: Oh, these guys do something kind of weird. When they come across a new scent they'll lick it and they'll lick it so much, it creates this foam. Yeah, he was licking you a little bit. So he'll... if you'll let him. We moved him, but if you let him go long enough, the leather usually creates that effect, uhm... but he'll start.. He's licking you! OK.

(CL laughs)

HG: He's gonna start eating soon.

JKC: No no, but it gets this... this foamy around his mouth, and then they'll turn... they look really funny, they do this weird, really odd movement, and they put it on their back, and it's called anointing. So they like, lather the foamy saliva onto their back. There he is. Careful.

CL: Oh, right. He's on the veins. (laughs)

HG: On the veins, going for the veins.

JKC: Was that where he was licking you too?

HG: No, it was on the palm of my hand.

JKC: OK. OK. New people.

HG: Well, Groucho, thanks for entering into the education field, so that we could educate people with you. Um, and thanks for doing that cute thing you're doing right now.
Jesse, thanks for bringing Groucho.
Chad, thank you for sharing your... your knowledge, expertise and grains with me. Montgomery Distillery in Missoula Montana has lots of deliciousness, if you're ever around here.

JKC: You said you wanted Groucho on your shoulder, do you want to try?

CL: Yeah let's do that. Can we do that?

HG: Yeah.

CL: Oh my god.

JKC: He's poking you. He's totally poking you.

CL: He's making a lot of noises. Right in my ear.

JKC: Aw.

HG: Now lick your shirt.

JKC: Oh, he's licking you. Oh he's biting your shirt. Maybe he'll anoint it. (laughs)

CL: We can only hope. Just.. Oh hey.. oh hey. oh oh..

HG: Trying to disrobe you.

JKC: Love nibbles.

(all laugh)

JKC: Yeah, he's got like a huge mouthful. Do you want to try it?

HG: I think I'm good.

CL: Oh, great.

HG: Thank you guys.

And thank you for watching SciShow Talk Show. If you want to keep getting smarter with us, you can go to and subscribe.