Master Distiller Mena Killough Pratt Talks Herbalism and Absinthe
Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder
When two friends on separate occasions suggested to Mena Killough Pratt that she apply to compete on Moonshiners: Master Distiller, a competition reality show on Discovery Channel, she brushed them off. She had only been distilling spirits since April, after all, so why step into the ring with folks who had been doing it their whole careers?
“I was like, ‘Who am I to think that I could compete with masters? I just started, I’m going to look like an asshole,’” she told Queen City Nerve.
Then a casting agent from Master Distiller reached out to Pratt on Instagram, so she rethought her position, looking at it as a learning position.
“After it came up in three different ways, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to take this as a sign. I’m just going to apply. No big deal. If I get on the show that would be cool. It would be a really cool way to step up my knowledge, and I can learn things from other people and really push myself … like, ‘Alright, I’m going to be on national TV, I don’t want to look like a dumbass so I’m going to dive down this wormhole and really focus here.’”
And dive down the wormhole she did. Not only did Pratt make it onto the show — recording an “Absinthe Edition” episode in August that aired Jan. 5 — she became the first woman to win the competition, taking home the Master Distiller title for her absinthe, which she had never made until she was confirmed as a competitor.
Her national television appearance was just one unexpected aspect of a whirlwind year that brought her from bartending to making hand sanitizer to distilling liquor. She also founded Green Fairie Apothecary this year, through which she offers goods and services tied to herbalism and spirits.
Following her Master Distiller win, we visited the office where she works as head distiller for the Wood & Grain Project, Unknown Brewing’s spirits program. We talked about her many crafts and how they’re all connected, among other topics.
You’re an herbalist, mixologist and distiller. Which interest came first?
Herbalism first. I mean, I’ve loved booze all my life, though (laughs). I went to herbal school [at the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine] in 2012, but before that I was doing massage therapy, healing arts, and I got interested in energy work and then plant spirit medicine. Then from there I dived down the herbal wormhole. My mother is from Thailand, so I grew up with a lot of topical ointments that we used, and not knowing until years down the road that my grandmother who I never met was an herbalist in Thailand.
I was listening to a podcast and they were talking about herbalists, like, “Start asking around your elders in your family, you’re going to find herbalists.” It’s like a thing in the DNA. I found it on both sides. On my dad’s side, one of my grandfathers down the road had made Dr. Hays Elixir, and I grew up with my drunk uncles trying to sell his elixir.
So you’re continuing in that vein with Green Faerie Apothecary?
Yeah, I just started that this year. I had led healing-arts classes focused on energy work, body work and herbalism, but I had gotten to the point of just giving so much of my energy that I found that I was having a hard time with boundaries. So when I went back to school for horticulture to further expand my understanding of plants, I got back into bartending and serving and stuff [at Kiki bistro and Tattoo cocktail lounge in Plaza Midwood]. And then I started really nerding out behind the bar and bringing my knowledge of plants to making really interesting profiles with Kel Minton, Kiki’s beverage director.
So I worked with him to create new concoctions in Kiki and discovered Amari [cocktails], where there’s a lot of those traditional recipes that have been around for 200 years. They were formulated by herbalists. So I got super interested, started researching that and those bitter flavor profiles, and their healing aspect as far as the digestive system.
And what inspired your interest in distilling?
Behind the bar at Kiki and Tattoo, like if a person seemed down, then the idea for a bespoke cocktail, I’m going to put mimosa or lemon balm in this cocktail to help lift them up a little bit. So I really loved that level of control with flavor and helping to uplift people at the same time. So I wanted to see what the effect is with the flavor and the energetics of plants going into the bottle instead of coming out of the bottle. I thought there would be more room to expand and learn, too. I’d been distilling floral waters for several years, but distilling spirits is a whole other thing, and it’s cool to bring that knowledge and bridge the gap into spirits.
How did you link up with Unknown Brewing?
After COVID hit the United States, like all the restaurants and clubs, Kiki shut down and I was out of work. I was trying to get my unemployment and my profile was just like, I was in some weird loop, so I didn’t have any money coming in. Then I heard that Brad [Shell, owner at Unknown Brewing] was looking for some help.
They were making hand sanitizer and working 24 hours a day, so they needed somebody to work the second shift. I talked to him and I was brought in and they said if I didn’t suck they were going to teach me to do spirits and here I am. The thing that had been really great is having that start of just working with the ethanol and not having to worry about people ingesting it. It definitely made me feel a little bit more comfortable.
You were mentored as a mixologist by Kel Minton and Christina Marie. Who taught you the nuance of distilling?
Brad Shell, the owner here. He’s the one that trained me in his ways.
How long did that take until you were comfortable being in this room by yourself and in charge of the whole process?
At the end of the week he had me doing it alone. (laughs) But I’m still learning. When I had my still set up differently and I wasn’t getting the proof down, I’ve never configured a still like this, so there were conversations about, “OK, with this set-up, how high can I push this to get my proof down?” I’m always checking the temp, I don’t want to blow anything up.
How did you get into absinthe, specifically?
So of course being an herb nerd I’m going to be drawn to the spirits that are very herbaceous. My last month at Kiki and Tattoo, I was really focused on absinthe cocktails. The whole artemisia plants; one of the main components is wormwood, and that’s Artemisia absinthium, and then there’s mugwort, Sweet Annie, that whole group of herbs I’m really into. So I was just playing around making cocktails, anyone who was just at the bar and would be like, “Whatever, just make me anything that you’re playing with,” I was like, “You’re getting absinthe!” (laughs)
So did you start making that upon your arrival at Unknown?
No, I made a lot of vodka, whiskey, gin, agave spirits. It wasn’t until I won Master Distiller: Absinthe Edition that my boss was like, “We gotta do this!”
You grow all your ingredients in house and you’re familiar with every step, from planting the herbs to distilling the spirits to mixing the drinks. How does that help your process?
I think it’s super valuable. Even on that episode of Master Distillers, I don’t think I would have won that competition if I didn’t have the knowledge that I had behind me, and understanding after working with a lot of the plants. When they threw the curveballs, like, “Oh, you’re going to do a two-hour maceration to get the color,” luckily I had been doing extractions, making things with these plants for so long, I was like, “OK, there are two possible ways that I can make this happen correctly to the best of my abilities.”
And when things come up here, if something’s not working right with the plants, I’m like, “I will need a little bit more of this flavor, I need to crack it this way to help it release the oils,” or, “This part of this particular plant I’m just going to use instead of throwing the stem in there, because that’s going to give it more of a woody flavor.” I think it’s paramount.
Your distillery has a lot of antique looking equipment — these small copper stills specifically. Is that helpful for absinthe or just personal taste?
Oh (laughs), for one it’s my personal taste, but the older style stills, the alembic and the ergot colorateur, those are mainly copper stills and it’s really important, the shape of the still, how it pushes the distillate over. For the big still, since we make vodka and we’re doing a lot of stuff with heavy-flavored fermentations, as much as we can break up the distillation and have it happen multiple times in the still, the cleaner the spirit is going to be, so to speak — you’re not going to have those off flavors. But with absinthe and some of the botanicals, we want all those flavors to come through. That’s why it took me so many tries to configure the still to let it open up and not lose as much flavor.
It does make a difference. When Heaven Hill [Distillery in Kentucky] had their fire a few years ago [in 1996], their stills were destroyed, and they made a replica just like the stills that they had, but they were making dents in the stills to be like the other ones, because each particular still imparts its own character on the distillate. So you can have two exact stills that have two different life experiences and they’re going to make a subtle difference in flavor.
You’re releasing 100 bottles of absinthe through the Wood & Grain Project on Jan. 16. What should we know about it?
This is a traditional absinthe with winter botanicals. See, the experience changes with the different types of herbs and different seasons, because I’m harvesting everything I use, except for the mint, which was local, but the stuff out of my garden, there’s not as much sunlight [in winter], so there’s not as much chlorophyll, and there’s going to be less essential oils, so you’re going to have a different flavor profile. So this is a cool project to explore that difference.
You seem to be right in your element, and this room is the perfect place for you to nerd out and create. Is this something you could have expected back in March of last year?
Definitely not. Once I started really diving down the wormhole with Amari, I was like, “I really want to learn to distill, this seems really cool, I need to keep at it and then eventually things will open up.” I was already looking at different schools for distilling and then this opportunity came up. If you told me this time last year that I was going to be distilling spirits and on the Discovery Channel I’d be like, “Muahahaha, don’t lie to me.”
Master Distiller airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Discovery Channel and also streams on Discovery+. Visit Unknown Brewing’s Eventbrite page to reserve a bottle of Mena’s absinthe.
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