The author of this blog post is Paul Hletko, the founder and Master Distiller at Few Spirits, an upcoming craft distillery in Evanston, IL. Paul is unaffiliated with any of the distilleries mentioned in this post, despite being friendly with many of their proprietors. You can follow @fewspirits on Twitter, and fan Few Spirits on Facebook.
There is a revolution in distilling taking place in America, driven by a group of craft distillers. The craft distillers are starting to draw attention, and not all of it positive. Most of the bottles come with a steep price tag, so how is a malt-head to know what to make of it all?
First, it is important to realize that the average whiskey (many of the craft distillers are American, and use the ‘e’) fan, simply will not like many of the craft offerings. In fact, that’s the whole point, at least to some extent. The world of spirits, and even the ‘small’ corner of the spirits world that is whiskey is big enough to encompass a number of products, each of which is different from the next. Of course, the fact that one drinker does not like a particular malt does not mean that others won’t. Personally, I don’t like Speysiders, and much prefer Islays, but nothing can top a nice bourbon. I hope you disagree with me, and would love to discuss over each of our favorite drams. I’d love to point out the charms of my preferred, and learn more about yours.
There are numerous quality, and unique, drams on the market. These drams range from the marvelously complex Four Grain Bourbon from Tuthilltown (recently purchased by Grant, a company well known to Scotch fans) to the simple pure corn whiskies such as Virginia Lightning. Many craft distillers take great pride in the craft of whiskey production, whereas others are best compared to the independent bottlers, and take base spirit and age it, or even source aged whiskey to bottle under their own name. Chuck Cowdery, a noted bourbon critic has even termed several of these distillers “Potemkin Craft Distilleries” in a not so subtle denigration. But for every 10 ‘Potemkin Distilleries’, you will find two or three craftsmen, like Scott & Becky Harris of Catoctin Creek Distillery in Virginia, or Robert & Sonat Birnecker of Koval Distillery in Chicago.
Craft distillers make whiskey to be enjoyed. A craft distiller does not have the marketing muscle of a LVMH, Diageo, or the like. In fact, most craft distillers probably sell in a year about what Diageo spills every day. For example, Illinois only allows craft distilleries to sell 5000 gallons of spirit a year. 5,000 gallons is less than 100 53-gallon barrels. How many distilleries can you think of that operate on that level? These craft distillers truly hand make the product and pour their heart and soul into each dram. Since the whiskey is made to be enjoyed, few craft distilleries use age statements – the value is in the liquid, not a number on the label. Certainly, many distilleries are attempting to gain the character of age in a shortened period of time, but so are majors – see Laphroig’s recent Quarter Cask offerings. A whiskey that is to be enjoyed does not need an age statement – it needs to be enjoyable.
Unfortunately, whiskey fans need to expect to pay for a bottle of craft distilled spirits. Remember the 5000-gallon production limit. Like most industries, economies of scale have a profound effect on pricing, and whiskey is no exception. Everything, from grains to casks, to shipping, to packaging costs more when you use less. So, it should come as no surprise that the craft, hand made spirits are a bit more dear than some mass produced products. However, this comes with a huge benefit – uniqueness and hand-crafted heritage. The ability to make products in such small batches is leading to more unique offerings in the market. Sure, you probably won’t like all offerings, but you will like some. Just as you probably don’t like all Highland malts, you probably do like some. Maybe you prefer Dewars to Macallan, or vice versa. Here, the art of the distiller can take a singular voice. Compare the relatively tails-heavy offerings from Copper Fox Distillery with the pure hearts of Koval Distilling. Compare the wheated white whiskey of Death’s Door with the white rye Mosby’s Spirit from Catoctin Creek.
Craft distilling, especially in the US, should have a dramatic impact on the quality, quantity, and diversity of whiskey on the market. US labeling regulations have ensured that whiskies labeled “bourbon” remain consistent. While this consistency has its benefits, it has also kept American whiskey from developing a range of flavor profiles and characteristics. Certainly, there have always been differences between more heavily wheated bourbons, and their more intensely flavored rye brethren. But, the mandate that “bourbon” include at least 51% corn has narrowed the gap. With the influx of new craft distillers, these boundaries are being challenged – after all, if you can only sell 5000 gallons, you have no need to make enough to service the entire world, as do the major players. The magic of craft distilling is in the ability to provide a number of products in batches that the major purveyors simply cannot produce. There will be winners in the whiskey marketplace, and there will sadly be losers, but the real winner is the consuming public.
So, give an American craft distillers a try. Keep an open mind – the product is probably unlike anything you’ve had before, and this is good. Slainte!