For the last two decades the craft beer movement has been thriving in the United States. Driven by consumer demand for hardier beer with flavors more distinctive than those offered by the large breweries in the country, microbreweries have popped up in towns of all sizes. That demand has also seen consumers start looking for imported brews made by smaller, more quality-oriented producers. The result has been, obviously, the proliferation of choices but also a focus on character and nuance.
The same is now happening in the world of spirits. The purchase of Jim Beam, an icon of American whiskey, by the Japanese company Suntory has made many Americans sit up and take notice. Consumers are not so concerned that their booze money is now flowing to a large, foreign company. But the $13.6 billion deal drove home the point that many of the top liquor labels on the shelves are now owned by companies that may be just as interested in profit as they are in quality. While no one has accused Jim Beam of diluting quality following the deal, many have begun to search for a bourbon — the quintessential American spirit — that is produced in small batches with a focus on quality.
Perhaps more so than in the world of beer, nuance is king when it comes to the taste of liquor. Lower in alcohol, beer has a lot more room to play with flavor. From light lagers to ultra-dark stouts and porters, the product we called beer can take many forms and flavors. Vodka, on the other hand, is typically 40 percent alcohol or more. It is clear, and it is intended to be neutral in flavor. But lurking under that initial burn from a sip of vodka is nuance and that nuance is what defines quality. The same is true for bourbon, gin, or any other high octane beverage.
As liquor brands are bought up by larger companies, imperfections are removed from the finished product. The liquor industry is big business globally and the sheer size of acquisitions like Suntory-Beam means that stringent quality controls are put into place. The result is often a high quality product, but that product, some fear, becomes indistinguishable from others. Bourbon tastes like bourbon. Vodka tastes like vodka. Again, no imperfections, but no nuance either.
That may be the most important factor in the new craft distilling movement. Driven by a trend in American consuming to “buy local” or at least “buy small,” consumers are looking for booze with a little more character, produced by someone with whom they may shake hands and discuss the distilling process. That’s not to say that consumers are turning their backs on the major brands, but those who want to pour something a little more interesting in an intimate group are turning to these small batch liquors.
What follows is a short list of producers who make such products. Most are in the United States, one is not. Some produce many types of liquor, some produce only one. Some are quite large, boasting many brands, some are quite small. But so far they have all thrived on a dedication to quality, small scale, and nuance.
The techniques and the business models vary greatly, as we shall see, but that only reflects the relative young age of the craft distilling movement. If micro brewing is any predictor, this new wave in distilling may be the next the big thing.
When the Suntory purchase of Jim Beam was announced, many began to wonder if American-owned bourbon producers still existed. They do, and Buffalo Trace is one of a handful of such distillers that are often touted as producing small batches of high quality bourbon. Make no mistake about it though: Buffalo Trace is big. It is no tiny mom and pop operation, with the company boasting over 15 different brands of bourbon. But they have, so far, remained dedicated to staying relatively small, and have resisted any courting by major distillers to sell out.
Among the top shelf brands offered by Buffalo Trace are Blanton’s, Van Winkle, and the banner brand Buffalo Trace. The Van Winkle brand offers bourbons aged for as long as 23 years, ranging in cost from $80 to over $200. They are high quality and offer the character that many discerning bourbon drinkers look for.
Buffalo Trace’s dedication to nuance can be seen in its offerings of single barrel bottlings. Bourbons labeled “single barrel” are just that; bottled straight from a single barrel rather than blended from many barrels in the distiller’s warehouse. Such mixing blends out imperfections, but also character. Blanton’s is also a well-known, top shelf brand and was the first ever single barrel bourbon sold commercially.
Again, this is not a tiny company, but they are smaller than Buffalo Trace. The distillery came into being when master distiller Lincoln Henderson came out of retirement in 2006. Henderson had previously worked for the large distiller Brown-Forman, a company that owns Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve. Disillusioned by bourbon offerings at the time, Henderson, who was described as a “renegade bourbon provocateur” launched the distillery.
With a dedication to quality that can only be realized through smaller scale production, Angel’s Envy only offers three products. Those are Angel’s Envy Port Finished Bourbon, Angel’s Envy Cask Strength, and Angel’s Envy Rum Finished Rye. The banner product sells for just under $50, giving it a middle shelf price produced by a man with top shelf dedication. Henderson passed away last year.
Opening a distillery can be expensive. To do it right can easily be a $1 million investment. One of the draw backs to producing bourbon and other types of whiskey is that those products have to be aged, many times for at least two years. The aging, often in oak barrels, is what gives the whiskey its caramel color and the vanilla-like hints in the flavor.
Buying a still, bottling equipment, and oak barrels is quite an investment. Waiting for a return on that investment is sometimes too much for a distiller who would have to wait at least two years before selling the first bottling. The way around that, for some, is to produce vodka. The clear, neutral liquor doesn’t require aging and can be transferred from still to bottle in less than a week.
Hangar 1, of Alameda, California, is one distiller that is creating distinct vodkas on a smaller scale. Proving, again, that nothing is simple in the liquor business, Hangar 1 is owned by St. George Spirits, a company that also produces absinthe and single malt whiskey. Hangar 1 thrives on distilling grapes from the California wine business and offers a variety of flavored vodkas alongside its banner “straight” vodka. That product is finished with the distillation of midwestern wheat. Hangar 1 was one of, if not the first, vodka producers in the United States.
Milk & Honey
All this craftiness is not just an American phenomenon. Milk & Honey Distillery, Israel’s first spirits producer, is also looking to cash in on the new wave small scale distilling with their own brand of whiskey. The company shrugged off the risk and the wait associated with producing whiskey and got the venture off the ground in 2012. The first bottlings are expected to hit shelves in 2017.
Why do it? Because liquor is big business. Companies like Suntory, Diageo, and Pernod Ricard— the three biggest distillers in the world — sport huge portfolios of international booze brands. The group of investors in Israel behind Milk & Honey decided that lovingly produced, distilled products could find a niche. Well aware of the emerging markets in countries like China and India, the group decided to take the plunge.
“You have this wave of small distilleries, but you have this surge of demand from the far East and the Scots are running out of whiskey,” said Simon Fried, one of the investors involved.
They are also considering producing a gin that would boast herbs sourced from the home country of Israel.
If the sheer size of Buffalo Trace or the fact that Hangar 1 is owned by a larger distiller fails to live up to the ideal of a truly small, craft-dedicated distillery then consider Woody Creek Distillers of Basalt, Colorado.
This distillery may just be the craftiest of the crafty. A true return-to-roots company Woody Creek produces a 100 percent potato vodka. What sets its apart is that the company oversees every aspect of the production process. That’s right – it even grows the potatoes.
One of the dirty little secrets of the industry is that many distillers start with neutral grain spirits, a mostly flavorless, mass-produced ethanol that is redistilled. It is blank canvas for distillers to add flavors in the distilling process and turn it in to something else, like whiskey or gin. That doesn’t happen at Woody Creek. The potato vodka is all potato, and the growth and harvesting of those potatoes is overseen by Pat Scanlan, the founder of Woody Creek.
The company is also due to release a reserve vodka, an apple brandy, and even a “Colorado Whiskey” in the coming months and years.
That’s about as down to earth as one can get. Woody Creek is definitely for the purist who wants to be sure that the liquor they are downing is produced with the utmost care. The other offerings mentioned, though, are also dedicated to quality and nuance. They have remained dedicated perhaps because they realize that it can also reap rewards.