Whisky Connosr

Wizards of Whisky winners: USA Craft Distillers

By Dominic Roskrow

There are literally dozens of American craft distillers springing up across the United States - and they're dividing the world of whisky right down the middle.

Truth be told, very many of them aren't very good. They don't know what they're doing, some have seen the opportunity to cash in on a fashion wave, and many are making products that they either don't realise are dreadful or are hoping to pass off in pursuit the quick buck. These distillers are the spirits equivalent of the scores of do-it-yourself identikit parish and regional magazines where would-be publishers print badly written rubbish and sell editorial for advertising. They are an insult to professionalism, they undermine the quality end of the industry, and they fail to respect the provenance and heritage of the industry they are leeching off.

I've heard Kentucky distillers describe the whole craft distilling movement as a cancer, spitting the words 'craft distillers' as they might if they were talking about rapists and child abusers. They fear that a new generation who might have come to whiskey will be put off by inferior whiskeys and lost forever.

I think they have nothing to fear. My view is that if you find any whisky at all you'll eventually find Scotch. If you find American whiskey you'll find quality Kentucky bourbon. And anyone finding whisky will be involved in the whisky conversation and will be told pretty quickly that if what they're tasting is not the best, there are plenty of routes in to whisky to explore. It's like watching a bad game of park football and concluding that Manchester United and City aren't worth watching because they must play a similar way. No, the threat isn't to the big boys - it's to the reputation of the percentage of craft distillers who are going about making spirit properly, carefully and with pride. There are so many new American distillers all making claims for there products - how do the good ones stand up?

The answer is through awards like these Wizards, and through the hard work of the likes of Chuck Cowdery, Lew Bryson, Jason Pyle and Jim Murray.

To see how this trend might pan out, take a look at what's happened with craft brewing in The States. Once the explosion was underway hundreds of craft distillers jumped on the bandwagon and after a period of time, the quality overall dipped. Then the bad producers fell away and a smaller, healthier industry moved forward.

With spirits the process will be slower but undoubtedly we're at the stage where the bad apples have yet to fall from the tree. And we're also starting to see the biggest ones with enough money to export starting to sell internationally. Not all of them are great. At The Whisky Show in October there were some shockers.

No shockers made it to these awards - indeed, the number entering the awards were very limited. That's okay, because the quality was excellent and this for me was the surprise category. I'd take quality over quantity any day.

i'll be calling on American new wave whiskey expert Jason Pyle to help me grow this category next year. In the meantime, this turned out to be the most competitive and surprising category of them all.

One definitely to watch in the future.

WIZARDS OF WHISKY US CRAFT DISTILLER OF THE YEAR

WIZARDS OF WHISKY US CRAFT DISTILLER OF THE YEAR

BALCONES

You'll find The Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas - and waco just about says it all. It is is owned and operated by Chip Tate, an amazing distiller who has set about creating premium, small batch spirits which break new ground and yet pay homage to America's whiskey tradition. So you'll find young bourbon, and matured bourbon but the distillery makes single malt. Oh, and then there's Brimstone, which is, quite frankly, one of the most unusual whiskies you'll taste outside Switzerland. It is a bold, powerful whiskey created entirely of roasted Hopi blue corn, smoked using sun-baked Texas scrub oak, which imparts an intense campfire smokiness. The award goes because of the pure diversity that the distillery's capable of. Fantastic.

WIZARDS OF WHISKY US CRAFT WHISKEY OF THE YEAR

WIZARDS OF WHISKY US CRAFT WHISKEY OF THE YEAR

HIGH WEST CAMPFIRE

If Balcones walked off with the ultimate prize it was given a run for its money by High West, in what turned out to be the biggest battle of all The Wizards.

High West is is Utah and like Balcones it makes a wide collection of different whiskeys, including ryes. But because it makes whiskey in batches there has always been the potential for inconsistency. And indeed, it may have become a little unstuck because of this trait this year.

Indeed on the day I was putting these results together Jim Murray's Whisky Bible came out and Jim rang me to discuss it. Inevitably we started talking about his awards and the fact that in his view America is wiping the floor with the rest of the world at the moment.

But he told me that he had had a problem with one or two High West bottlings this year, and in particular Double Rye, which he was very disappointed with. It won a medal in The Wizards, but wasn't on the same par as other whiskeys in the category. Same with Son of bourse.

But I say watch this space - High West mean business, as do Tuthilltown and a growing number of others. These distilleries are very much part of the New Wave of Whisky story - and deserve their place in The Wizards Awards.

GOLD MEDAL WINNERS

GOLD MEDAL WINNERS

SILVER MEDAL WINNERS

SILVER MEDAL WINNERS

  • Balcones Baby Bourbon
  • Balcones Single Malt
  • Troy White Corn Whiskey
BRONZE MEDAL WINNERS

BRONZE MEDAL WINNERS

  • High West Double Rye
  • High West Son of Bourye