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Craft distilleries

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@Spitfire
Spitfire started a discussion

Back in the 80s, I worked for a while in a brewery. It was one of the large commercial breweries, and one of the perks was two cases of beer each month. We made a certain "high test" lager popular with the 20-somethings, but I never did like the stuff--I used to give my 2 cases away to my friends, and buy good English ale. Snobbish, perhaps, but I much preferred a good nut brown ale (still do!).

And it would seem I was not alone. Even as I was working at the big brewery, a few small craft brewers were setting up shop, and by the early 90s good local craft brew was becoming readily available. The craft brew movement has changed the face of commercial brewing for good--to the point the major brewers are producing their own "fake" craft beers--and the selection at the beer store has never been better.

The same thing seems to be happening in whisky these days, too, at least in the States where there are many hundreds of small craft distillers producing all manner of "heritage" spirits. Here in Canada, not so much...our regulations still heavily favour the large established distilleries. And I don't really know about Scotland, although it seems to me the single malt scotch industry has always hovered somewhere between the full-on industrial production of the big Canadian distillers and the backyard stills of some of the American moonshiners.

In any case, this is a big part of what makes bourbon so interesting. Due to the rules governing it--at least 51% corn, aged in virgin charred oak barrels--most bourbon shares a basic flavour profile. But that's not to say it's all the same, and some of the small crafters are playing with some interesting tweaks--and searching these out can be rather interesting.

Sure, there are some bad ones--maybe quite a few. But one of the good ones is just south of me: Dry Fly Distilling, in Spokane, WA. They make a range of whiskies, from their "mainstream" Washington Wheat Whiskey to a series of specialty bottles, such as Triticale, Cask Strength Wheat, and Bourbon 101--so called because it's 50.5% ABV, or 101 proof. If you can find a bottle, I'd recommend it!

Then, there's Woodinville Whiskey, another Washington distillery located on the coast. I've never sampled--or even seen--any of their bottles, but they've had some good reviews, so if I ever see any...

So, anyone have any favourite "boutique" distillers they'd like to share?

4 years ago

22 replies

@Victor
Victor replied

@Spitfire, it is great to see more distilleries come online, because it is great to have variety and innovation. Yes, there are hundreds and hundreds of them in the US now, and as Sku from L.A. Whisky Society notes on his blog, there are typically 12 to 15 new ones opening up each month in the US. This pace has been sustained over at least several years now. Maybe half of the new US distilleries do or plan to produce whiskey as one of their products.

Variety and innovation are the upsides. There are not so much downsides as there are caveats. I am sure that you are aware of them. First, many new distillers require some time and experience before their products get up to snuff. So, if you buy their early product, it may still very much be a work in progress, and not a polished whisky. Second, these new producers have more expensive capital investments to amortise, compared to the big legacy producers, which ratchet up the retail prices of their products. Third, the small producers lack the economies of scale of the large producers, thus also putting upward pressure on the prices of their products. Fourth, also limiting production of the small distillers, these new distilleries have to compete for suppliers and trading partners in a very competitive marketplace. Access to barrels, especially new oak barrels, is a key rate limiting step for production capacity of many of the "smalls".

So, with most of these new microdistillers the buyer pays more, and, often for awhile at least, may get less. I don't often buy bottles from the "news" without having sampled them first. My sister often does, which greatly increases my exposure to them.

As far as the US landscape goes, leaving out all of the independent bottlers (sometimes called "producers") there are now several categories of distillers. There are the 12 or so big olds, who own 95% of the market by volume of distribution. There are some old and young medium size distillers, like A. Smith Bowman in Virginia (old), Corsair, Balcones, and Anchor Distilling. Then there are the 400+ smaller newer distilleries.

My personal favourites are typcially from the larger older "craft" producers. Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, which is the granddaddy of US 'craft distilling', having started more than 20 years ago now, is my favourite of all, with all of the Old Potrero products. I like a lot of the stuff from Corsair in Kentucky and Tennessee, especially including their Quinoa Whiskey, Wry Moon, and a lovely barrel-aged Gin.. Catoctin Creek in Virginia is another one with a lot of good products, and one which has grown from small to more medium sized in production and distribution. So, while, not precisely 'boutique', these are my favourites of the newer distillers. There are of course, many other good ones as well.

4 years ago 0

@Nelom
Nelom replied

While I can't share any favourite boutique distilleries, as I don't have any, there's a decent resource of Canadian micro-distillers over at CanadianWhisky.org:

canadianwhisky.org/news-views/…

And speaking of Davin de Kergommeaux, his most recent newsletter discusses craft distillers and he's actually somewhat critical of them. Or not so much them, but of the perception that somehow they're better than the big boys. I can't find the column on his website, but if you'd like me to forward you the e-mail just PM me your e-mail address and I'll send it over to you.

4 years ago 0

@Spitfire
Spitfire replied

@Nelom And that's kinda my point. On the list you linked, there are so few they can all be listed on one page; in the States, there are probably well over a thousand small craft distilleries by now.

I've read Davin de Kergommeaux' book, and I look at his site on occasion; I can well believe he's critical of the small producers, as he certainly seems to be a fanboy for the Canadian industrial-scale distilleries.

He's right, a craft distiller needs to put together a business plan. As does any startup business (hell, my wife teaches at an art school, and they teach their students how to create a business plan). The problem, in Canada, is partially due to the rules and regulations involving distilling, and requiring any distiller to jump through a lot of hoops to get going (one of the producers on de K's list is just up the road from me, and I dropped in one day to say Hi and got an earful). I note that a good proportion of de K's list are actually craft brewers who are only distilling on the side--is he going to tell them they don't have a viable business plan?

I'm with Victor--the upside to an active craft distilling scene is variety and innovation, and a general improvement of the whole industry as old standards realize they have to improve to compete. Yes, there are going to be problems, and poor batches--it's part of the learning curve. But once they're going, the small producers often CAN and DO produce a better product than the big players--at least, that's certainly what I've seen in the brewing industry, and so far my experience--albiet limited--with small crafters lead me to believe the same may happen with whisky.

As I said, I've read de Kergommeaux' book, and while he paints a good picture of distilling history in Canada, he does little to dispel my perception that the Canadian whisky industry is devoted to producing massive quantities of basic-quallity spirit intended for the coctail market (the cocktail, I've read, having been created during the American Prohibition as a way to hide the taste of substandard spirit being foisted on the public at the time). Sure, there may be a few gems here and there, but it doesn't compare to the craft scene in the US where hundreds of small distillers are actively trying to make the best product they can--and some of them are getting it very right!

4 years ago 0

@Nelom
Nelom replied

Yeah, me posting that link wasn't intended to counter your post. Just thought I'd submit a link to the few craft distilleries that we do have.

And yeah, while I can definitely see Davin's point re: craft distilleries not being automatically better, unlike what the use of the word "craft" implies, they are on the other hand not automatically worse either. Never having visited or tried a craft distillery product, I have no real opinion of them. Maybe with more relaxed regulations that could change.

4 years ago 0

@Nozinan
Nozinan replied

I think that there is a lot of potential for good stuff from craft distillers, but the downside is when you hear about them you are never going to taste any of it unless you have a way to get access, which in Canada is not easy.

I would suggest it is not impossible fir large producers to produce as good as or better products than craft prdistiilers. Booker's, Octomore, A'Bunadh... Some great examples. Bt when the same company floods the market with lower end crap it's harder to focus on the good stuff they provide.

4 years ago 0

@Victor
Victor replied

@Nozinan, on the subject of the large distillers' premium products and their mass market products, only 5% of their barrels are capable of producing top 5% products. This is whence the 'small batch' and other specialty products originate, the top 5% of barrels. There is only so much of this to go around. This is why Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Whiskeys are likely to remain rare and costly: these are from top 1% barrels. These will never be commonplace, even for a very large distiller.

Don't forget though, that the general public is not teeming with whisky connoisseurs. Most people who buy whisk(e)y still use whisk(e)y as a source of alcohol induced euphoria, and not as a source of elabourate gustatory and olfactory analysis.

4 years ago 1Who liked this?

@Victor
Victor replied

@Nozinan,..On Old Olympus' Towering Tops...it's been 43 years since I first had to learn that one.

4 years ago 0

@Spitfire
Spitfire replied

@Victor No, the general public is not teeming with whisky connoiseurs. I've learned that. But then again, decades ago the average beer drinker was happy with the industrial brewery swill I helped produce; nowadays, while sure there are still a lot of guys still drinking that stuff, there are a LOT of folks buying good craft brew, too. I think that as the craft distilleries continue to pop up, people will be willing to experiment, and many foks who might not have thought they would will become connoisseurs. Which grows the market, and helps us all.

4 years ago 0

@Spitfire
Spitfire replied

@Nelom Hey thanks, enjoyed reading that. Can't help but notice, though, the comment about microdistillers "being acquired," which may--or may not--be a good thing.

Also, the assumption that one has to be either a millennial looking for a new taste, or a "mixologist," to be interested in craft spirits. I'm neither (and I assume most Connosr members are not either, either). Indeed, as I mentioned somewhere else, I've read that the whole idea of "cocktails" was devised to hide the taste of bad whisky during the American prohibition (but then again, I'm a simple guy...).

3 years ago 0

@Nelom
Nelom replied

@Spitfire Yeah, the way I figure it even if it's millennials and mixologists driving the current microdistiller expansion (I have my doubts) I don't really care, since they'll still sell to me too. relaxed

As for distilleries being acquired... it's pretty much inevitable in an industry filled with giants and start-ups. But yeah, when a big whale swallows a small fish you never know what'll happen. I'm sure we'll all keep an eye on Forty Creek and see what influence Campari will have on them and their products.

3 years ago 0

@Nozinan
Nozinan replied

@Nelom Looking at the Forty Creek experience and the deterioration of the special releases since the buyout....

3 years ago 0

@Nelom
Nelom replied

@Nozinan Oh? They've been bad have they? I haven't partaken really, although I heard the last one was underwhelming. Granted, I didn't much care for Evolution but that was in 2014 (the same year as the Campari acquisition) and I would've assumed that that one would've been in the works long before Campari came onboard.

Come to think of it, I don't know how much planning has gone into previous special releases, but since aging in special casks takes time, isn't it reasonable to assume that both the 2015 and 2016 releases were in the pipeline before Campari could have a chance to meddle? I'm just speculating, I don't really know how they come up with these special releases or even if most of them require any pre-planning such as cask selection prior to aging and what-not.

3 years ago 0

@Spitfire
Spitfire replied

Big whales, small fish...yeah. While I'm sure some small distilleries survive acquisition with much of their "integrity" intact, it seems more common that once the "bean counters" get control, quality is often sacrificed and the name is maintained almost strictly for perception.

Many examples of this in other industries--I can name quite a few in the motorcycle world.

3 years ago 0

@Victor
Victor replied

@Spitfire, regarding "mixologists", a term I have always found rather pompous and self-aggrandizing, I've never been a cocktail guy myself, though my wife and sister love to experiment with them. I groan when the two of them get together and invite me to have a cocktail with them. I tell them "I'll try a sip of yours." Some of those cocktails are very nice, others less so, for my taste.

So I've had some very good, even excellent cocktails, along with all of the many others which did not interest me. I know exactly why it is that I generally don't like cocktails: I don't usually like the types of sweeteners used, especially simple syrup made from sucrose. I like the sugars from oak in whisk(e)y, but I don't want sucrose or maple syrup or corn syrup poured into my drink. The other major short-coming of cocktails is that the level of skill needed to get the proportions of ingredients just right in many cocktails is not commonly found in most bartenders, professional or home.

I have a very hard time defending cocktail-making, but I will do so now...at least to a limited degree. Cocktail-making in the US was a minor 'art form' at least a half century prior to the US Prohibition, "The Golden Age of Cocktails". I have had some cocktails which left me ga-ga at how excellent they were. Only a few were in that category, but they were truly spectacular. As you might expect the best cocktails are not made with second-rate spirits, but with first-rate spirits. Without question, for me and for many others, cocktail-making has much of its appeal as a way to try to make "meh" spirits into something palatable...which is to say as an undesirable last resort sort of option. I still feel that way about cocktails, because, except from certain local bartenders or at certain restaurants in New Orleans, I have very little confidence in the skill level of the average bartender. As far as "rolling your own" cocktails, of understanding the mentality of some enthusiastic above-average skilled bartenders, and learning something of the history of cocktail-making, I recommend a US book The Twelve Bottle Bar, by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson. This is the best and most practical book we have encountered on the subject of cocktail-making.

My sister and my wife plan to go to New Orleans in July (yeah, easy to get rooms there at that time of year!!!) for a week for the big bartenders national expo, "The Tales of The Cocktail". If I can arrange it, I will probably go with them. While I am cautious about what I may encounter, I feel like this is one show I don't want to miss, just to see the best on parade.

3 years ago 1Who liked this?

@Spitfire
Spitfire replied

@Victor Thanks for your articulate and informative reply.

My wife also enjoys the odd cocktail (and I have to admit, a good margarita on a hot dayl...). But, like yourself, I've mostly been underwhelmed when I try a sip of hers (always professionally made--she seldom drinks anything other than wine at home). Tit for tat, she won't even try whisky...

3 years ago 0

@paddockjudge
paddockjudge replied

@Nelom,

I believe Campari would have influenced the direction of Forty Creek before the release of Evolution.

The name (Evolution) itself is likely John Hall's way of drawing a line in the sand. The transition likely began a few years before the actual sale of the distillery and its stock.

The divestiture of the wine side of the business was the first major change. Balancing the inventory prior to the sale of the distillery would be another...and this includes discontinuing the practice of accumulating cherry-picked barrels for the special releases. Having an ample supply of wine-charged barrels allowed Hall a layer of comfort and flexibility not enjoyed by any other distillery. The lack of in-house seasoned barrels and the lack of an ample stash of top notch cherry-picked barrels for the limited releases would eventually compromise the quality of the special releases....and some of the core offerings too.

The whisky going into the bottles is now younger. Need I say more?

3 years ago 2Who liked this?

@Nelom
Nelom replied

@paddockjudge Thanks for those insights. Always interesting when folks like you share their knowledge and thoughts on stuff like this. +1

3 years ago 0

@Nozinan
Nozinan replied

I've always bought at least 2 of the special releases since confederation oak. I've returned or sold or traded many of the Harmony I accumulated and some of the Evolution. I bought a single bottle of this year's and I doubt I'll want a full bottle of the next one unless I try it first.

Fort me, Confederation Oak was a strong start, the peak was Heart of Gold, and I am evolving away from this distillery.

3 years ago 0

@Nelom
Nelom replied

@Nozinan

I've returned or sold or traded many of the Harmony I accumulated

astonished I loved the Harmony sample you gave me. I much prefer it to Evolution. In fact, I haven't opened my Evolution bottle yet. Been thinking about getting rid of it.

3 years ago 0

@Nelom
Nelom replied

Here's another article on the burgeoning micro-distillery scene in Canada (in this case, Toronto in particular, but it mentions other parts of the country too): thestar.com/amp/life/…

3 years ago 0

@Nelom
Nelom replied

I just posted about this in the books thread, but for whatever reason this old discussion about craft distilleries just popped into my head, so here's a bit of a double-dip... relaxed

Last month Davin de Kergommeaux and Blair Phillips released a new book called The Definitive Guide to Canadian Distilleries, and while it obviously have all the established big boys listed, the bulk of the book is dedicated to independent distilleries. It's fascinating to see how far we've come since the original discussion in this thread just three years ago.

Allow me to quote the post I just made in the aforementioned books thread:

It's a very nice package with some good write-ups. Also, the way its laid out, with checklists, maps, mentions of distilleries that are near to each other, distillery contact information and whether they have tours or accept visitors, makes it a great resource for roadtrips.

5 days ago 0

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