The Art of Craft

The Art of Craft

Scott Spolverino looks at the rise of micro distillers

Production | 28 Oct 2011 | Issue 99 | By Scott Spolverino

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Distillation today is a far cry from its introduction. When distillation first started, it was done as a necessity rather than a luxury. Completed in small batches on farms to save crops that would otherwise spoil, distillation was by no means an industrial process. Times have changed and distillation has become a multi-billion dollar business. Long gone are the days of private distillers handcrafting product in nigh miniscule volumes. Or are they? In the past 10 years, while companies like Diageo have been growing larger, a trend in the United States has been pushing to smaller. Smaller volumes, smaller companies, and smaller stills, this trend has steadily grown to the point that it is gaining international attention. Known by many names such as craft, boutique, or farm distilling, small-scale and independent distillers free from the multinational conglomerate yoke have been cropping up across the country.

It is difficult to put a definition on exactly what a micro-distiller is and what they distill as well. The easiest way to describe them is ‘hands-on.’ Many of the distillers do not have the budget to hire engineers, publicity teams, and lawyers. Since it is so expensive to start a micro-distillery, in terms of both licensing fees and equipment prices, they have to do everything independently and at minimal costs. But this independence gives them the freedom to produce whatever they desire. An extremely popular white distillate is fruit brandy, known as eau-de-vie. The relative ease of obtaining and minimal required processing of the fermentable bill (no mashing or strike temperatures needed) makes it a favourable distillate. Other white spirits include gin, vodka and, of course, white whiskey as popular stepping stones for budding distillers to recoup production costs. Prominent examples of white whiskies include the High West Silver series of oat and rye new makes, Tuthilltown’s “Hudson New York Corn Whiskey”, Death’s Door White Whisky, King’s County “Moonshine”, and Finger Lakes Glen Thunder Corn Whiskey. However, by this point, some well aged whiskies are being released to the market. Stranahan‘s Colorado Whiskey comes in at two years old while more venerable craft whiskies, such as Templeton Rye and St. George‘s Single Malt come in at anywhere from four to 15 Years Old.

There are a variety of theories on its beginnings of craft distilling but the most popular stems from the 1979 law signed by President Carter. An addendum to Internal Revenue Code, Section 5053, now known as 5053(e), allowed for the production of 200 gallons of beer for two or more people per year tax free. This freedom of the American population to brew on their own without government registration may have sparked the trend of micro-distillers as many of the early micro-distillers were actually off-shoots to the micro-brewing industry. However, making the jump from government sanctioned micro-brewing to micro-distilling was entirely different as the beverage laws only dealt with large scale distilling. Now, 38 out of 50 states now have micro-distilleries and, according to the American Distilling Institute, of the 350 distillation permits issued by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), 151 permits have been issued to craft or micro-distillers. While this may be credited to tenacity on their part, it is most certainly credited to the easing of state-level distillation licence laws in the past 10 years. The laws mandate a variety of things to qualify as a small/micro/craft distiller and grant special accordance to them. For example, the definition of production volume is one of the most widely ranging factors involved in the law. Laws dictate a varying annual production volume of anywhere from 25,000 gallons to 60,000 gallons. Many craft distiller licences come under the heading of a ‘farm-distilling’ licence which allows for agricultural distillation only. Some go so far as to denote that local / regional produce must be used, in part, to make the mash or fermentable bill. It may seem as if there are no benefits to the craft distilling licence but there is one major one that has not been discussed: the price. By and large, the price of a craft distilling or farm-distilling licence is extremely cheap compared to standard licences. Standard distilling licences can cost up to $50,000 while craft distilling licences cost in the range of $100-$250. With nearly a 500 fold decrease in licencing fee for some states, the continued expansion of liquor laws to allow for easy and affordable access to special distillation permits has furthered the advance of the micro-distilling boom in the United States.

The movement of craft distilling has brought about subtle but important changes in the way whiskey is both produced and consumed. One of the most striking examples of this is the prevalence of new make spirit. With the massive influx of unaged white whiskey into the market, both mixologists and consumers have acquired a taste for the product for both straight consumption and mixing. The fascination with white whiskey has lead to several releases from prominent distillers of their once unreleased new makes. Heaven Hill’s “Trybox Series”, which are uncut, barrel suitable proofed white whiskies in both their bourbon (Evan Williams) and rye (Rittenhouse Rye) mash bills. Buffalo Trace has also sought to push a soft commercial release of their White Dog to retailers all over the United States. It has also sparked the hotly debated topic of “quick aging.” In an attempt to get an aged product out in a short period of time, many distilleries are using significantly smaller than traditional whisky barrels in order to allow the spirit to interact with the wood at an accelerated rate. The use of five and ten gallon barrels is a popular maturation route to take for many craft distillers.

There is even a large interest in using local products for distillation, even above and beyond the necessary requirements of craft distilling law. Balcones’ distillery in Waco, Texas uses regional blue corn to make its Baby Blue corn whiskey and Texas scrub oak to make it‘s Brimstone smoked corn whiskey. Tuthilltown, one of the more visible distilleries, uses Hudson Valley sourced corn to make its whiskey range and Hudson Valley apples to make it‘s vodka range. Berkshire Mountain Distillers uses corn from a nearby farm.

While mash bill, technique, and legal requirements may separate craft distilleries across the US, one common theme unites them: innovation and quality. Craft distilleries, with their lower licencing costs and forced cap on production limits are positioned in a place to be as creative as they wish. From the Balcones Brimstone smoked whiskey, to Charbay’s Doubled and Twisted whiskey made from a hopped beer mash, creativity unfurls in craft distilling products. Attention to detail, small distillation runs, and hands-on, technologically-unassisted distilling means a level of quality and attentiveness that cannot be matched by large distilleries.

Craft distilled whiskey, as we know it today, is just the tip of the iceberg; the pioneers blazing a trail both legally and commercially for those to come to expand upon and flourish within.

Only those that seek to push boundaries and challenge traditional preconceptions will find themselves rising above. Fidelity to quality and departure from normality will separate the wheat from the chaff. Or, more appropriately, the barley from the husk.
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