By Liza Weisstuch

Opinion: The independent whiskey scene isn't what it was

When the going got tough, the original pioneers were just getting going
At this moment in 2022, it’s hard to imagine that in the United States at the turn of the 21st century, there were long-standing distilleries in Kentucky making bourbon, some in Tennessee doing their charcoal-filter thing, and little else. Monongahela rye, Pennsylvania’s signature, was a thing of the past. Abandoned industrial brick buildings remain as memorials and tributes. Maryland rye, as a category, was also a chapter in history books.

In the very early 2000s, a few enterprising folks were tinkering with fruit distillation, making brandies inspired by their ancestral lands, like Marko Karakasevic, owner and operator of Charbay Distillery, in California, whose family traces its distilling roots back 12 generations before him. Nobody could have predicted that, two decades later, there’d be whiskey made and aged in every state. In some, like Texas, New York and California, there are over 100 small distillers, many of whom make concerted efforts to use local grains and other products – a boon for regional agricultural industries.

My assignment for this issue was to check in with some of the early pioneers of the craft distilling movement, and hear their perspectives on the swiftly and perpetually changing industry and what they think gave it such momentum. Many people I spoke with never imagined they’d one day be regarded as the old guard. Once upon a time, after all, they were the scrappy, strong-minded disruptors getting laughed out of the room by giant corporate distributors. To be an authority, offering their perspective as a historical record? It would’ve been an impossible – if not comical – notion back then. And yet, here we are, watching as global conglomerates scout out distilleries to invest in (or outright purchase), imbuing their own old-world portfolios with what you might call independent street cred.

A quick disclaimer: I generally use the terms ‘boutique’, ‘small’ or ‘independent’ instead of ‘craft’, though, of course, ‘independent’ might be contested in this context, since there are a few massive historic distilleries that are not part of global conglomerates, thus also technically independent. Still, I don’t interpret ‘craft’ as an indication of size, but of consistency, quality and skill. That trifecta is required by the massive, familiar legacy producers to turn out top-rate, high-volume whiskey as they’ve done for generations. But that’s a topic for another column.

Large companies scooping up smaller distillers is a matter that every indie distillery likely considers at some point. While some clearly start up with a singular endgame – a corporate pay day – in mind, others are determined to hold tight to their sovereignty until they get a utopia-level offer, so as to avoid bureaucracy interfering with creativity. But some distilleries that have been acquired or received investment money from drinks corporations become case studies illustrating how selling ownership is not selling out. Corporations open access to distribution channels and provide smoother routes to a wider market. They also often deliver once-impossible resources for production growth and experimentation, all of which collectively contributes to distillers extending their tentacles in unconventional directions, sometimes changing the course of how a company – or the entire sector – evolves.

The craft spirits movement is often compared to the craft beer world, but I tend to see that as a false equivalence, not least because brewers can recoup their investment from the get-go while distillers wait for their whiskey to be ready. My research for this issue crystallised for me the extent of their differences. I think it largely boils down to motive and drive.

The whiskey industry was once much more diverse stylistically, before Prohibition. That fact works as an assurance to historically minded distillers that it can and will happen again. And when it does, we’ll have a big due to pay for the intrepid entrepreneurs who got laughed out of the meeting with the distributors at the turn of the 20th century. Let’s be thankful those original pioneers had the guts to stick it out.