All over, little buds of growth are evi-
dent, as new ventures slowly emerge, and
established small distillers expand their
portfolios and survive to distill another
day. The news of new small ventures is
steady: in November in the Hudson Val-
ley of New York, for instance, the Hill-
rock Estate Distillery welcomed nearly
600 visitors to an open house marking
the release of its first spirits.
Other parts of the country are find-
ing that once states and cities relax laws
prohibiting distillation, small distillers
flood in. The Greenbar Collective, for
instance, maker of Tru organic vodkas,
is the first LA-based distillery since Pro-
hibition. Cities from Portland, Oregon,
to Portland, Maine, now boast a handful
of operating distilleries.
Where there were only about 70
craft distillers counted by the Ameri-
can Distilling Institute in 2003, today
around 400 have TTB-issued licenses,
with another 50 under construction, ac-
cording to Bill Owens, president of ADI.
Just two years ago, the group projected
it would take until 2015 to reach that
number. The Distilled Spirits Council of
the United States (DISCUS) now boasts
63 members from 27 states in their Craft
Distiller Affiliate program.
The small distillers have had a
significant effect on the overall spirit
business in at least one way. Witness
the launch in November of Jack Dan-
iel’s Unaged Rye and Jim Beam Jacob’s
Ghost White Whiskey. Without the
efforts of the many small distillers
who started selling unaged spirit as a
way to keep income flowing during
the lag time it takes to age whiskey
in barrels, it’s doubtful even the
modest market for unaged whis-
key would exist. Who would have
thought 10 or 15 years ago that
moonshine would merit discussion
as a craft distillate?
The major spirit companies have re-
sponded in some cases by taking on
small brands in partnerships—most no-
tably in the last two years William Grant
and Sons buying the Hudson Whiskey
range from New York-based Tuthilltown
Spirits, and Destilerîa Serrallés making
a long-term U.S. distribution and mar-
keting agreement with Wisconsin-based
Death’s Door Spirits.
Seagram displayed foresight in buy-
ing Bulleit Bourbon back in 1997. Now
part of Diageo, this brand fits the
craft mold perfectly: it has a great
backstory (1830s recipe of vanished
distiller resurrected by great-great-
great grandson), serious chops (high
rye content, 90 proof); and tiny pro-
duction (plus an even tinier spin-off,
Bulleit Rye). Brown-Forman was
similarly ahead of the curve with Wood-
ford Reserve, introduced in 1996.
Some larger companies have devel-
oped brands and divisions to participate
in the new niche. Sidney Frank Import-
ing Co.’s entrant, American Harvest,
is an organic vodka with a proprietary
blend of organic ingredients, produced
at an independently owned dis-
tillery in Idaho.
Chatham Imports created
something brand new from
something very old, reviving
Michter’s Whiskey, whose orig-
inal distillery was founded in
Pennsylvania in 1753. (George
Washington purchased some
to fortify his men hunkered
down at Valley Forge.) Now
based in Kentucky, Michter’s
is making a focused range of single-
barrel and “very small batch” bourbons,
ryes and unblended whiskey.
Still other big firms are dipping into
their inventory and putting on their think-
ing caps to introduce new high-end expres-
sions of much-loved brands. At George
Dickel, Master Distiller John Lunn singles
out ten barrels at a time to craft George
Dickel “Barrel Select,” a smooth 86-proof
super-premium whisky first released in
2003 with a eye-catching package.
Within the last decade, Heaven Hill
Distilleries developed Bernheim (Amer-
ica’s only all-wheat whiskey); launched
the Trybox Series of “new make” (white)
whiskey; and repositioned Evan Wil-
liams 1783 as a small-batch gem. In
perhaps their “craftiest” move yet, this
summer Heaven Hill released Larceny,
a new bourbon based on the legend of
John E. Fitzgerald, who was purported
to be a famous distiller but was in real-
ity a treasury agent who used his keys
to the Kentucky warehouses to pilfer
bourbon from the finest barrels.
More than one observer has com-
pared the growth of micro-distillers to
that of the craft beer boom and bust of
the 1990s, when brands skyrocketed
in public awareness and interest, with
many only to fall to earth as they over-
extended or failed to deliver a consistent
and profitable product over time. On the
other hand, some craft labels have thrived
and the category is hotter than ever today,
prompting big brewers to respond by gob-
bling up small producers in some cases, or
developing their own micro-sounding la-
bels in others. Bottom line: the
“small is beautiful” mindset has
never held more status, in both
beer and spirits.
I
t may be a dark and chilly winter in most of the country
about now, but for the small distillers of the country,
things definitely have the feel of spring.
Opposite page, clockwise from top left: Robert Cassell of Philadelphia Distilling makes
moonshine, vodka, gin and even absinthe; the showroom at House Spirits Distillery in
Portland; speading grain in the malthouse at Hillrock in New York’s Hudson Valley; a
copper still at Philadelpha Distilling. Below: Tim Welly takes a sample at Hillrock, which
claims to make the world’s only “solera aged” bourbon whiskey.
big firms think small
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