Why are we talking about a distilling event on a beer blog? Well, as we mentioned in our interview with Yahara Bay owner/distiller Nick Quint a few years back, and in our post on this event last year, there are a number of obvious and not so obvious connections between brewing and distilling. In the last few years there have been quite a number of small distilleries popping up around the country, looking to replicate the success of craft brewing by creating small local and regional markets for unique, small batch spirits.
You hear a lot of comparisons between the current craft or artisan distilling industry and the beginnings of craft beer, with some industry observers saying that distilling is currently where brewing was twenty years ago. In some ways this is true. According to the American Distilling Institute, there are around 200 artisanal distilleries around the United States, a small number compared to the nearly 1,600 craft breweries. It would seem that this young industry has room for a lot of growth, and I think that it does; but there is also one huge difference between artisan distilling now and the beginnings of craft beer: industrial distilleries make some good hooch.
Unlike Bud, Miller, Coors etc. who came to dominate the beer market by marketing the the heck out of one bland product, big spirits companies like Diageo and Beam Global figured out a long time ago that more money could be made by owning a whole bunch of different brands of variable quality and price; in other words, market segmentation. Beam, for example, owns not only brands like Jim Beam, Old Grand Dad and Sour Apple Pucker, but highly regarded products like Laphroig Scotch and Booker's Bourbon. When craft brewers began making Pale Ale and Porter in the 1980's, it was as a reaction against a severe lack of choice and quality that was then present in the American beer marketplace. In the spirits industry, the situation is much less severe as far as lack of choice is concerned.
Not that there isn't plenty of room for innovation and experimentation in the spirits category. While there is a large variety of brands offered by the big spirits companies, they produce a relatively small number of styles. It's also important that the styles themselves are quite narrowly defined, so while there are certainly variances in quality and character, those variances are limited by standardized, and often government mandated, methods of production. For example, for a spirit to be labeled "Bourbon" or "Bourbon Whiskey" it must be made in the United States, be distilled from grain, contain no less than 51% corn in the grain bill, be distilled to no higher than 160 proof, and be aged at no more than 125 proof in brand new, heavy char American oak barrels. Put the word "Straight" in front of "Bourbon" and you add a bunch of aging requirements onto that list. The large spirit companies know there is value in the name "bourbon" and thus are motivated to make whiskeys that fit within those parameters (or the parameters of other recognized and regulated categories such as Scotch Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, etc.).
While there is certainly room for creativity within those rules, what if a small distillery, content with a much smaller piece of the market, decides it doesn't need to fit one of the specific categories and instead decides to simply make a "whiskey"? Now the US Government simply says it needs to be fermented from grain, distilled at less than 190 proof, stored in oak containers and bottled at no less than 80 proof. The room for experimentation is much wider. Want to use different grains, like oats, spelt or sorghum? Go for it. Want to age the whiskey in oak barrels with different toast and char levels? Why not. Finish the whiskey in a used brandy cask, or with other types of wood such as maple or apple wood? No one is stopping you. The possibilities are endless, and a similar story can be told for other spirits categories like Gin, Rum, Brandy and liqueurs. Right now there are small distilleries experimenting with all of the things I just mentioned and more, and many of those distilleries will be at Thursday's event.
Distill America: A Celebration of American Distilling represents both the best of the old guard (Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Jim Beam Small Batch), the most successful, nationally distributed craft distillers (Tuthilltown, Stranahan's, Clear Creek, Hangar One) and newer local and regional brands (Old Sugar Factory, Yahara Bay, AEppelTreow, Great Lakes, Death's Door). I'm excited to try the new Ouzo from Old Sugar Factory, Yahara Bay's distilled cherry spirit, Kirschwasser, Koval's Lion's Pride Oat and Rye whiskeys, and the Dry Fly Single Malt whiskey.