Regionalization: American Craft Whiskey's Next Great Frontier - The Whiskey Wash

Regionalization: American Craft Whiskey’s Next Great Frontier

Regional trends have started to emerge as the number of craft whiskey distilleries in the country continues to swell. Certain areas have broken through as more prominent distilling hubs due to a number of factors including favorable legislation, while other areas are starting to become known for particular styles of whiskey. And the debut of the Empire Rye designation in the state of New York is an example of both. Looking ahead then, what’s next for American whiskey categorization, and which types of regions and styles might we see more definitively hashed out in the future?

Why Designation Matters

It’s worth beginning with an explanation of Empire Rye, and why it’s beneficial to the distillers who opt in, as well as for the consumers looking to make sense of an endless array of whiskey on the shelves. Billed as “the whiskey style of New York state,” members adhere to New York’s Farm Distiller requirement that 75% of the whiskey’s grains are grown in New York, and more specifically in this case, 75% must be rye grain from the state. Other requirements dictate specifics of distillation and barrel proof, while also setting a two year minimum for maturation in charred, new oak barrels.

This rye whiskey from Coppersea is one of the new regional Empire Rye offerings. (image via Coppersea Distilling)

As such, there’s both a locality and a quality mark being defined by the category. “As the concept of Empire Rye is brand new to consumers, I think both are important,” says Allen Katz, founder of New York Distilling Company, one of the charter members of the Empire Rye movement. “I think the unique nature of promoting a locality to Empire Rye, to suggest the possibility of terroir for New York-grown rye, and to feature the nimble and unique qualities of craft spirits certainly helps promote a sense of authenticity.”

Consumers may react favorably to any or all of those factors, while having a defined system in place encourages retailers and bars to separate and highlight the category. “Many retailers have been very enthusiastic to learn about and feature a collection of Empire Ryes,” Katz says. “I truly believe that the more time we have as a community of distillers to interact with and educate retailers and bars on our brands the more we will find features that specifically call out Empire Rye as a specialty subset of American rye whiskey.”

The New York’s Farm Distiller license, which is a core piece of Empire Rye’s requirements, is one of several ways in which the state has made itself hospitable to the industry.  “Overall, the governor and legislature have been very open to our comments and ideas on how to build and grow a strong distilling identity in New York,” Katz says. “The Farm Distillers license that we proudly hold provides us with significant opportunities that help us grow a stable business in what is challenging and competitive marketplace.”

One key factor for any upstart distillery is being able to both taste and sell on-site, and the ability to do so is another factor which helps nudge certain cities and regions into distilling hubs. “Most of all, the opportunity to have a distillery with an attached tasting room, retail outlet or on-premise license allows for a range of options to augment revenue from production, particularly in the early years when brands are just getting off the ground,” Katz says.

Checking in on Three Distinct Locales

Moving to the opposite side of the country, one of the most bustling distillation areas in the U.S. continues to be the Pacific Northwest. “In the Pacific Northwest you see an incredible diversity of products, made possible by climates that range from rain forest to desert,” says Matt Hofmann, Westland Distillery’s master distiller. “I think more and more you see a close connection to agriculture, which is of course how commercial distilling got its start in the first place.”

That connection to agriculture, and making use of abundant, locally available grain sources, makes sense both practically as a business as well as from a standpoint of meshing with local culture. “I think this area can accommodate all styles of whiskey to some degree, but other things have much less provenance here,” Hofmann says.” Can you legally produce a rum in Washington and Oregon? You bet. But why would you produce a rum in a place that is as far from sugar cane production as you could be? Why would we at Westland produce bourbon when we’re as far away from corn-growing states like Kentucky in this country as Scotland is from Turkey?”

Mark McDavid, co-founder of Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling in Texas, brings up a similar point for his state. “It starts with ingredients,” he says. “What grains and woods are available? How does Texas rye differ in taste from Midwest or Canadian rye?  It continues with maturation. How does the Texas climate impact the speed of maturation and the resulting profile of the whiskey?  Does it influence different whiskey in the same manner, as in bourbon versus single malt?”

Far North Roknar Series

The Far North Roknar rye whiskeys out of Minnesota (image via The Whiskey Wash)

Hofmann points to the Pacific Northwest’s brewing culture as another component affecting whiskey in the region. “There’s a culture, a mentality that exists in the Pacific Northwest that inspires our approach—a culture that has developed over a long period of time,” he says. “We use local barley of course, but we are also influenced by brewing culture in the Pacific Northwest, arguably the capital of craft brewing globally. To that end we see the possibilities in roasted malts and brewer’s yeast strains, both more flavorful than the ‘traditional’ distilling versions. This plays a heavy role in many of the products we’ve released to date, and many of the decisions we make on a daily basis here.”

Elsewhere, in addition to using specific and local grains, consider also the impact of nearby cooperages using locally harvested oak. “The North has multiple things going for it,” says Mike Swanson, co-founder of Minnesota’s Far North Spirits says. “It’s a principle grain growing region, so Northern distillers have access to local grains that are some of the highest quality in the world.

“In Minnesota we have three cooperages who make some of the best barrels in the country, and all three are starting to use Minnesota trees in their stave mills,” Swanson continues. “They have found that Northern trees contain higher levels of vanillin than oak from further south. It’s not yet clear whether this is due to the fact that they grow slower or to some other factor. What we do know is that in northern trees the growth rings are closer together, which yields a finer grain and denser wood.”

Back in Texas, while McDavid believes the state has a very diverse whiskey scene in terms of production, he does see certain similarities in terms of a whiskey’s character. “I do see some commonality in the profile of Texas whiskey, especially bourbon,” he says. “Our intense heat seems to draw out the sweet natural sugars from the oak so that we tend to get a deep, dark color along with more intense notes of vanilla, caramel, maple syrup, and butterscotch.”

Consider then how those frigid northern winters in Minnesota could impact whiskey. “Aging climate is quite unique here as well,” Swanson says.”We have dramatic shifts in temperature throughout the year, but we also have regular shifts in humidity as well. We’re finding that this results in a more balanced angel’s share year on year.”

Next Steps

We’re still in the earliest phases of this, and it’s important to not overdo things unnecessarily. “Is it possible we could see further sub-categories, such as Pacific Northwest single malt? Absolutely,” Hofmann says. “But I think it’s too early to try to define what that means in law.”

For his part, McDavid believes that tying regulation to one very specific type of production, as has been the case with certain categories around the world, is a hindrance. “I disagree with the notion that terroir should be tied to a specific production method, as in Tennessee whiskey must be filtered through charred sugar maple,” he says. “I think terroir is a broader concept.”

The Garryana from Westland, a Pacific Northwest regional American single malt (image via Westland)

The broader concept of terroir is something Swanson also touts up in Minnesota. “I’m definitely a proponent of terroir, but I like to use the word provenance to describe what we do here, because I believe that the derivation of whiskey is important,” he says. “We use open-top fermentation beneath open windows, using grain that was grown literally steps from the distillery. We age our whiskey without climate control in barrels that were coopered less than 200 miles away. All of our whiskey is made in this manner, and it’s all bottled on site. This results in a whiskey that is very much of this place, and definitely has a distinct flavor profile.”

Hofmann, too, agrees. “We look at terroir and actually think bigger,” he says. “When you interpret terroir in the strictest sense you are really only talking about the impact of the growing environment on a given agricultural product. But our aim is to make a product with what we call sense of place, which includes concepts like terroir but expands into other subjects as well. Every action we take must be to further the idea of what single malt whiskey in the Pacific Northwest can be.”

For now then, small but important steps in the right direction are what everyone seems to want most. McDavid wants to focus on distinguishing self-distilled versus sourced products, something surely every craft distiller supports. “We definitely need at least one Texas whiskey category to distinguish whiskey that’s distilled versus sourced,” he says. Even though regions like Texas will be bigger hotbeds for craft whiskey than others, I think every state needs to have the same rules related to what can include the state designation on it, so Texas Bourbon should have the same rules as Vermont Bourbon.”

Establishing consistent baseline standards then allows for more subsets to be developed down the line, with enough knowledgeable consumers aware of what it all actually means.

“Consumers are starting to become much more educated about whiskey and how to shop for it,” McDavid says. “The first and most important question consumers should ask is still ‘distilled versus sourced.’ I’ve been encouraged by how many consumers know how to read a whiskey label and look for the words “Distilled By” in order to identify authentic whiskey. I think establishing regional categories can help greatly with this so that if you label something as ‘Texas Whiskey’  there are actual laws behind what that means.”

Pacific Northwest Single Malt? Texas Bourbon? Northern Rye? We’ll have to be happy to wait and see – sampling all along the way, of course.

About the author

Jake Emen

Jake Emen is a freelance writer based in San Diego, and a lover of all types of whiskey. He's passionate about food, drink and travel, and lucky enough to write on such topics as he explores both newly burgeoning regions around the United States, and others across the globe. For whiskey and spirits coverage, he has been published in outlets including USA Today, Maxim, GQ, Whisky Advocate, AFAR, Vice Munchies, Eater Drinks, Tasting Table, The Washington Post Express, Distiller, and various others. Follow him @ManTalkFood.