Anchor Distilling Old Potrero and the Rise of Craft Whiskey - The Whiskey Wash

Anchor Distilling Old Potrero and the Rise of Craft Whiskey

Anchor Distilling

The still at Anchor Distilling (image via Amanda Schuster/The Whiskey Wash)

These days, the words “craft,” “bespoke,” “boutique” and even worse, “artisanal” have become such common parlance, they seem about as expressive as the adjective “nice.” However, back in the mid 1990s, when innovating brewer/distiller Fritz Maytag was beginning to experiment with making Old World-style pot still whiskey in San Francisco, precious few in the U.S. even knew what “artisanal” meant. They certainly hadn’t knowingly ingested it. How did craft whiskey become such a big thing?

At that time, though the Prohibition had been over for six decades, the whiskey landscape was still recovering. Only large scale distillers like Heaven Hill, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam were bottling American whiskey, with a scant handful of independent distilleries starting to play with aging their own bourbon. Old Overholt was pretty much the only rye available, if anyone even wanted it in the first place, keeping in mind the cocktail craze was still just beginning to flicker into view. At Anchor Brewing, Maytag had found an audience for Anchor Steam ale and other vintage styles of beer, so why not bring rye whiskey back to the fold?

So in 1994, after meticulous scientific research informed by his experience as a brewer, he decided on a particular style and flavor profile that was historically relevant. He would use 100% malted rye, and distill his whiskey on a pot still, in an aim to “re-create the original whiskey of America.”

He found a pot still (not so easy back then) and began to distill malted rye, despite the fact that the cheaper and more obvious choice would have been unmalted grain. His first condenser had to be built in house, and he had to find a cooperage willing to custom produce 53 gallon barrels with exactly the toast and char level he liked. Eventually, all of it came together, and the first Old Potrero rye whiskey at what became Anchor Distilling was bottled in 1996.

We live in a rye boom now, but back then, this was a big deal. Initial reaction to this richer, more malty style was similar to how seasoned beer drinkers reacted when they first tasted non-lager beers. Those used to a mainstream type of whiskey weren’t ready for a change, but certain drinkers were poised for trying something new and quirky, particularly with single malt whiskies gaining in popularity and nerdy researchers thirsty to taste traditional spirits.

What followed on the whiskey landscape is interesting to track. Enthusiasm for American single malts and independent bourbon began to rise with the cocktail renaissance. One could also give a fair amount of credit to the popularity of food television, home improvement shows, and the craft scene in general for what’s happened to whiskey. By the early 2000s, it was DIY everything, whether that was a knit scarf, homemade pickles, homebrewed beer, or whiskey.

How many craft whiskey stories start with “… so our friends tasted our homemade corn whiskey after we aged it for three weeks in a one gallon barrel we found at a yard sale and told us how delicious they thought it was. They couldn’t get enough of it! So of course we had to start sharing it with the world.”

There’s a lot of bad whiskey out there because of sheer politeness for the sake of friendship and free hooch.

However, there is, thankfully, also a lot of good. As with Old Potrero, it’s about knowing what you’re doing, or at the very least, bringing someone on who knows what they’re doing. Just after Old Potrero was born, other craft whiskies slowly began to emerge, such as at St. George Spirits, Stranahan’s and Tuthilltown. With the ball rolling and state liquor laws relaxing to make things easier on distillers, the past few years have seen fantastic output from the likes of Sonoma County Distilling, Wyoming Whiskey, New York Distilling Company, Freemont Mischief, Ransom Spirits and Silo Distillery, just to name a few.

Anchor Distilling

What will be whiskey fermenting at Anchor (Image via Amanda Schuster/The Whiskey Wash)

What does it mean to be classified as craft, exactly? That’s a whole other argument, one that some of the bigger brands like to have from time to time when they release a limited edition small batch something or other they say was “hand made” to compete with the success of indie distillers. “Hey, we’re the original craft whiskey! Look! We made it with our hands!”

Crafty, crafted, artisanal, handmade. Good, bad and ugly, it’s here to stay. Let’s raise a glass to Fritz Maytag and Old Potrero celebrating 20 years of mindful distillation and inspiring some delicious whiskeys.


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