“If you want to find where the genesis of innovation is in American spirits you don’t have look any farther then the craft spirits world.” – Dave Pickerell from “From Grain to Glass: An American Craft Spirits Renaissance”
The barrels for aging whiskey are too small. Their whiskey is too young. You can only make quality bourbon in Kentucky. Only the big distilleries really know how to make good whiskey. These are all common arguments I read from responses to stories we post around craft whiskey being created across the USA. You know what? I don’t agree with any of them, and here’s why.
As a whiskey blog we strive to cover distilleries large and small, all around the world. Our analytics reveal to me most of our audience is American, so we aim to focus primary coverage on whiskey making operations that are domestic. There will always be room for telling the stories of the big guys and the high profile bourbons and ryes they develop, but if you really want to look for that extra something when it comes to innovation, passion, creativity, individuality, uniqueness and more, you need look no further then in the garages, renovated warehouses, converted barns, remodeled industrial buildings and the like of craft distilleries across the country.
A mini-documentary I’ve just finished watching on the craft movement, produced by micro distillery pioneer Tuthilltown Spirits, gives a strong sense of being on the cutting edge of this world. It is a slick little flick, there is no doubt (you can see it below), but when you look past the homespun attitude it projects you still see in the eyes of those interviewed for it a passion for what they do that is downright awesome.
A smattering of the many craft spirits out there (image via screen grab from Tuthilltown Spirits video)
Putting aside the whiskey writer in me for a moment, let me speak as a collector. I’ve got a rather large collection of the brown spirit we share a mutual interest in. Some of it I’ve purchased locally where I live, but much of it I’ve had shipped to me from points around the country and beyond. During the few years I’ve been growing this I’ve watched with great fascination and curiosity the emergence of small whiskey distilleries in most states. Not all of them are good, mind you, but there are enough which have risen to the top that I’m proud to say I have early bottles of their whiskey in what I own which I value just as much as a fancy bottle of Pappy.
Taking a look at some bottles from my personal collection which sit near me at the moment as I type this in my office, I can tell you Oregon, Wisconsin, Texas, Washington and New York are all represented. Hell, there’s even a bottle of the rare Four Kings collaboration bourbon from 2014 sitting here, produced with a blend of whiskies from the likes of Corsair Distillery (Tennessee), Few Spirits (Illinois), Journeyman Distillery (Michigan) and Mississippi River Distilling Company (Iowa).
The small sampling of this group heralds from distilleries which have been beating out the big guys regularly at national spirits competitions and who we cover with great frequency here at The Whiskey Wash. Most of them also have been noted by mainstream press for the quality whiskies they produce, which I mention if only to give you a sense that it is not just my personal bias driving this opinion piece.
Looking further afield then just these players, who are among the early comers to craft whiskey, you see distilleries popping up who want to be field to bottle in ways no large operation easily could conceive of. Grow the grains themselves, distill and age on site mere yards from where the farm side of things stands, bottle by hand and get to retailers themselves – in some ways it sounds like the whiskey legends you hear from the very old days before Prohibition wiped most of the industry off the map.
Now it is hard to say what the craft space will look like five or ten years from now. Some certainly will close while others merge or get bought out. That’s the nature of any emerging industry, but, that being said, what we have the chance here and now as whiskey drinkers to witness and have a taste of is the revival of true American ingenuity and drive in pursuit of a dream that is a cornerstone to what our country is all about. And to that I raise a glass of [insert state name here] farm bourbon in salute.
Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and...