What it is

Late-breaking telexes from the craft spirit front by Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, columnist for Imbibe, and designated drinker for The Atlantic magazine.

  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    by Wayne Curtis

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Twitter: @waynecurtis

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Attention craft distillers: Sharp turn ahead

“We need to communicate to consumers what ‘real’ craft is.”

This is what people in the craft distilling movement have been saying loudly and often for the past two or three years — that there’s a dire need to separate out the “makers” from the “fakers,” those who actually use their experience and skills to produce excellent spirits, and those who merely buy in bulk and rebottle, then market and price their product as if it were handcrafted.

But the most debatable word in the quote above isn’t “craft.” It’s “we.” Because this was said to the Financial Times by Alexandre Ricard, the newly appointed chief executive of Pernod-Ricard, maker of Martell cognac, Absolut vodka, Jameson whiskey, among others, and the second largest spirits company in the world. This is the most high-profile acknowledgement to date that craft spirits may be eating into the bottom line of the major producers.

Recent financial reports from liquor conglomerates have shown slowing of sales in the U.S. market, and a likely culprit is the rise of craft spirits. A younger generation in particular seems to be looking for “local” and “authentic” and want to buy products that better convey who they are. And they emphatically are not a mass market brand.

The big players in spirits have been sniffing around the margins of the craft world for a few years, waiting to see what happens, and gathering up some low fruit. But I’d wager than in years to come, Ricard’s comment will be seen as the equivalent of the firing on Fort Sumter that launched the U.S. Civil War.

While craft producers have been fighting a low-key rear-guard war against the fakers, this opens a far larger and more fraught front, in which the major producers will fight to own the term “craft.” “I’m struggling with the definition of craft spirits,” Ricard said. “Does it have to mean small? Or an entrepreneur with a pot-still in his garage?” Or could it mean anything produced with an eye to quality, such as Jameson? He didn’t ask that, but he didn’t have to. Budweiser opted to mock craft beers in its current ad campaign, but big liquor will fight to own it.

This may also be seen as a turning point in the craft distilling world in another way. I just returned from the American Craft Spirits Association second annual meeting in Austin. Harry Kohlmann of Park Street Imports, in the best presentation of the conference, suggested that the next few years will see the Diageos, Pernod-Ricards, and Brown-Formans of the world acquiring broad regional portfolios of craft spirits. Each might acquire a half-dozen or more small spirits makers — say, one each in the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, California, Rockies, etc. They could then flood the zone, and erect a defensive line against further encroachments from those garage-based pot stills. (This will work only if they can wrestle the definition of “craft” away from a focus on ownership and make it interchangeable with quality.)

This scenario seems completely reasonable. And it will signal the opening of yet another front in the fight over craft distilling: the battle to become the dominant craft distiller in each region, thereby inviting courtship from the majors and the potential for a huge payout.

Craft distilling was launched with a sort of boot strap mentality —“the entrepreneur with a pot-still in his garage.” The field was generally marked by congeniality, with regional producers helping one another out, since everyone was competing against the big guys.

But that era may be drawing to a close. We’ve seen much more serious money moving in and funding high profile distillery start-ups. And if there was a mantra at this year’s ACSA conference, it was “own your own backyard” — that is, focus regionally, not nationally. The unsaid part was: "Position yourself for buyouts."

Where's this all headed? No one really knows. But craft distilling looks as it will soon have more of a burn on entry, and a long finish dominated by persistent notes of redefinition.


Here's company! Craft distilling crowds the room

Everybody agrees that craft distilling is booming.

And that’s about the only thing everybody agrees on. How to define a craft distiller? How many have launched? How many are actually producing bottles for the shelves? That's all subject to quibbling.

Here then, in that context, is the latest round of figures, as compiled by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and released at this morning's annual state of the industry report:

DISCUS identified 729 distillers who produce fewer than 100,000 cases per year. (That's the most generally accepted defintiion of "craft.") Of these, the vast majority — 712 — are producing fewer than 50,000 cases a year. (Many far less — the average production in this group is just 3,000 cases.)

Of note: The group of larger craft distillers (which now average 80,000 cases per year) are growing. Seventeen were in the 50K to 100K cases per year in 2014; in 2010, only two fit that that category.

While total craft production remains fairly miniscule, accounting for just 1.7 percent of national spirits sales by volume, producers are typically selling more expensive spirits, priced at $25 or $30 or higher. DISCUS estimates that craft distillers are collectively now bringing in $400 to $450 million annually. "They've become a fairly sizeable part of the entire market," said DISCUS economist David Ozgo.


Improving the barrel by eliminating it! Wait... what?

Sometimes I feel like we've returned to the patent medicine days, in which anyone can claim anything when it comes to booze. And what's more, people will buy it.

Today's evidence: this Kickstarter campaign that promises "you can now get 3 years of aging 'effects' (time travel not included) in just 24 hours." How? "In a way, we redesigned the whiskey barrel by removing the barrel and developing a proprietary curing method to replace its presence in the aging process." And what is this "proprietary curing method?" Producing charred bits of wood you drop into a bottle to customize the flavor of a whiskey. They've even come up with a few half-dollar words to describe it: "We call this process “accelerated transpiration through capillary action."

Now, I'm not denying that additional wood scraps can add flavor. But I'm not sure how proprietary it is. Wine makers figured out how to do this long ago. And in the liquor business Black Swan Barrels in Minnesota has for some time been selling oak spirals and "honeycomb" barrels that enhance wood flavor through "capillary action."

What's more, the crew behind Whiskey Elements seems to have skipped whiskey-making school on the day that aging was discussed in detail. Yes, barrels impart flavor. But they do something more: because wooden barrels aren't airtight, they're also machines for oxidation, a critical part of the aging process. New make whiskey has long, funky molecules that give it that grainy, moonshiney taste, which dissipates over time in interacting with oxygen. No one has yet figured out how to speed that interaction. Small barrels add more wood flavor more quickly, but does nothing to accelerate the complex reactions.

Whiskey Elements disingenuously points out on its pitch page, "Here’s a fun fact, if you have one bottle of clear whiskey that is 30 days old, and another bottle of the same clear whiskey that is 3 years old, they taste exactly the same." Yes, that's true if you put new make whiskey into sealed glass bottles to age. Which nobody has done, ever. And it sidesteps the fact that barrels are used for aging for a good reason, and have been used for centuries to good effect.

I would have no problem with this product if it advertised itself as a essentially a wooden tea bag, adding additional wood flavor to whiskey. I can see that as possibly being beneficial, although cumbersome and inexact. But it's not going to move a bottom shelf whiskey to the top shelf, and it's certainly not going to speed the aging process., as claimed

As of this morning, Whiskey elements has nearly 3,000 backers and has topped its fundraising goal of $18,000 by nearly $100,000. And the campaign has two weeks left to go.

There's a lot of talk about educating the consumer about what makes a good spirit. Here's solid evidence that we've got a long, long way to go. 


Different Drum Rum comes to Fishtown

La Colombe Torrefaction, a Philadelphia-based coffee roaster and shop that's been getting a lot of favorable press attention, opened a new and much-anticipated coffee shop and roastery in three old warehouses (totally 11,000 square feet) earlier this month in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. (Think: Bushwick-on-the-Delaware.) And as far as I know, it's the only coffee shop with its own distillery.

I stopped by a couple of weeks ago, a few days after it opened. The dour barista told me nobody was around to explain their distillation plans, but I had a cup of joe and hung out and took some pictures. It's a pretty great space — all warehousey and bright and with plenty of room to sprawl and read. ("Once you enter, you might never leave," noted. "It's the Hotel California of coffee shops, basically.")

In a back corner, multi-paned windows reach toward the soaring ceiling. Behind it is the distillery, kept at a safe remove from the coffee fiends. The new Christian Carl hybrid still had evidently not yet been fired up, but it was gleaming and lovely and looked ready to go.

While distilling in a coffee shop may seem a bit random, it makes sense here. This past spring La Colombe started producing limited quantities of a coffee-infused rum called Different Drum Rum, which it's been selling (out) at $50 a bottle. I'm not sure the of source of the rum they've been infusing with to date, but it appears they're gearing up to make their own.

Coffee, meet rum.


Inconsistency: feature or flaw? 

I saw this passage in a recent piece on the rolling out of a new hop-heavy craft whiskey in Pittsburgh:

Each batch of Wigle Whiskey will taste slightly different from the last, Murdoch explains, but that’s exactly what makes it a craft spirit.

With mass-produced whiskeys, each bottle tastes exactly the same as the last one.

Yes, craft often involves some batch imperfections and/or variation. But should that be a defining quality and goal? Or does this only discourage repeat customers? It's hard enough to win over a consumer and get them to part with $30 or $40 for a bottle of an unknown product. But to have to do that over and over when they're not sure what they'll get each time they open a bottle? And how would you convince bartenders to stock your liquor if they have to rejigger the recipe for a cocktail calling for it each time a new bottle comes out.

I enjoy variety, but think intentional inconsistency unltimately dooms craft spirits distillers to making products chiefly for friends and family. This seems another instance of something the major makers of mass-produced spirits figured out a long tme ago,. Craft distillers have yet to go through the painful process of figuring it out for themselves.


Back to the future in the Black Forest

The newest still in Sasbachwalden, run on the oldest license, dating back about 300 years. In Black Forest of southwest Germany it’s still pretty much the 19th century when it comes to distilling. Hundreds of farmers concoct small batches of local eau de vie from their cherries, pears, apricots and apples. And you can sample and buy their liquor at the equivalent of libationary farm stands along walking trails and narrow roads. It's a bit of a time warp. A few final, random comments from my visit last week:  

• At Spinnerhof, a restaurant and distillery above Sasbachwalden, I saw a 146-liter wood-fired still operating right in the dining area, located just a few feet from the tables (pictured above). There was no partition, no barrier, no blast shield. Could the proprietor run the still when the restaurant was in operation? “Sure,” said Rudolf Spinner. “The smell is very nice.”

What happened to nanny-state Europe?

• More evidence of free-marketism: In this part of the country people set out what are essentially honor system bars along lightly traveled roads. You sample local products, leave a few pfennnigs (well, the Euro equivalent, but “pfenning” is such a great word I’m loathe to abandon it), and pour yourself a shot. There’s no one guarding the springhouse, and so any 14-year-old truant with a penchant for guzzling could avail themselves. Or soccer hooligans could drain the bottles and leave without paying. Has this been a problem? I didn’t hear a single complaint of anyone violating the community drinking trust.

• Still, close governance is a way of life here in other respects. Rudolf Spinner showed me paperwork left off by the inspector a few minutes before I’d arrived. He has to get specific permission from the state to run his still at specific times. That day he wanted to leave early to attend a funeral. So the inspector came by and amended his permit to allow him to distill an additional three hours the following morning. You’d think this would incite Tea Party-ism, but there was just shrugging and eye-rolling that scarcely rose to the level of complaint.

• I’m not a huge fan of kirschwasser — wasn’t before, and wasn’t after my visit. It fails to capture the taste of cherries for me, and the flavor that it does capture don’t appeal to me tremendously. But I loved some of the other schnaps I sampled in the springs, including the topinambour (sunchoke eau de vie), the sour cherry liqueur, and obstler, a blend of apple and pear.

If you get a chance, visit Sasbachwalden or other farm-centric areas in the Black Forest. Plan to party like it's 1899. 


Really small batch distilleries

You often hear mentioned with awe the fact that Kentucky once had thousands of small distilleries filling every hollow and hillside. Then came Prohibition, wiping them out. And when liquor was legal again, the big companies had the wherewithal to dominate and so they did. The world of small producers died, and today it seems like a whiskey Atlantis, drowned by the floods of do-goodism.

What you don’t often hear is that there are still places around the world that weren’t interrupted by finger-shaking killjoys, and still maintain a culture of the small producer. Like the Black Forest in Germany, where I’ve been told there are still some 10,000 distillers, or at least those who still hold distilling licenses. Making this more intriguing to me, most of these date back to the 1720s and have been maintained from generation to generation, mostly in the making of fruit brandies — or schnaps, as the local eau de vie are called.

The Black Forest can lay claim to one of the centers of early distillation. As with so many great things to eat and drink, it was driven by preservation. Take those excess apples, raspberries, cherries, bilberries, then ferment and distill them. That way you can enjoy a taste of spring in the drear, blustery depths of winter.

I spent a bit of time last week on the northwest side of the Black Forest in and around the foothills town of Sasbachwalden. In the hills above the town, I could see the distant spire of the cathedral in Strasbourg, across the border in France. In fact, this region flip-flopped back and forth between French and German control for centuries. And it was the bishop of Strasbourg who codified the laws governing the production of schnaps when this was French territory. To allow farmers make a little extra income — and preserve the fruits they couldn’t sell at market when fresh — they were licensed to produce the equivalent of 300 liters of pure alcohol annually from their crops. (That’s about 750 liters if bottled at 40%.)   

Three centuries later, many still maintain those licenses. Not all are still producing (and you can lose your license if you fail to produce for a lengthy time), and licenses are linked to property not people. So if you’re a distiller and your son moves across town, he has to move back to old house if he wants to sustain the family business.

Many have found ways to lease their licenses — enterprising distillers (like Erwin Decker, pictured in the gallery) take over the licenses of neighbors and haul fermented fruit that he distills at somebody else’s place. (I’ve heard some will haul operational stills on flatbeds to another site and crank them up under license.)

Anyway, there’s still very much a a feeling of small-scale production — probably much what it was like in United States in rural areas in the 1800s. Just walking along the many pathways that run through the hills outside of town, I saw the occasional tarnished still in a backyard or on a porch (mostly pretty small — 100 or 150 liter capacity).

I was on an assignment to write about the hiking trails that allow you to walk from one farm distillery to the next (and I’ll link it here when it runs in mid-2015) but the trip left me with with a buoyant feeling, and not solely from the tippling. I always like getting caught up in a spider web spun long ago that’s persisted despite modernity’s efforts to sweep it away. I stopped by and spoke with a few of the hundreds of distillers dotting the hills in the area. Above are their portraits.


Hans Barleycorn isn't dead

The demand for whiskey keeps tiptoeing quietly around the globe on little cat’s feet. I saw it again last week when visiting Alde Gott, Germany’s only wine and spirits cooperative., located in the northwest corner of Germany’s Black Forest. They have about 351 members, and last year the group's sales totaled about €13 million (twice as much wine by value as liquor).  

I was here to sample locally made schnaps (not to be confused with the American variant, which often lies in uncomfortable proximity to the words “root beer” and “cinnamon”; if it were distilled just across the border in France, it would be called eau de vie). Toward the end of my visit, the distiller, Wolfgang Fischer, asked if I’d like to taste a new whiskey. He warned me that it wasn’t quite ready for prime time — it will likely be released next March after a bit more time in the barrel. I was OK with that.

Fischer paired up with a local brewery to make their all-barley liquor. Germany is famous for adhering to its traditions in crafts like baking and brewing, but what struck me in Sasbachwalden, an ancient village of 2,500 that's been distilling since at least 1638, had a keen willingness to experiment. Never mind that the town seems a magnet for gray-haired pensioners.

Walking through the winery, I saw box barrels, which are essentially rectangular crates and have been dabbling in spirits. They're not only easier to make, but take less room to stack and are easier move if you have a forklift. (So far, they’re only trying them out on wine, and not yet on liquor.) Aesthetically, these offend me. I don’t want big box liquor. But if the traditional barrel shortage persists, we might be seeing more of these. If consumers don’t notice an appreciable difference in taste, maybe a lot more of these.

Anyway, the plan for the whiskey was to age it a year in ex-Jim Beam barrels, and then two years in…. well, they’re trying things out with different finishing barrels. I sampled a cask-strength dram (about 54%) that had spent 5 months in Beam barrels, and then 26 months in Hungarian barrels previously used for chardonnay. (They anticipate about 47 percent bottle proof, and no chill filtering.)

Sip, swirl, swallow, and... it was excellent. Big and round with some  fleeting white wine notes, but then a lovely wave of cotton candy, a touch of licorice, and a long. lovely finish.

The first bottles hit the shelves next spring, and will be limited to about 2,400 half-liters. The price hasn’t yet been set, but they already have 70 people on the waiting list.

Don’t look for a bottle at your local liquor store any time soon. You’ll have to travel to the Black Forest to snag one.


Where's my lawyer? The Templeton lawsuit is causing me mental anguish, too 

I'm about a week late on this story in Courthouse News, but it's a good overview of the emerging flap over truth-in-labeling. The yammer-yammer is mostly focusing on Templeton Rye, which is fast becoming as the whipping boy on this issue. I've long pushed for more forthrightness in claims of history, heritage, craft and sourcing, and I've pointed at Templeton in the past as a violator. But the class action lawsuit smacks of idiot opportunism.

Yes, Templeton may have misled Christopher McNair and caused him mental anguish because he bought a few bottles under the belief that it was made in Iowa and was the drink Al Capone favored. But, come on. If you're fool enough to buy a product based on marketing claims, you probably deserve to be taken. How about a lawsuit against Grey Goose because no matter how often you drink it, you never end up at the parties pictured in the ads? There's no mention of another fact: It's actually an excellent rye, even if it's not really small batch nor from Iowa.

Templeton was wrong in its marketing, but they're being responsible by correcting it. They were following the sloppy standards of the times when they launched, and the times have changed all around them rapidly. So they've reset their footing on shifting sands. The rest of us would probably do well to do the same.


More on Balcones from Dave Broom & crew

After the initial eruction of local reports over Chip Tate being banned from entering the distillery he founded, a few more facts and a lot more speculation have surfaced. The broader takeaway: if you're a craft stiller, watch out who you bring in when you need more funds to underwrite expansion.

See Broom's piece in Whisky Advocate. His overview attracted commentary from whiskey world luminaries, including Lew Bryson, Chuck Cowdery, Clay Risen, and James Rodewald (whose new book on craft distilling offers some wider context).