There are artisan distillers of every shape and size out there, and the number is growing. According to the American Distilling Institute, there are more than 350 licensed distilleries in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and the Institute estimates there are at least 50 new ones in the works. In his white paper on craft distilleries, Michael Kinstlick of Coppersea Distilling, LLC wrote that there were 234 operating craft distilleries as of year-end 2011 and the number of entrants is doubling every three years. These are just numbers but this is obviously a trend on the rise! A lot of them are micro-distillers with very regional products and limited distribution. They have outstanding spirits with a loyal following but often don’t have the distribution or enough juice to enable their use by national chains for promotion.
My question is, what is a craft distillery? One answer I found on the Internet (not necessarily the right answer) was this: a craft distillery produces small batches of handcrafted, distilled spirits, equal to less than 50,000 proof gallons per year. Other organizations use numbers like 32,000 to 40,000 cases, and state the distillery should be an independent firm. Well, some of the best ones have aligned with large marketing firms, including Stranahan’s with Proximo Spirits, Hudson Whiskey with William Grant & Sons, and Death’s Door Spirits with Serallés USA. Tito’s Handmade Vodka certainly produces more than the numbers mentioned above. Does that take them out of the craft distillery category? I don’t think so. If it does, I vote to start a new category. They still do things the same way as they did before and if they have alliances, so what. These alliances are not there to change the way spirits are produced; why would they? That’s what attracted them in the first place.
As for my justifications in picking these fine distilleries, I didn’t care about how much they made, just how it was made — I wanted to highlight hands-on, highly-crafted products, and specifically, eleven distilleries whose products my readers would want to carry, if they don’t already. So for the purpose of this article, I have picked distillers who would be considered craft distillers, if not by definition then by the fact they distill with craft. I do know that any or all of them will enhance your patrons’ choices and experience in your establishment.
Phillips Distilling Company, which by the way is celebrating its 100th year in business this year, brings us Prairie Vodka. It is handcrafted, certified organic vodka made from certified organic #2 yellow corn. The corn comes from three family farmers on the Minnesota prairie who own the land and work it every day. Sather Organic Farms, Little Big Man Organic Farms and Olson Organics make up the crop producers. (Organic corn is much harder to grow than crops on which pesticides are used). After the harvest, the corn is brought to the farmer-owned distillery in Benson, Minnesota. This sustainable co-op converts leftover corncobs into fuel and returns the leftover distillers’ grains to local farmers for use as feed. It’s a sustainable process for a community that takes pride in the work of their hands. Each batch of vodka is distilled as many times as necessary to get the desired character and smoothness, usually 4-6 times. Once it leaves the distillery in Benson, Prairie Vodka is bottled in the town of Princeton by Ed Phillips and Sons, a fifth generation and family-operated distilled spirits company. With hints of melon and pear on the nose, creaminess on the palate, and a bright, smooth finish, Prairie is among the world’s most luxurious vodkas.
One of my first encounters with craft distilling was when Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale started making Germain-Robin brandies in the early ‘80s from premium Mendocino County grapes. This excerpt from a letter Ansley Coale wrote gives you the feeling of their pioneering entrepreneurial spirit.
“In 1981, I picked up a hitch-hiker along Highway 101, north of San Francisco. Hubert Germain Robin came from the Jules Robin family, cognac producers since 1782. Hubert told a sad tale: ancient hand-methods of distillation were disappearing as huge firms applied ‘improved’ high volume methods. Hubert wanted to distill using craft methods handed down for centuries from master to apprentice. Hubert bought an antique still from an abandoned cognac distillery and shipped it to my ranch in Mendocino County. We built a redwood shed, and began to experiment with premium wine grapes. The very first time that brandy distilled from pinot noir flowed from the still, Hubert took a long sniff from the sampling glass, turned to me, and said, ‘This is the finest I have ever experienced.’”
Their products range from a relatively inexpensive Craft Method Brandy to Select Barrel XO and Old Havana, both over $100.00. The flagship Anno Domini is an aged pinot noir. Many experts think it is one of the best grape spirits in existence. It is both brilliant and soft, with a creamy sherry note from a touch of 1984 palomino brandy. They only produce 300 750ml bottles annually.
Philadelphia Distilling makes Bluecoat Gin and several other products, including Vieux Carré Absinthe, Penn 1681 Vodka and XXX Shine Whiskey. PD has this to say about their still, “Custom-made of pure, hand-hammered copper, our pot still is the only one of its design and size in the world.” They go on to say, “Our superior equipment gives us the ability to distill Bluecoat American Dry Gin to be uncommonly smooth, while accentuating complex flavors that today’s spirits consumers demand.” To make Bluecoat Gin, they heat the pot slowly, a process that takes ten hours for the Master Distiller to efficiently separate the impure alcohols from those he desires to bottle as the finished product.
When volunteer firefighter Jess Graber responded to a neighbor’s barn fire down the road, he never imagined any good could come of it. But the barn he made an effort to save belonged to George Stranahan, long-time liquor connoisseur. When the fire settled, the two discovered a shared passion for the Colorado outdoors and a good pour of fine whiskey. And so Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey was born. They developed a recipe for the smoothest, most flavorful whiskey in the world using the purity of their mountain surroundings to their advantage. Well, to your advantage. They say from each thing bad comes something good. For Jess, George, and fine whiskey drinkers alike, it’s amazing just how good it can be.
The whiskey is good, if you can get it! They only make about 40 barrels a week. So have mercy when you ask your rep to find some for you.
Hangar One Vodka, owned by Proximo Spirits, is produced at St. George Spirits. The “straight” vodka is a blend of Viognier eau de vie with spirit made from Midwestern wheat, making a perfectly-balanced, fruity, straight vodka. Their claim to fame to me and others is the flavored vodkas: Buddha’s Hand Citron, Mandarin Blossom, Kaffir Lime, Fraser River Raspberry, Spiced Pear and Chipotle (which makes the world’s best bloody mary). St. George Spirits also creates Breaking & Entering Bourbon, Aqua Azul, St. George Gin and St. George Single Malt, Firelit Coffee Liqueur and more. It was started as an eau de vie distillery 30 years ago and the principles of old world eau de vie distillation continue to influence every product they create.
Tito Beveridge of Tito’s Handmade Vodka graduated with degrees in geology and geophysics, which he used in the oil and gas business. He “got tired of chasing the buck” as he says, and moved back to his hometown of Austin, Texas in the early ‘90s. He used to make flavored vodkas for his friends at Christmas time, so he always had the itch. When the mortgage business he was in got tough, he finally decided to try his luck producing spirits. He had to study up on how to do it (this was pre-Internet), and then started from scratch, going through trial and error until he got it right. He went out and bought every vodka he could find, tried them all, and picked what he thought were the best two. When he found a formula that he and his buddies considered better than those two, he would be done with his recipe. Then came the hard part: financing, permits, production, sales, and so on. His financing consisted of his savings and 19 credit cards. His production was a one-man show. Same with the sales: make some, sell some.
“And then at one point we’d gotten a phone call to come to the World Spirits Competition and I was fixing a boiler so I just sent a couple bottles there and we ended up getting the double gold medal, the unanimous judges’ choice. And that was up against 72 vodkas around the world including flavored vodkas. That kind of, you know, helped spur things along.”
Tito’s Handmade Vodka is doing well today. It is still micro-distilled in an old-fashioned pot still, just like fine single malt scotches and high-end French cognacs. Word of mouth has spread, and more and more people have tried and bought this fantastic, made-in-America product.
Celebrating its American heritage and Texas roots, Tito’s Handmade Vodka has made it official by becoming the first and only spirit brand to be certified Made in the USA. After working closely with the team at Made in USA Certified through a rigorous audit, Tito’s is very proud to announce this new certification. “Now, more than ever, it’s important that people are given tools to make informed decisions when they spend their money,” says Nicole Portwood, Brand Manager. “By becoming officially Made in USA Certified, we are able to assure our customers that when they support Tito’s Handmade Vodka, they are supporting a 100% American company as well as the economy here at home.”
Death’s Door takes its name from the treacherous waterway that separates Washington Island from the Wisconsin mainland. With their new state-of-the-art distillery, President Brian Ellison and his crew at Death’s Door Spirits can produce their unique gin, vodka and whiskey in a modern 25,000-square-foot facility, complete with a tasting room. When the second still is installed, they will have the capacity to produce upwards of 200,000 cases a year. DD’s London Dry-style gin uses juniper berries that grow wild on Washington Island, along with coriander and fennel sourced from within the state. The vodka has a base of organic Washington Island wheat and organic malted barley from Chilton, Wisconsin. It is triple-distilled and hand-cut, resulting in a spirit that’s smooth and rich. A pioneer in the whisky category, Death’s Door White Whisky has an 80:20 mash bill of organic Washington Island wheat to organic malted barley from Chilton, Wisconsin. The spirit is then double-distilled up to 160 proof (80% ABV), rested in stainless steel and finished in uncharred Minnesota oak barrels to help bring the “white whisky” together and to meld this unique spirit’s flavors.
Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery has history dating back four generations. The Van Winkle family’s involvement in the bourbon industry began in the late 1800s with Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr., followed by his son, Julian Jr., who resurrected the pre-Prohibition label that the Van Winkles still owned the rights to after selling their distillery and brands in 1972. After Julian Jr.’s death, his son, Julian lll, took over in 1981. His son, Preston, joined the company in 2001 as the Van Winkles look to continue their tradition for generations to come. The Van Winkles entered into a joint venture with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky and all of the Van Winkle’s whiskey production now takes place at Buffalo Trace under the same strict guidelines the family has always followed in order to produce a superior quality product. Aside from the rich family history, Van Winkle bourbons are special for another important reason: their recipe. All of the Van Winkle bourbons are made with corn, wheat and barley, instead of corn, rye and barley. This “wheated” recipe gives the bourbon a much softer, smoother taste and it also allows the whiskey to age more gracefully.
“Fate is a fickle thing. In 2001, when we purchased the Tuthilltown Gristmill to open a rock climbers’ ranch, the neighbors balked. So we had to find another way. The 240-year history of the mill led us to it. Grain, water, yeast and a new purpose: We decided to make whiskey. With our own skills and a lot of hard work, we converted the two granaries into the first whiskey distillery in New York State since Prohibition.”
As Gabe Erenzo, distiller and Brand Ambassador, says, “The Industrial Revolution dies at the beginning of our driveway.” They are truly all about handcrafted whiskey and the time and work that goes into it. Hudson Whiskey makes five different whiskies: Baby Bourbon, Manhattan Rye, Four Grain Bourbon, Single Malt and New York Corn. They have been given many awards for their products, and for good reason. Give ‘em a try!
Barrel-infused cocktails are popping up in mixology-centric bars across the U.S. The idea is to take un-aged spirits, put them into barrels and infuse the essence of what the barrel has to offer, to create a cocktail rich in flavor and unique in its own right. Tylor Field, Divisional VP Food & Beverage, Morton’s The Steakhouse, saw this as an opportunity to create a signature-style cocktail when Wendy Dunlap with William Grant & Son’s discussed the barrel-infusing opportunity with their Hudson Whiskey brand. “We are testing the barrel-aging concept now in three locations, with Hudson New York Corn Whiskey, Carpano Antica Vermouth and Peach Bitters,” comments Tylor. He goes on to say, “The Morton’s Barrel-Aged Manhattan is being well received by our guests and we will evaluate the results before making a decision to roll it out to all Morton’s. Based on initial sales, we think this could be a winner.”
Berkshire Mountain Distillers was founded in 2007 by Chris Weld. He tried to make a still for his eighth-grade science project but his mother stopped the process. Too bad; it might have given Chris a head start. But after working 21 years as a Physician’s Assistant in the San Francisco Bay area, he and his wife, Tyler, an architect, and their family moved back east to Berkshire County in western Massachusetts. The story goes like this:
“They decided to purchase a neglected apple farm and spent three years cultivating the trees until they finally started bearing fruit again. Faced with an abundance of apples, and looking to leave the medical field, Chris took a page from his childhood and decided to start a distillery with the initial plans of making apple brandy. The farm happened to also be home to historic granite-based spring water that was once deemed the finest in the world. As the basis of any fine spirit is quality water, Chris knew he had the makings of a distillery. Applying his biochemistry background and working with experts in the art of distilling, Chris quickly became a natural at developing product formulas.”
After having had humble beginnings, BMD now has a wide range of products, including Ice Glen Vodka, Greylock Gin, Ethereal Gin, Ragged Mountain Rum, Berkshire Bourbon and New England Corn Whiskey, which are available in 19 states. The distillery has also announced collaboration with Samuel Adams in a multi-year project to distill two of their world-class craft beers into two never-before-tasted spirits, further pushing the boundaries of beverage innovation. The two brews – flagship Samuel Adams Boston Lager and smoky, complex Samuel Adams Cinder Bock – will both be triple-distilled at BMD’s distillery, then barrel-aged in wood. They should be ready for release by 2015. Can’t wait!