View Full Version : Micro-distilleries gaining steam

02-23-2010, 08:28 PM
There are to sides to the argument in this thread...

Micro-distilleries gaining steam

LA Times

Like their brewery cousins, boutique operations creating relatively small batches of vodka, gin and other spirits have found a market in the U.S.

February 9, 2010

Spokane, Wash. - If your liquor cabinet contains mostly familiar names such as Chivas Regal, Jack Daniel's or Smirnoff, get ready to make some new acquaintances.

Small-scale distilleries making high-quality whiskey, gin, vodka and other spirits are taking off across the country.

Boutique booze -- formally called artisanal spirits -- is a big trend in the bar business. Just as the market for craft beers and wines boomed during the last two decades, the audience has similarly grown for small-scale booze that is high quality and often higher priced.

"Why is this better? Because it's not produced for 10 million people; it's produced for 5,000 people," says Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute.

He estimates the number of small distilleries at just over 200, and growing by about 20 to 30 a year. They have sprouted up in more than three dozen states in recent years, with Oregon, California, Colorado, Michigan and New York the main players.

The growth taps into the current trend of eating and drinking the items from small, local and artisanal producers. It's also being driven by "mixologists," high-profile bartenders who craft trendy drinks with specialty alcohol.

And it hasn't hurt that Americans have grown enamored with the hard-drinking characters on the trend-setting AMC television series "Mad Men," Owens says. But demand alone doesn't explain the growth. The repeal of Prohibition-era laws in many states helped spur the rush.

In an effort to promote local distilleries, many states recently have legalized liquor tastings at manufacturing facilities and retail outlets, says Frank Coleman, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which represents big booze makers. Many states also have relaxed blue laws, or prohibition on Sunday liquor sales.

Still, the $63-billion distilled spirits market remains almost entirely in the hands of major producers. Small distilleries generate well below 1% of sales, Coleman said. But he predicts that just as small-scale beers and wines did, micro-distilleries will cut into the market.

Among the big players in this little field are Anchor Distilling Co. in San Francisco, a branch of the Anchor Brewing Co., as well as Hanger One in Alameda, Calif., and Iowa's Templeton Rye Spirits.

Prices for these beverages trend toward the top shelf. Dry Fly Distilling of Spokane, for instance, sells 750-milliliter bottles of its vodka for $29.95 and its whiskey for $42 a bottle.

Washington state, where wineries have boomed during the last two decades, is a relatively new player. The micro-distilling business took off here after a 2008 change in state laws that allowed booze makers to serve samples to customers and directly sell 2 liters of take-home spirits per customer per day. Before, all sales had to occur in state liquor stores. As a result, the state has five small distilleries and 13 more awaiting licenses.

Dry Fly Distilling, whose high-quality gin, vodka and whiskey are garnering national awards, is based in a modest facility just east of downtown Spokane. The production room is dominated by stainless-steel tanks, copper distilling equipment -- including a tower that rises three stories -- and a wall of oak barrels marked "whiskey." Cases of finished booze are stacked everywhere.

"We sell out everything we make," says Kent Fleischmann, who with partner Don Poffenroth started the state's first distillery in 2007. In this case, selling out translated to $2 million in sales last year.

Fleischmann says the key to a successful small distillery is a focus on quality.

Big distillers tend to keep every drop of alcohol produced, figuring it can be made into something drinkable, he said. At Dry Fly and other small firms, they discard the foul stuff (which is a main cause of hangovers).

"We use it for cleaning," Fleischmann says.

02-23-2010, 08:31 PM
The other argument...

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Question for Craft Distillers: Whereís the Craft?

All of a sudden, in the past few years, small "micro" distilleries have popped up all over the country. The first ones were associated with wineries and made brandy. More recently, and in much greater numbers, people with brewery backgrounds have begun to make grain spirits.

There is no question that these operations are universally small. A few years back, one of the big distilleries tried to pose as micro, but was quickly exposed. No, the micro distilleries really are little.

But are they really craft? Are they truly artisanal?

In most cases, the answer is no. If you add the word "traditional" to the equation, that no is even more emphatic.

To reach that conclusion, compare the practices of micro-distillers to those of Americaís big distilled spirits producers, whiskey-makers such as Jim Beam, Jack Danielís, and Wild Turkey; rum-makers such as Bacardi and Cruzan; and brandy-makers such as Gallo, Christian Brothers, and Paul Masson. Who employs more craft, those big guys or the micros?

This critique is not across the board. A small number of craft distillers take a back-to-basics approach, with no short cuts. More common are the ones who put a lot of craft emphasis on one or two parts of the process, but also use short cuts. An even larger number use every short cut they can to make products that barely meet minimum legal requirements for distilled spirits, let alone qualify as craft or artisanal.

One issue is ingredients. Rum, by law, is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane, but for hundreds of years the actual base material in rum production has been molasses, a by-product along the way from cane juice to table sugar. Molasses can be hard to handle. Itís much easier to dissolve table sugar in water and ferment that, which many so-called craft distillers do. Bacardi and Cruzan donít, they use molasses.

But at least the table sugar-users do their own fermentation. Many of the micro distillers who make whiskey buy their washóbeer before it has been hopped and carbonatedó-from a brewery. Of necessity, this means they are making malt whiskey, like they do in Scotland and Ireland, rather than corn whiskey like Jim, Jack, and all those other guys do here.

You canít entirely blame them. Itís what their fledgling trade association tells them to do. "Why reinvent the wheel?" asks Bill Owens, President of the American Distilling Institute.

He recommends that you put your distillery next to a brewery, contract with them for wash, and start making whiskey. Thereís nothing wrong with that idea, except where is the craft in buying your way past two-thirds of the process? Itís exactly like buying frozen bread dough, baking it in your oven, and calling yourself an artisan bakery.

Every industrial-scale, grain-based distiller in America, from the makers of Kentucky bourbon, to vodka-makers, to the folks who make fuel ethanol for cars, starts the process with whole grain, but not Billís guys. How come?

Micro distillers who make brandy and rum donít mind fermenting, but itís harder with grain. Fruit juice and molasses are fermentable just as they are, but grain starch is not. It must be converted. For that you need enzymes. In Scotland, the law requires distillers to use endogenous enzyme systems only. Thatís a fancy way of saying you have to use malt, which is barley that has been malted, i.e., sprouted, to produce the necessary enzymes.

Some large American whiskey distillers use supplemental enzymes, which are permitted here but not universally used. No one has abandoned endogenous enzyme systems altogether except micro distillers, not because itís betteró-it isnít-óbut because itís easier.

Another issue is equipment. Most micro distillers make a big deal about how they use pot stills, not column stills. What they actually use are hybrid stills. They are batch process, like pot stills, but instead of an alembic (the simple, one-piece still top thatís shaped like a tear drop), their pots are topped by...columns, exactly like the ones that give column stills their name.

Part of the problem is that these hybrid stills arenít designed to make whiskey the way Americans make whiskey. They are European and designed to make brandy and other fruit spirits. They will distill a grain wash okay, into whiskey or even vodka if thatís what you want, but they canít handle an American distillerís beer, which contains husks and other undissolved grain solids. Even a wash made from corn and rye, instead of just malt, will give these stills fits.

Then thereís aging. Except for vodka and other clear spirits, most distilled spirits are aged in oak barrels, typically for years, occasionally for decades. Most micro-distillers canít wait that long, so they sell unaged or very lightly aged products. Thereís nothing wrong with that. There always have been unaged and young spirits sold, but aging is another part of the craft and most micro distillers give it short shrift. Virtually all bourbon whiskey is aged for more than four years. I know of only one micro distillery whiskey aged that long and it costs $300 a bottle.

It gets worse. Some micro distillers donít make anything. They buy bulk spirits and bottle them. They have a distillery, or plan to; itís making something, or will soon. The bulk goods are just a bridge until their own product is ready for sale, they say, but several have been saying that for years and not exactly publicizing how the only product they sell is one they didnít make and probably can never duplicate.

The moral of this story is caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, especially if you think you are buying an artisanal product and that matters to you. Do some research, ask questions, be skeptical. Most producers wonít lie to you outright, but you have to ask the right questions and listen to the answers very carefully.

Do these practices make these distillers, or their products, bad? Not necessarily, but thatís not the question. The question is, are these practices craft? Are they artisanal? Are they traditional? Thatís where many of these new micro distilleries have issues.