Friday, September 5, 2008

A Question for Craft Distillers: Where’s 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 America’s big distilled spirits producers, whiskey-makers such as Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, 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. It’s much easier to dissolve table sugar in water and ferment that, which many so-called craft distillers do. Bacardi and Cruzan don’t, they use molasses.

But at least the table sugar-users do their own fermentation. Many of the micro distillers who make whiskey buy their wash—beer before it has been hopped and carbonated—-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 can’t entirely blame them. It’s 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. There’s nothing wrong with that idea, except where is the craft in buying your way past two-thirds of the process? It’s 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 Bill’s guys. How come?

Micro distillers who make brandy and rum don’t mind fermenting, but it’s 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. That’s 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 it’s better—-it isn’t-—but because it’s 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 that’s 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 aren’t 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 that’s what you want, but they can’t handle an American distiller’s 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 there’s 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 can’t wait that long, so they sell unaged or very lightly aged products. There’s 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 don’t make anything. They buy bulk spirits and bottle them. They have a distillery, or plan to; it’s 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 didn’t 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 won’t 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 that’s not the question. The question is, are these practices craft? Are they artisanal? Are they traditional? That’s where many of these new micro distilleries have issues.


Tim said...

Chuck, they have been selling Conecuh Ridge whiskey for a couple of years, now. It is quite expensive and I have not tried it. As you described, he started out sourcing his whiskey from a Kentucky distillery with plans to start up his own distillery in south Alabama. Do you know whether he was ever able to make and use his own whiskey?


Chuck Cowdery said...

As far as I know, nothing there has changed.

Unknown said...

Great article chuck. I would add that a lot of the so-called whiskey that is being produced is "aged" using wood chips in the barrels instead of time--a la the wine industry. Caramel coloring is also prevalent.

Anonymous said...

caveat emptor.. Thank you Chuck. Buyers should know if their newly found purchase of a " craft distilled" product is just that. I have a small distillery in Washington ( State ) which only local ingredients are used and we start with wheat and take the product basically from farm to bottle, mashing and fermenting. It has been a discussion for some time on what craft distilling truly is. My vote is on those small distilleries who make the spirits, not buy it from an ethanol plant.

Interestingly enough the law in WA. now states that in order to be a craft distillery in this state, 51 percent of your ingredients must be from WA.

Bob said...

I wonder if the 51% rule means the maker can put in 40% ABV Ethanol imported from a bulk provider tanker trucked in from Iowa and then mix with 60% genuine Washington water and call it a WA spirit.

Bryan said...

Several of us in the industry have likened what other supposed "craft" distilleries are doing to the micro brewers that were using all extract brewing. Those 100% extract brewers are long gone and I would suspect the same outcome for those distilleries tanking NGS to their operations and calling it "micro distilled". It will be just a matter of time until the public, along with the industry itself, will make heads and tails of this and slowly choke them out.

Fred said...

Chuck - This is an issue that I am glad someone is addressing. While there are a few of us 'Craft' Distilleries in the state of Colorado (very few), most buy their product in bulk, perhaps filter it, place it in a wonderful bottle, with the words 'made in Colorado' and sell it. Some don’t even bottle it here in the state!

I am sure that their profit margins are much better than mine.

I believe we are truly a 'craft' distillery. I say this because we make our own wash - we ferment it - we distill it - we bottle it - we also have a hard time educating the general public that even Vodka can have flavoring, not from lime or additives, but from the wash and the distillation process which can provide body, texture, richness and smoothness.

I agree with you that column stills have a hard time processing a 'true' mash. So here really comes the 'craft' - we build our own stills: right here on the plant floor, bending copper, re-bending copper, fixing leaks, re-fixing leaks and eventually we get the still water tight.

It took us a year to figure out the still configuration that would handle our mash and not clog up the columns. Our still is a hybrid, designed from trial and error - mostly error, as we are ranchers not engineers.

During that year, we used my Great Grandfather's recipe (1870's). However, his product did not qualify for current regulations of Vodka: so we called it 'Rocky Mountain Moonshine', clear, full body and rich in flavor. Our Colorado Crystal Vodka (I think) is exceptional and I am a rum drinker, but then what do you expect from the guy that makes it! (At a recent tasting, Colorado Crystal won over the so-called ‘top shelf’ products. We were pleased.)

My passion is to make rum, but I have yet to find a Colorado Sugar Cane grower – go figure.

Again; thank you for bringing this issue up. I agree with you whole-heartedly.

Fred Linneman
Mystic Mountain Distillery
Larkspur Colorado

Rob K said...

Hey Fred, how about sorghum? They grow that in Colorado and I bet it would make a wonderful "rum". I've long wanted to try it myself.

Herbalist said...

I'm an Oregon distiller and we have 17 small distilleries here in the state. I thought I'd weigh in, as we have examples of just about every aspect of the emerging craft industry.

Myself, I came out of both the beer and wine industry. Many of the young distillers here came out of the robust microbrewery side with visions of making whiskey some day. But making anything that has to go into a barrel for multiple years is an expensive long term proposition. That's why most of these small distilleries start with clear spirits. Cash flow.

Many of us buy bulk spirits and then run it through activated carbon for days, to polish the spirits and remove the harsh notes left over from the distilling process. Several of us make vodka from scratch, be it organic rye or wheat to using Pacific Northwest syrah or fermented local honey as it's base.

You as consumers get to decide the difference between a $20 bottle of say Tito's vodka made from midwest corn ethanol or a $50 bottle of Apis vodka made from mead or the Hanger One vodka made from a blend of bulk ethanol mixed with a touch of small batch Viognier [wine] vodka for flavor dynamics. Clearly some or more artisan than others. Let your palate be your guide.

The gins made in Oregon range from the delicious Aviation gin made by House Spirits that threw in a little sassafrass and lavender to the standard gin botanicals to Integrity Spirits who use a bit of fresh grated cucumber in their gin for a more Hendricks like quality. Bendistillery uses local desert juniper in one of their gins and filter it through local lava rock. These are truly artisan small batch products.

At Sub Rosa Spirits I make two culinary inspired vodkas that use an infusion process. One is a Tarragon vodka that uses fresh organic tarragon, fresh fennel fronds and lemon-mint to flavor one of the vodkas. The other is a Saffron vodka that uses toasted cumin, coriander, ginger, black peppercorns, cayenne, saffron and a few other spices to make an extraodinary savory vodka. Each herb or spice is infused seperately and then blended together before bottling, much like a chef makes a souffle. Granted, I use a highly polished midwest ethanol as my base, but it made no sense make my own vodka and then stomp all over it with such dramatic flavors. Absolut, Gray Goose, Smirnoff all go to flavor houses and use extracts to enhance their flavored vodkas. Sure, I buy bulk alcohol but at least I use fresh, natural herbs and spices to create these vividly flavored spirits.

I also ran the Rogue Spirits rum distillery in Portland for nearly a year and designed their new distillery on the coast, next to their brewery. We looked at taking the beer wash from the Newport brewery to make vodka out of to make a wasabi/ginger vodka. The product cost was incredibly high and the opportunity cost to not make that wash into beer was a deal breaker. So we all make choices when we are starting out. Life is full of trade offs. Check us all out four years from now when what we have in the barrel comes to market.

Clear Creek Distillery has been making world class eau-du-vies and brandies for twenty years. Brandy Peaks Distillery has been making fruit brandies for nearly as long using maybe the last (legal)wood fired pot still in the United States. Clear Creek's pear brandy is as good as anything coming out of Europe. They also make a whiskey using wash from the Widmer brewery. It's very peaty in a Scotch sort of way. House Spirits distillery Lee Medoff worked for the McMenamin beer chain and ran their distillery that made whiskey, gin, brandy and other small artisan flavor experiments such as a coffee flavored liqueur. House Spirits now has a whiskey program where they make 15 gallon barrels for individual customers and are starting on a large scale whiskey production with a seperate barrel facility. But House Spirits is about five years in business, having started making vodka and gin, then an aquavit, then an ouzo, then a rum with all sorts of things aging in the barrel. It took years to get to that place for them. It takes distiller with deep pockets to start off by putting whiskey/bourbon in a barrel and waiting 2 to 4 years or more to begin selling anything.

So I am asking people to give these small operations a chance. Sure, there are distillers and marketing companies who are just pushing out character-less vodka or uninspired gins. But there are also folks who are trying very hard to make something interesting and distinct.

I invite people to go to the Sub Rosa Spirits web site and find the links to the handful of Oregon distillers and check out what we are doing here. Try some of the products if you can. Then decide if what we are doing is worthy.

Having been in the beer, and wine and now the spirits business... I can tell that that the spirits business is the hardest nut to crack. This is a business dominated by the big boys with the entire distribution channel built by and for the big boys. We craft distiller, even the largest of us, are still small fry.

Mike Sherwood
Sub Rosa Spirits

tanstaafl2 said...

I know this is an older post but it speaks to a problem that I as a consumer frequently face. Unless the smaller distillers can band together and create some guidelines to distinguish how products are made and then either publish them on a reliable and unbiased website and/or encourage or require distillers to put them on the bottle it is incredibly difficult for the consumer to figure this all out.

I for one would spend a little more to support a small distiller who is trying to make a quality product and I do try to read as much as I can to guide my purchase of smaller "craft" distillers. But it is a hit or miss process at best. There are even a few ideas here in this blog and comments presuming they still exist 3 years later. But I don't really have a good resource to go to help me insure that the products mentioned here are truly "craft distilled" in nature, much less any good!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Most people probably get to this blog for the first time through a search, so the age of the posts doesn't matter much. It's certainly still an issue, three years later.

One good thing is that some retailers, such and K&L Wines in California, have buyers who educate themselves about these products and are a good source of information for their customers.

I do what I can too.

tanstaafl2 said...

Indeed you do and many thanks for doing so!

K&L Wines has been on my radar for awhile now as well and I have found their site very useful. That said, they are still trying to sell wine and spirits and aren't quite what I can view as an independent and unbiased source. Still, I certainly also recommend them as one source to turn to.