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.