Sunday, May 9, 2010

Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The micro-distillery movement is great. That there would be so many small distilleries in America making--well, anything--I never would have predicted. No one is more amazed than I am and no one is more delighted.

As whiskey enthusiasts, our prime directive is to try as many different whiskeys as we can. That's who we are. That's what we do. So naturally when a new whiskey comes along, regardless of its source, we want to try it, or at least learn a little more about it.

Which is why I want to advise my fellow whiskey enthusiasts, with regard to micro-distilleries, and in the immortal words of Larry David, curb your enthusiasm. The micro-distillers would like you to believe, and some of them actually believe this themselves, that they came right out of the box making products that are superior to those made by the majors. They didn't and they aren't.

In the case of whiskey in particular, what you have is simply a very limited range and the limitation is age. Some interesting things are being done with ages ranging from five minutes to about two years, but that's it. There is very little out there that is older than two years and it shows.

I'm not talking about the High West Rendezvous Rye, or High West BourRye, or Templeton Rye, or Angel's Envy Bourbon, or WhistlePig Rye, which were all made by majors and just bottled and sold by little guys.

In terms of the actual micro-distilled products out there, they're all just very young. Despite what some people say, nobody has figured out how to speed up the aging process.

This is not to say there is no merit in these young whiskeys. There is a lot of merit in many of them, but relative to what we're used to as whiskey drinkers, they're all too young. That's just the reality of what these guys are trying to do.

The other reality is that they are all going to be too expensive for what they are. That's also in the nature of the exercise. Whether or not they're "worth it" is something only you can decide.

So by "curb your enthusiasm," I don't mean "forget about it." What I mean is "don't expect too much." Enjoy these products for what they are and feel good about supporting someone's dream.


Unknown said...

Chuck, once again, a great post. I concur wholeheartedly. The craft distillers seem to be taking this approach of, "We are taking American Spirits to new frontiers". In most cases, from what I've seen, that's rarely the case. Giving the consumer more options? Sure, definitely.

The barrier for entry in the American Whiskey world is age. And most of the craft whiskey's I have tried, have lacked serious dimension and complexity, had a ton of grain character (which isn't always bad), and just tasted flat.

I love this movement in the Whiskey world and i support it immensely, but you are 100% correct in saying we all need not expect too much.

Unknown said...

Hi Chuck! You're quite correct that the micros can't compete on age with the big players. And the whiskey lover has become accustomed to well aged whiskies. Perhaps the whiskey glut due to it's near demise was a blessing that allowed the majors to produce these longer aged products that are so well loved now. Will the corporations that run them be willing to sustain such stocks? I'm not knowledgeable enough on the industry to say.

Looking at the older books on whiskey shows that the current preference for a lot of barrel flavors is fairly recent. I'm cure you know that history better than I and can describe it better too.

Considering that whiskey is made from grain, it should have grain character. I don't think there are many that would say that brandy shouldn't have a lot of grape character.

The flavors for whiskey should be seem as a continuum from unaged white whiskey all the way up through burnt wood. OK, maybe not that far. :) And there are opportunities for quality all across the spectrum. But not everyone will like everything.

I'll disagree with the idea idea of curbing enthusiasm or not expecting too much. It really depends on what your expecting. But being intelligent about what you're buying is just as important with the micros as it is with the majors. Don't expect the micros to have some kind of magic method that will produce PVW 20 in 3 years.

The micros whiskey industry is young, and so expect young whiskey. Look for the qualities that define good young whiskey. Promote those businesses that do, nurture those that want to, and don't support those that make downright bad whiskey. Though hopefully the last will accept some gentle suggestions.

In the interest of full disclosure, I operate a microdistillery in upstate NY, but currently don't make whiskey. But I'd like to. And it'll be young.

Wade said...

"nobody has figured out how to speed up the aging process"

Would you not agree that smaller barrels age faster? Of course, a smaller barrel is not really that much less expensive than a normal barrel, so this drives final cost up as trade-off.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Small barrels increase surface area contact, leading to faster absorption, but that's just part of what happens during aging. Most of it just takes time, there's no way to hurry it.

Unknown said...

Dakini, great commments, and I do agree with many of them.

Perhaps you are right - micro-distilled products should be judged on their own merit. That said, if you are going to charge, say $40-50 for a bottle of Bourbon or Rye (or for a 375ML bottle to pick on a popular micro-distiller with good market traction these days), that's what I'm going to base my opinion from.

Perhaps the answer is Micro-Distillers getting away from some of those classic names and creating something unique. Doing a better job of differentiating themselves will help to judge it on it's own merit.

Understandably, youth of spirit is required if you want to pay the bills as a distiller breaking in. And I support this movement wholeheartedly (with my $$). But until we see where this thing is going, I definitely think the consumer is going to have to curb, or at the very least adjust their expectations.

Unknown said...

Quite right Jason. There's no way to compare a 3 month or 3 year bourbon with a 6 year (or more) bourbon. Even with the same grain bill, fermented with the same yeast, run in the same still.

And if you expect it to be the same, well, disappointment is inevitable.

Price is certainly a challenge for small distillers lacking the economies of scale of the majors.

It will be interesting to see what's made.

Unknown said...

To the contrary, I think we too often take age to automatically justify a good spirit. A mediocre spirit will still be mediocre after many years in a barrel.

Sometimes, I like a young red wine. They have a time and place. Likewise, there are times when I like a young whiskey that blooms with grain rather than so much oak.

I think the issue here is when someone ages a whiskey in a 10 gallon barrel for 12 months and tries to pass it off as being more complex than a spirit that has been in a barrel for 5 years. There are too many small distillers who are not being upfront about their process and the maturity of the spirit.

Take Tuthilltown's Baby Bourbon. It's a great spirit. It's definitely different than an 18 year old Pappy Van Winkle. But I still enjoy it. And they don't hide the fact that it's a young bourbon.

Just be honest with me about what is in the bottle and I'll be more than happy to pay for it if it is a good spirit.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Another way to look at this is historical. "Common" (i.e., unaged) whiskey was dominant until pretty late in the 19th century and even then, most of the supposedly aged whiskey was a doctored product that contained non-whiskey ingredients. Fully-aged whiskey only became the standard at the very end of the 19th century after government regulation pushed the fakes out of the market.

Lightly aged (less than four years) whiskey was also quite common and popular.

Some of that common or young whiskey was better than others and consumers favored the products that, through the distiller's skill, had achieved the best taste. I don't consider it 'lowering the bar' to judge a two-year-old bourbon against other two-year-old bourbons. I consider it a legitimate style and I'm interested in finding the practitioners who deliver the best product of that type, just like I'm interested in finding the best 10-year-old or the best 20-year-old, which also are not all created equal.

Chuck said...

I'm glad to see the micro-distillers rescuing young whiskey styles from the obscurity or even scorn in which they had been consigned until recently. It was clear from history that it was POSSIBLE to make a really good young whiskey, but for many years it seems that nobody was trying. The corn whiskeys available commercially were afterthoughts from big bourbon distillers; although some were okay, Heaven Hill et al. were not putting a lot of effort or attention into making the absolute best corn whiskey possible.

There is still certainly room for improvement---I've had the good fortune to taste white dog from a couple major distilleries and in each case it was as good or better than any of the young whiskeys I've tried from the newer small distillers. But I think young whiskey has its charm, and as long as production is designed to make a good young whiskey, it is a legitimate style capable of greatness. (Heretofore, a lot of young whiskeys have suffered because they were whiskeys distilled to be aged and were simply sold before they were really ready.)

Even if every offering is not presently hitting it out of the part, what is happening is, whiskey enthusiasts are getting used to the idea of spending premium whiskey money for young spirits. They won't keep doing that if the spirits don't deliver, but I think some of them do and will, and I think the climate is such that those whiskeys will be given a chance to succeed on their merits, rather than simply being rejected out-of-hand on the basis of an age/dollar equation.