I’ve been thinking a lot about the American craft distilling movement lately; thinking about it, writing about it (look for upcoming pieces in both Malt Advocate and WHISKY), and drinking its products.
Most of my attention has been on their un-aged and very young whiskeys, since whiskey-wise that is mostly what they have released. Making really wonderful young whiskey may be something craft distillers can do particularly well, but let’s hope it’s not the only thing. When it comes to whiskey, we’ll never be able to say craft is better than mass if they never go head-to-head with mature whiskeys from the majors.
I recently asked the owners of a few of the more successful small, young distilleries what has surprised them the most. Guy Rehorst of Great Lakes Distilling replied, “making a good product is easy, selling a good product is hard work.” Jess Graber of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey answered similarly, “ideas always take longer and cost more money than you think they will.”
What has surprised me the most about this young movement is how well some of these small producers have captured the imagination of drinkers in their local markets. A lot of people, it seems, think it’s really cool to drink something made by a small, local producer. That a craft-made product is better than a mass-made product is accepted as true on its face, no convincing needed. That it’s worth twice as much or more and maybe even worth standing in line for also seems to have been easy for many to accept.
When a product idea clicks so naturally with drinkers, buyers for bars and stores don’t need much convincing either. I’m not saying sales is not still hard work, but look at Tuthilltown’s deal with William Grant & Sons. Tuthilltown has its Hudson Baby Bourbon and other whiskeys on the smartest back bars in Manhattan. That alone is worth whatever Grant paid them.
Rehorst is well on his way to having his brand in every hot bar in Milwaukee, which isn’t quite the same but no small feat either.