In a posting today on The Atlantic.com, Clay Risen takes on what he calls "The Microdistilling Myth." He was reacting to an article on New York Times.com by Toby Cecchini. A link to Risen's post was posted on ADI Forums.com, where a lot of microdistillers hang out. It elicited some immediate, knee-jerk, hostile reaction.
You probably should at least read Risen's article to make sense of what follows.
Risen’s article is intelligent and well-informed, and makes a worthwhile contribution to discussion about the relationship between micro- and macro-distillers and their respective products. He made the choice to take a provocative tack. I suggest the reader look past that and consider his actual points. It's a short piece. (Shorter than this commentary about it.)
He goes off the track with his proposition that while 'small is better' was automatically true with beer, it's not automatically true with distilled spirits. It wasn't and isn't true with beer either. What is true with beer is that a skillful brewer can make and bring to market, in a relatively short amount of time, a product that to the average, experienced beer drinker will be recognizable as beer and better in identifiable ways than a product such as Bud Light.
Since that is not true with craft whiskey yet his main proposition is correct. There are some micro-distiller whiskeys on the market that are admirable for what they are, but they can't stand toe-to-toe even with Jim Beam white label let alone with Four Roses Mariage, which is in fact one of the best bourbons on the market.
I know all distillers have to believe in their products but if any micro-distiller thinks he or she has made and brought to market a finished whiskey that is clearly superior to Four Roses Mariage, that person is plain and simply delusional.
As for Jim Beam white, surpassing it is certainly an easier goal, but head-to-head as a straight bourbon? Sorry, no. Not yet. The problem isn't anyone’s skill with a still, it's time in the barrel. There are few micro-distiller whiskeys with at least four years in wood and even fewer, if any, bourbons.
The best micro-distiller whiskeys are, at best, excellent works-in-progress.
Jim Beam white isn't just a four-year-old whiskey, that's the minimum age. The profile includes whiskey that is older, whiskey that has been "pushed" through aging in the most intense warehouse locations. It takes an operation like Jim Beam to make a product like Jim Beam white. You may think it’s too young. You may think it’s too bland. You may not like the foxy yeast signature. But you can’t argue with the quality.
There certainly are whiskeys on the market that are superior to Jim Beam white label, including most of the other bourbons Beam Global makes, but in a head-to-head comparison there is no micro-distillery bourbon that is broadly superior to Jim Beam white.
The contrary argument is not that there are such whiskeys, but that it is the wrong standard, especially at this stage in the micro-distillery industry’s development. Making a Jim Beam-like whiskey in a micro-distillery makes about as little sense as craft vodka, but that’s a different argument.
Unlike with beer, where beer drinkers always had the opportunity to taste 'other' beers, even after that opportunity became extremely limited, the American whiskey industry was so devastated by Prohibition, then WWII, then by the market's collapse in the 1970s and the intense consolidation that followed, and there was such a high barrier to entry, that there was very little incentive for anyone to serve the demand for idiosyncratic and original American-made whiskey products.
So much more so than micro-brewers, micro-distillers are starting from scratch with regard to whiskey. Small isn’t necessarily better but small has the opportunity to be more interesting, more creative, and more fun. And some micro-distilleries are taking that opportunity. That’s the rebuttal.