Monday, December 27, 2010

Clay Risen Stirs The Pot. Good For Him.

In a posting today on The, Clay Risen takes on what he calls "The Microdistilling Myth." He was reacting to an article on New York by Toby Cecchini. A link to Risen's post was posted on ADI, 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.


Doctor Tarr said...

Anyone who thinks smaller is automatically for beer hasn't had any of Sierra Nevada's products. They are one of the top five largest brewers in the country.

I hope these microdistilleries are holding back enough inventory to sell it with proper aging. They are selling what they make for so much now, though, I'm afraid I won't be able to afford the aged stuff when it is finally bottled.

dg said...

Thanks for sharing, I heard about this article but forgot about it due to Christmas.
I tend to always agree with you Chuck, that you are right beer is easier to make and bring to market.
Whiskies on the other hand have to go through their maturation process which means time and environment, you will never cheat mother nature.

Jason Pyle said...

Great points as always Chuck. I'd argue some HAVE matched the quality of Jim Beam or very close. What they haven't come close to doing is match the pricing. Why pay double or triple that price for a spirit that is "close" to as good? It's silly.

This, beyond even the quality of the finished whiskey, is what drives me crazy.

I still say we need a "young whiskey" category. There are nuances to younger whiskey that are plusses. You can tend to really taste the grain that went into them more. The oak influence *can* be less as well if you're not a big fan of oakier whiskeys. So there are pluses, but that's thrown out the window at twice the price.

Good post.