Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Where Is The Craft In Craft Distilling? Part Whatever.

There is no whiskey-making tradition in the world in which the whiskey-maker uses beer made by someone else, yet that is one of the precepts of Bill Owens, President and High Priest of the American Distilling Institute (ADI).

I kid Bill with the High Priest thing because he and ADI could do all of their fine work without ever making the outrageous suggestion that micro-distillers should make whiskey using wash supplied by a brewer. Instead he has not only made the suggestion, he has elevated it to an article of faith.

"We already have 1,500 micro breweries in this country making wort/wash from barley," says Bill at every opportunity. "Why reinvent the wheel?"

No one denies that there are many places where one can obtain a barley malt wash and in the most technical and literal sense, a person who runs something through a still is a distiller, but I maintain that such a person is, at best, half a craft whiskey-maker. "Half" is probably too generous, because all of the flavor that will be in the final distillate is created in the fermenters. All the still does is concentrate flavors that are already there. How can you say you are the creator of a whiskey if you didn't create any of those flavors?

Since all whiskey except corn whiskey must be aged, the oak barrel is the other source of flavor, but you didn't make that either, did you? So where exactly is the craft in what you are doing? I won't say there is none, but since every major whiskey-maker makes its own beer, how can you claim to be more craft than they?

There are many micro-distillers in America who do not follow Bill's guidance on this matter. I do not want to suggest that all micro-distillers buy wash. They don't. Many are grain-to-bottle producers and I salute them.

An inevitable corollary to Bill's "buy beer" precept is "make malt whiskey," since what most brewers use to make beer is barley malt. Malt whiskey is what they make in Scotland, Ireland and Japan, but rarely in the USA. That means a fledgling American micro-distiller who follows Bill's advice is going against the grain in two critical ways. By not using the primary and uniquely-American ingredient in American whiskey: corn. And by not making the beer, which is contrary to every whiskey-making tradition in the world.

ADI does not mention this, an oversight I hope I have just rectified.

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