Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Drinking And Thinking About Craft Whiskey.

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.


DeanSheen said...

The value proposition seems to me to be a carry over from beer and to a lesser extent wine where smaller producers have regularly exceeded the big players.

It seems in the realm of alcoholic beverages the assumption is carried over to spirits by the average consumer hence the interest.

I don’t know, commodification can be its own master and it's interesting to watch this aspect of the market run counter to previous expectations based largely perhaps on the aging component.

Anonymous said...

Have you tried the new "silver whiskey" from High West? It has just appeared lately in the Utah liquor stores. It's unaged and from 100% oats. It's character is much closer to a grappa than to any whiskey I've tasted.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I have and you're right. They all taste like that.

Anonymous said...

maybe this is oversimplifying it a bit, but isn't this just "buying local first" at it's finest?

obviously, it's not a farmer's market product that you can get every saturday morning, for reason's you've previously discussed in other posts (i.e. gov't statutes and three tier regulations), and maybe rightfully so (i.e. "social responsibility" element) but it's interesting to think how things would be different if that wasn't the case.

IowaJeff said...

It will be interesting to see what some of the more successful craft distillers do once they gain enough name recognition and scale to make it economically feasible to age their spirits longer.