Most foodies reflexively reach for artisanal versions of their favorite foods. We hold the truth that “small is best” to be self-evident, and vow to eat craft rather than Kraft. The bread, cheese, pickles, and jam we buy from small-batch producers at the farmers market and carry home in NPR totes are worth the cost to us: After all, they usually taste better than their commercial counterparts.
In America’s evolving whiskey landscape, however, smaller isn’t necessarily better. Some excellent craft whiskies have emerged in recent years, but the distilleries responsible for big names like Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, and Four Roses make whiskeys that a surprisingly high number of microdistilleries struggle to match.
This fact flies in the face of our instinct to support the little guy, particularly when he’s your new neighbor and has assumed a huge financial risk to pursue the dream of making whiskey. Just a decade ago, almost every brand of American whiskey—primarily bourbon, rye, and Tennessee whiskey—was made by a handful of companies located in Kentucky and other Southern states. In the last few years, however, the number of distilleries has mushroomed to more than 200, spread throughout the country, as new producers attempt to capitalize on whiskey’s rising popularity. Sales of American whiskey have increased by more than 13 percent during the last five years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (which sponsored a recent tour of both big and small distilleries that I attended). Sales of pricier, high-end products, the kind most emerging craft bands are marketing, increased by more than double that rate.
Many of these new distilleries have capitalized on the locavore movement, utilizing terms like “organic,” “local,” “small,” and the ambiguous “craft,” to appeal to the kind of upwardly mobile buyers who are driving sales. The upstarts are entering a crowded market for a product that traditionally takes years to age, meaning long learning curves and delayed revenue. The odds are even more stacked against them than they were for emerging microbreweries in the 1980s and 1990s.
Like their brewing brethren, a few successful microdistilleries will eventually stand triumphant on a battlefield littered with secondhand equipment for sale. In order to survive in the meantime, many microdistilleries are either marking up the price of whiskey purchased from big distilleries or attempting to abridge the long and expensive aging process with techniques that have yielded some very mixed results.
Some consumers might be unaware of ways that small outfits are blurring the definition of “craft.” As microdistilleries build their facilities or wait for their stocks to age, many purchase whiskey from established companies and resell it. These suppliers include Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Ky., which produces many of its own brands and is best known for Evan Williams bourbon, and MGP Ingredients, which owns the former Seagram Company distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind. Both companies supply small and large labels alike. Craft brands can either put their own labels on whiskey they purchase from bulk producers and mark up the price, or enhance the flavor of sourced whiskey by aging it further, sometimes in old wine barrels for more complexity. In an industry where many brands pride themselves on tradition and advertise long family heritages with pictures of old men who look like Civil War generals, it’s no surprise that many distilleries downplay this practice. (Others create the appearance of being older than they really are by purchasing and reviving long-dormant trademarks.) MGP’s bland corporate website doesn’t list the brands it supplies, although it does provide basic recipes for the types of spirits its makes. Enterprising drinkers with time on their hands can sometimes use these recipes to sleuth out the origin of their whiskey, if a brand lists its grain composition on its bottles or website. Another tactic is simply to look for town names like Lawrenceburg, Ind., or Bardstown on the label for additional clues. And some companies readily admit on their labels to blending different sourced spirits.
Does sourcing whiskey from other suppliers really matter, as long as it tastes good? Craft brands like the Michter’s labels, Belle Meade Bourbon, and Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout are all sourced from other distilleries while the companies build their facilities or age their own stocks, and all are balanced and flavorful products. High West Distillery, another craft outfit, even won an award at the 2010 American Distilling Institute’s Best Craft American Whiskey competition with a whiskey it originally sourced before its homemade product was ready for market.
David Pickerell, an industry legend who used to be the master distiller for Maker’s Mark and now consults with many upstart distilleries, reminded me that sourcing whiskey is itself a tradition going back to the 19th century. Many established and respected brands, including Maker’s Mark in the 1950s, bought whiskey from larger distilleries while they got their footing. (Maker's Mark never sold sourced whiskey under the Maker's label, though.) “It’s what’s in the bottle that counts,” Pickerell noted. One taste of Hillrock Estate Solera-Aged bourbon, a whiskey that he sourced but then aged using a method commonly used to age wine but not whiskey, nicely supported his argument. Regardless, whiskey sourced from big distilleries probably doesn’t fit most drinkers’ concept of “craft.”
What about microdistilleries that actually make their own products? Some, such as Nashville’s Corsair Distillery, have attracted well-deserved attention by experimenting with techniques and flavors avoided by their bigger counterparts. Sometimes these attempts fail, but when they succeed, the results can be exceptional. Corsair’s Quinoa Whiskey has bitter notes that I find disagreeable, but the distillery’s Triple Smoke, which employs smoke flavors from three different types of wood, is flavorful, nuanced, and unique. In the tradition-bound whiskey world, Triple Smoke and many of Corsair’s other experimental projects are the equivalent of Bob Dylan playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival: a little unsettling to purists whose tastes and expectations are already established, but appealingly innovative to others.
Conversations about craft distilleries, however, get a little uncomfortable when they turn to more traditional categories of whiskey such as bourbon, which established producers already do very well. As Pickerell told me, “You can’t out-Maker’s-Mark Maker’s Mark.” Even the most basic offerings from many big distilleries—brands like Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam Black, and Wild Turkey 101—are excellent products that I find more complex than many craft products that are much more expensive. Higher-end products from these same big distilleries—Eagle Rare Single Barrel, Knob Creek, and Russell’s Reserve—are very hard to compete with, especially at the prices they charge.