Established distilleries’ biggest advantage over small competitors is that they can afford more of an essential ingredient needed to make good whiskey: time. Four years is generally considered a minimum for decent bourbon. Jimmy Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey, even considers four- to five-year-old bourbon “a little green.” For whiskey startups operating on shoestring budgets, four years is an eternity to wait before earning revenue. Many have attempted to dodge this obstacle by selling younger whiskies or attempting to quickly extract wood flavors by using smaller barrels, wood chips, ultrasound machines, pressure cookers, and even by playing loud bass music to agitate the whiskey. Upstart distilleries say these techniques do for their whiskeys in a matter of months what otherwise takes years.
These kinds of claims immediately raise red flags. Whiskeys made with these new techniques aren’t always quite as bad as some whiskey reviewers claim, but to many palates (including my own) they usually lack the depth found in whiskeys aged in large barrels for years at a time. Aware of these limitations, some microdistillery owners have told me they plan to eventually transition to tried-and-true methods used by their established counterparts once they can afford it.
Big distilleries, for their part, are eyeing the competition: Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, and Jim Beam have all experimented with some of these alternative aging techniques but thus far have not used them in a large-scale way. Chris Morris, the master distiller at Woodford Reserve, is open to trying new things, and he’s embraced a few relatively untraditional techniques to produce his whiskeys, such as triple-distilling and heating its aging warehouses—but he’s avoided the eccentric practices used by upstarts. Morris presides over a product line of well-regarded whiskeys and seems confident that he won’t be bested by newcomers anytime soon. “We’ve done it all,” he told me. “We know what works and what doesn’t work.”
Brands like Jim Beam sometimes fail to capitalize on their taste advantages, and they don’t help themselves with the foodie market when they do things like team up with Hardee’s to offer the “Jim Beam Bourbon Thickburger.” Brand recognition like that hardly appeals to people reading Michael Pollan’s latest book. But as Jimmy Russell reminded me, many well-known distilleries originally started out as craft operations, eventually merging under larger corporate umbrellas but still operating fairly independently.
This isn’t just folksy marketingspeak. Unlike their counterparts in, say, the meatpacking industry, established distilleries’ standards and techniques haven’t changed much as they’ve scaled up to increase output. The equipment they rely on still comes from small companies like Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Ky., which builds the majority of stills in America for both large and small distilleries. Yes, the juggernauts may produce millions of gallons of booze per year, but they’re using old recipes and techniques that are proven to work. It’s a patient enterprise, in which whiskey is made from a few basic ingredients, then left to age for years in wooden barrels stored in rustic rack houses that dot the rural Kentucky and Tennessee countryside. Labels and size aside, it’s a process that seems very “craft.”
Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Update, June 27, 2013: This article has been updated to clarify that while Maker’s Mark bought whiskey from larger distilleries, they sold it under separate labels rather than their own name.