A new movement is emerging in the alcohol beverage business amidst a rise in handcrafted spirits
Potato vodka, barrel-aged gin and corn whiskey.
These are just a few of the growing number of small-batch spirits to hit the market.
Following in the steps of craft wineries and breweries, the number of businesses making micro-distilled vodka, whiskey, gin and other spirits is soaring.
About 269 craft distilleries operate in the U.S., up from just a handful several years ago, according to Danielle Eddy, public relations director for Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), Washington. Plenty more are on the way.
“The same thing that happened in wine and beer is now happening in spirits,” Eddy told SN.
The movement has become so powerful that DISCUS created a craft distiller affiliate membership last year. Open to distillers who produce fewer than 40,000 nine-liter cases annually, the program is designed to organize the growing number of micro-distilled spirits producers and alert them to public policy issues affecting the industry.
Part of the appeal of micro-distilled spirits is that they cater to consumers looking for new and interesting tastes, especially those produced locally.
“These are for people looking to expand their flavor experiences,” Eddy said.
Known for producing less in a year than larger distilleries bottle in an hour, micro-distilleries are hands-on operations that make spirits in small batches. As such, they have the freedom to push the envelope by experimenting with unique blends and distilling methods, Eddy said.
Take Corsair Artisan Distillery, Bowling Green, Ky. It makes gin in charred oak barrels previously used to age its spiced rum.
“It's interesting because it's still gin, but it has a spiced rum flavor,” Eddy said.
Corsair also produces Pumpkin Spice Moonshine, a “white dog” whiskey inspired by pumpkin ales. Corsair distills malted barley and malted wheat to make a sweet malt whiskey. It loads the pot with ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and pumpkin, and then redistills the whiskey to infuse and marry all the flavors, according to the company.
“Craft distilleries experiment,” Eddy noted.
St. George Spirits, Alameda, Calif., describes the micro-spirit production process as a laborious, but creative one.
“We work in small batches on copper pot stills. We watch our stills carefully, tasting as we go and discarding anything that's less than absolutely sublime,” according to St. George promotional materials. “Our goal is to maximize flavor and aroma, not profitability. It's an artisanal process that results in a better-tasting product — that's why we've always distilled that way and we always will.”
Micro-distillers typically produce under 50,000 cases a year. Such limited availability is appealing to spirits collectors and connoisseurs alike.
The emergence of craft distilleries comes at a time of a spirits renaissance. People are throwing cocktail parties and enjoying retro drinks like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, said Eddy.
“People are finding that it's OK to have a Manhattan again, and if they enjoy it with one of the big-name spirits, they'll enjoy it with a craft,” Eddy said.
What's happening at retail mirrors restaurant trends. Micro-distilled liquor is ranked the No. 1 alcohol trend on restaurant menus, with 74% of the chefs calling it a hot trend for 2011, according a National Restaurant Association survey of more than 1,500 professional chefs. The survey was conducted in October 2010.
The National Restaurant Association attributes this to the fact that more diners are interested in where their meals come from and how they are made. As the movement toward local and sustainable products gains momentum, it expects to see more local and artisan beers and liquors, as well as creative cocktails that use produce from chefs' gardens.
There's such a big craft-spirits fan base that a Bloomington, Ind., man created a website, www.americancraftspirits.com, devoted to reviews and information about the specialty products.
Depending on local beverage alcohol laws, some craft spirit companies can only sell their beverages in their distilleries. Others can market them to bars, restaurants — and supermarkets.
That's just what Heartland Distillers, Indianapolis, is doing. Its $22.99 “Indiana Vodka” is sold at Marsh supermarkets, and is slated to roll out at Meijer within the next few weeks.
“Marsh is a local company that supports local products, so we've been successful with them,” according to Stuart Hobson, Heartland's master distiller and owner.
Marsh declined to comment.
Heartland's Indiana Vodka is made using a “batch” distillation method. During distillation, the “head” of the batch is removed, which eliminates impurities, leaving the best part.
“Because we produce in small batches, we taste it while it's being produced. If certain batches don't meet our quality standards, they're not used,” he said.
“It's similar to a winery using only the best barrels of wine,” Hobson added.
Each batch of its Indiana Vodka is limited to 1,000 liters.
“The big multinational companies spill more down the drain than we produce,” Hobson joked.
Heartland also makes Indiana Infusions, infused vodkas in seven unique flavors, including cherry vanilla and orange-cream as well as chai tea vodka.
It was a natural progression for micro-distillers to make a name for themselves in the beverage alcohol business like beer and wine companies have already done.
“People are gravitating to local products, and locally produced spirits are the next step,” he said.
While the multinational spirits companies that dominate the market deliver consistent quality, they don't have the handmade appeal that crafts have, said Hobson.
“Their products are like McDonald's — they're everywhere, but not too interesting,” he said.
Artisan spirits are a perfect fit with supermarkets because people like to enjoy craft spirits at cocktail parties, said Hobson. Having them available at supermarkets makes it easy for party organizers to buy their food and beverage ingredients in the same place.
Craft distilleries operate everywhere from New York to Chicago to Indiana to Oregon.
Oregon is one of the most active craft distilling states, home to about 44 distillery licenses, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Portland is known as a craft brewing mecca of sorts. An industrial area of southeast Portland is called “Distillery Row” because about six craft distilleries operate within several blocks of each other. These independent distilleries make everything from vodkas and gins, rums and whiskeys to more specialized spirits such as absinthe, aquavit and flavored liqueurs.
Distillery Row teamed with a pedicab company so that people have a safe way to tour Deco Distilling, Highball Distillery, House Spirits and other distilleries that operate there.
One of the reasons for the popularity of micro-distilleries in Oregon is a state policy that allows liquor stores to buy less than a case of spirits. This means that storeowners with limited storage space don't have to stock entire cases of a particular spirit in order to let customers try it.
“We will break down a case, so they don't have to,” said Christie Scott, OLCC spokeswoman.
What's more, the state officially owns the liquor on the shelves, so the storeowner doesn't have to foot the bill if a spirit doesn't sell.
“One of the reasons why [craft spirits] are doing well in Oregon is because there's an equal playing field between little guys and big guys,” Scott said.
Under Oregon law, distillers can sell their products in liquor stores, but not supermarkets. Within the last two years, they also gained the right to conduct tours and tastings at their distilleries.
Oregon was a big player in the craft winery and brewery movements in the 1980s and 1990s, and is positioned well to benefit from artisan distilleries, said Scott.
“The craft-distilling movement is the third phase,” Scott said.
INDIANAPOLIS — Stuart Hobson ran several liquor stores before jumping to the other side of the spirits business.
He switched from being a spirits retailer to a spirits producer by opening his own vodka distillery.
Hobson founded Heartland Distillers, Indianapolis, one of a growing number of craft distillers operating in the U.S.
About 269 craft distilleries operate in the U.S., up from just a handful several years ago, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), Washington.
Following is a list of some them.
GARDINER, N.Y. — For 220 years Tuthilltown Gristmill, a landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, used waterpower to turn local grains into flour.
In 2001, Ralph Erenzo and Vicki Morgan acquired the property and with the help of partner Brian Lee, they converted one of the mill granaries into a micro-distillery.
By 2003, Tuthilltown Spirits produced its first batches of vodka from scraps they collected at a local apple-slicing plant.
Today, Tuthilltown Spirits distills vodkas from apples grown at orchards less than five miles away and whiskeys using grain harvested by farmers less than 10 miles away. The farm distillery also produces rum, eau de vie, brandy, absinthe and infusions.
Tuthilltown's Hudson Baby Bourbon is said to be the first legal pot-distilled whiskey made in New York since Prohibition. This single-grain bourbon is made from 100% New York corn and aged in its special small American Oak barrels.