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Honey, I Shrunk the Distillery: Micro-distillers

Micro-distillers, artisan outfits, whatever you like to call them, it’s the little guys who are making some of the most interesting stuff in spirits right now, says Larry Walker


  A lot of Americans are discovering their ‘inner moonshiners’. Micro- distilleries are the trend du jour of the US spirits world, with at least 150 distilleries now producing everything from absinthe to rye whiskey. Ten or 15 years ago, there were fewer than a dozen.
  Taking the long view, however, micro-distilleries are nothing new in the US. Until Prohibition in the 1920s, every city of any size would have had several breweries and the surrounding countryside would be crowded with stills, many of them illegal. This enterprising spirit, so to speak, ended with the coming of Prohibition and a more vigorous crackdown on the illegal stills which had sustained the moonshiners of backwoods legend.
  And now the micro-distillery movement is experiencing a resurgence, partly off  the back of the micro-brewery movement which sprang up in the 1980s and 1990s, and partly in relation to the renewed interest in small locally-focused wineries.
  But what is an artisan, or micro-distillery, anyway? Is it something that can be defined by either numbers or market? The answer is ‘not really’, although production levels are seldom more than a few thousand cases and the market is generally local.
  Lance Winters, of St. George Spirits in California offers this definition: ‘Artisan distillers and the people who buy their spirits, are interested in the real thing. The giant spirits producers have forgotten what the real stuff is like. An artisan-distilled spirit should be a snapshot of aromas and flavors. It should reference a place.’
  But while they represent just a tiny portion of the overall spirits market – probably well under 3% – micro-distillers loom much larger in market dollars, appealing to adventurous connoisseurs who are probably also shelling out on expensive cheese, cultish wine and
micro-brewery beers.
  And then there’s the bartenders, who are always looking for something different to inspire a new cocktail, or freshen up a classic – either way, the small distillers are now giving them plenty of material to work with…


Anchor Steam Brewery & Distillery

Founded: 1896, bought and restored in 1965 by Fritz Maytag. First spirits in 1998
Signature spirit: Old Potrero Single Malt 18th Century Style Rye Whiskey
The techie difference: Aged in uncharred barrels for purity of flavor
Price range: $40-75
www.anchorbrewing.com


Fritz Maytag is a real history buff. Rummaging around in the past led him to buy and restore the virtually abandoned Anchor Steam Beer company in San Francisco, a move generally credited with the launch of the micro-brewery revival.
  Having the beer side well in hand, Maytag set out on what some have called his ‘spiritual quest’. One result of his research is Old Potrero Single Malt 18th Century Style Straight Rye Whiskey. ‘I wanted to try to recreate the original whiskey of America,’ Maytag says. ‘I wanted to make a whiskey that would have been made in George Washington’s day.’
  The historic spirit is distilled in a small batch copper pot still and aged in uncharred oak barrels for about three years. ‘The use of charred barrels didn’t come in until the 1820s,’ Maytag says. ‘Before that, the barrels would have only had a light toast from the fire when the staves were bent and assembled. The early whiskey would have been almost clear.’
The Walker Taste Test:
Old Potrero 18th Century Style Rye: A very smooth whiskey with no rough edges. The flavours are deep and long lasting with bright spice on the opening. Best served straight up, cut with a dash of water.
Distributed in the UK by Coe Vintners, 020 8551 4966


St. George Spirits

Founded: 1982 by Jorg Rupf.
Distiller: Lance Winters
Signature spirit: Hangar One Vodka, Absinthe Vert, Eau de Vie
The techie difference: The pot still for absinthe has been fitted with a column to get greater fruit extraction
Price range: $40-90
www.stgeorgespirits.com


An abandoned US Navy air hangar at the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay is an unlikely place for a micro-distillery. Indeed, it would be possible to fit about 10 micro-distilleries into the space and still have room left over for a bowling alley. It’s the home of St. George Spirits, producer of a number of artisan spirits, including Absinthe Vert, the first absinthe legally made in the US in over a century.
  Founder Jorg Rupf, whose family have been distillers in Germany for centuries, was so impressed with the quality of the fruit during a visit to California that he stayed on to establish his distillery. All the spirits are made in small pot stills, most from organic fruit.
  Distiller Lance Winters and St. George Spirits have been getting a lot of media attention recently because of the absinthe, which only became legal in the US in 2007.
  ‘It’s something I’ve been playing around with for years,’ Winters says. ‘But every year I had to dump it down the drain, no matter how good it was.’
  All of St. George’s bottlings are informed by intensity of fruit. ‘That’s where we started,’ he says. Even the straight Hangar One vodka, which by US regulations must be flavorless, has a touch of Viognier in the distillation. ‘It doesn’t really add flavour, but Viognier has a marvellous stone fruit quality that works well.’
The Walker Taste Test:
Absinthe Vert: This bright spirit has a lively minty opening, edged by bitter wormwood. As the flavours come together, there are elements of anise, pepper and lime leading to a balanced, complex finish.
Hangar One Vodka: A vodka with intense minerality and a long finish.
Aqua Perfecta Poire William: The flavours are so intense and focused that drinking this is like drinking pears.
Contact direct for availability in the UK


Charbay Winery & Distillery

Founded: 1983 by the Karakasevic family, distillers for centuries in the former Yugoslavia
Signature spirits: Flavoured vodkas
The techie difference: Only flavoured vodka to use organic fruit
Price range: $25-$35
www.charbay.com


In 1998, Charbay master distiller Miles Karakasevic launched the first flavoured vodkas in the US made with real fruit instead of artificial essences. Earlier this year, he went to market with the first flavoured vodkas using organically grown fruit. Flavours include Blood Orange, Meyer Lemon and Pomegranate.
  Most flavoured vodkas lack any real fruit intensity, they tend to wash out when used in cocktails, whereas Charbay vodkas are designed to be used in cocktails, so the flavours hold up.
Ready-to-serve aperitifs are the latest bottling from Charbay. Available in Pomegranate and Green Tea flavors, they are proving a big hit in restaurants.
The Walker Taste Test:
Flavoured vodkas: The three new flavored vodkas all have a focused intensity of fruit. The Blood Orange and Meyer Lemon in particular leave the palate refreshed and wanting more. Shaken on ice and served straight in a martini glass.
Contact direct for availability in the UK


Germain-Robin

Founded: 1981 by Ansley Coale and Hubert Germain-Robin
Signature spirits: Brandy
The techie difference: Premium varietal wine grapes to make the distillate; antique copper pot stills
Price range: $35-350
www.germain-robin.com


A chance meeting between Ansley Coale and Hubert Germain-Robin led to the construction of a small distillery on Coale’s ranch in Mendocino County, about a two hour drive north of San Francisco. They installed a 200-year-old copper still from an abandoned distillery near Cognac and began making brandy, and unintentionally played a large role in starting the micro-distillery movement.
  Germain-Robin’s family owned the Cognac firm of Jules Robin before it was bought by Martell. ‘Hubert insisted on the antique still because he wanted to make brandy by hand. He wanted nothing to do with the modern semi-automatic stills,’ Coale says. ‘He was passionate about making brandy the right way.’
  The ‘right way’ in this case is the use of the small pot still that was traditional before the invention of the column still around 1850. While a large column still can produce thousands of gallons of spirits a day, the pot still in use at German-Robin takes about 48 hours to distill about 9,000 gallons of wine into about 75 gallons of brandy. Hardly a mass market product, but that’s how most artisan distillers work. They depend on tasting and skill, not on an automated control system.
The Walker Taste Test:
Fine VSOP: Incredible quality for the price ($35) with lively fresh fruit, rich and fragrant in the mid-palate with a complex layered finish.
Anno Domini: This is top of the line, ($350) a soft appealing brandy with muted creamy notes, reminiscent of an aged oloroso sherry. A brandy to linger over and sip slowly as it opens in the glass.
Contact direct for availability in the UK


Tuthilltown Spirits

Founded: 2002 by Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee
Signature spirits: Bourbon, Rye Whiskey
The techie difference: Aged in very small oak barrels rather than the standard 53 gallon whiskey barrels, which speeds up the ageing process
Price range: $40-$70
www.tuthiltown.com


In the Hudson River Valley of New York, Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee installed an imported German pot still in an old barn and started selling spirits out of the back of the car. They’ve gone a bit beyond that now, working the local markets and beginning to get into national, even international distribution.
Lee, the distiller, said the new restaurant emphasis on ‘everything local’ has played a big role in helping sell the spirits. ‘Also, the rock star bartender image. Those guys are always looking for something new. And it really helps that we are only a few hours from New York City. Manhattan is our local neighborhood.’
  Next up from Tuthilltown, an organic rye whiskey and a bourbon made from heirloom corn. ‘Most corn today is grown for feeding livestock. It has no flavour. This is corn that hasn’t been commercially grown for about 150 years. The flavour is incredible,’ Lee says.
The Walker Taste Test:
Hudson Manhattan Rye: Bottled at 92 proof, it carries the real ‘bite’ of rye along with a range of intriguing floral notes.
The finish is smooth and lengthy.
Hudson Baby Bourbon: Small barrel ageing gives this bold caramel and vanilla flavours, adding a richness and unexpected depth to the mid-palate and finish.
Represented in Europe by La Maison du Whisky, Paris (001 33 47 30 71 92)


Distillery 209

Founded: 2005 by Leslie Judd
Signature spirit: No.209 Gin
The techie difference: the distillery’s imported swan’s neck still
Price range: UK RRP around £40/litre
www.distillery209.com


209 Gin is not your typical father’s gin. Produced on a pier jutting out into the bay on the San Francisco waterfront, 209 is described by distiller Arne Hillslen as a ‘nouveau gin with a classic character’.
  It is the first product from the 209 Distillery, which was founded by food and wine entrepreneur Leslie Rudd in 2005, and named after the regulatory number of an acclaimed, but now defunct, 19th century Napa distillery.
  Rudd’s partner, Scotland-born Colin MacPhail, had a classic swan’s neck still built in Scotland and installed in the old shipping shed next to the Bay – and it’s this unusual still which is key to the aromatics in 209 Gin, they claim. An unusually slow, overnight maturation period produces botanicals which are bright rather than bitter, while the five-fold distillation smooths out any of the rougher notes. ‘It is a much more mixable gin than traditional gins,’ says Hillslen. 
  The first 209 gin went to market in 2005, and since its UK launch at the end of last year it has been turning heads thanks to its strong, citrussy and smooth flavour profile (surprising given its hefty 46% abv), not to mention its high price point.

The Walker Taste Test:
Gin 209: Refreshing on the palate, with bright lemon notes on a citrus/juniper base. There are touches of liquorice in the mid-palate leading to a long floral finish with the lemony opening looping back at the end.
Distributed in the UK by Hi-Spirits, 020 8943 9526


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - July /August 2010

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