Lew Bryson on America's new wave of small-batch whiskey distillers

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

16 May 2018

There’s been an explosion of interest in small-batch distillation in the US. Lew Bryson runs the rule over the boom to see what we can expect to see over this side of the pond

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when ‘American beer’ meant Budweiser, or Coors Light: commodity lagers that were like sex in a canoe – both fucking close to water – as the old laugh went. Now American beer means big brawling bitter IPAs, overpowered imperial stouts, or some fruity variation of something else that’s not afraid to step outside of the lines. They’ve opened up a new space for beer, and British and Scandinavian (and Italian and even a few German) brewers are trying some of the same ideas.

Brace yourselves: American whiskey is right behind them, running the same game plan. They’re innovative: they’re using alternative grains like buckwheat, quinoa, and millet, or maybe brewers’ variations on plain malt, like crystal, or chocolate, or cara pils. Some are making whiskey directly from IPA, or imperial stout, or witbier.

They may smoke the grain with a mad variety of woods and herbs – tobacco-smoked corn, anyone? – or age the whiskey in a small barrel stored in a metal shipping container in the hot Southern sun.

With well over 1,500 distilleries now open in the US, up from maybe two dozen in 2000, and many of them making whiskey, the variety of products is truly baffling. Not many are in the UK yet, but they’re definitely coming. Here’s how to get ahead of the game.

Standards of Excellence
First, let’s get one thing straight: the old, established bourbon makers? They’re not making Budweiser-grade whiskey. Good whiskey is good whiskey, it doesn’t matter who makes it, and the remaining big distillers survived because they made good whiskey.

Doubt me? My shelves are stacked with them. Jack Daniel’s may be a cola mixer, but their Single Barrel is another story. Jim Beam is a bit fiery and a one-note shout, but its younger sibling Booker’s takes all that and hammers it into a killing-stroke whiskey of rippling power. Four Roses make its Single Barrel and Small Batch bottlings, which are not just delicious, but a masterclass in whiskey making.

The UK even gets its own super bottling – Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams 23yo, a bottle widely desired here in America where we can’t lay our hands on it.

Whiskey sales have taken off in the US after decades of decline, especially from cool new distillers

There are also non-distiller bottlers, folks who buy bulk whiskey and pick specific barrels to mingle. Some of them are well-known names, like Rebel Yell, Bulleit, Michter’s, and Ezra Brooks, and some are new labels, such as Templeton, High West, Belle Meade. The whiskey comes from a variety of sources, some openly known – Bulleit Rye and Templeton, for instance, buy stock from the MGP distillery in Indiana – while others keep their sources a close secret.

Again, as is the case with the big distillers, many of these whiskeys are excellent. MGP, in particular, supplies top-notch whiskey to these bottlers. But to make things more confusing, each of the brands mentioned in the previous paragraph has either already built a distillery and is making spirit, or is well along in building one. That’s what happens in a whiskey boom.

There’s nothing old enough to put in bottles from the new plants yet, but they’re coming. I’ve tasted early runs from a couple, and it’s quite promising. Meanwhile, the sourced whiskeys from each of the brands mentioned above are worth paying attention to.

New Ideas
Then there are the smaller, newer distilleries, the ones that have chosen to dive headfirst into production. It’s been a chancy proposition for some, because small distilling comes with a built-in headwind – several of them, in fact.

First, there’s time, the most-often overlooked ingredient in whiskey. A new distillery that wants to sell whiskey will have no product for at least six months. ‘Whiskey’ in US law does not have a minimum age requirement, it just states it must be ‘stored… in new charred oak containers’. As that whiskey does age, you want to sell it to have money to buy more grain to make more, but you also want to keep some to age more. You increase the price to control demand, rather than sell everything out.

Second, a small, new distiller is paying more for almost everything than a large, established distillery. They pay more for grain, barrels, power, maybe even water – though they likely pay less for labour. All this inescapably ratchets the price up.

Now add to those the problem of being unknown. The distiller has to take those disadvantages and the premium prices they entail in its stride, and somehow go out and make its brand known and desired. It’s not easy, especially when the fellows who decided to buy someone else’s whiskey and label it saved all the cash that you spent buying a building and kit, and they’re using it to advertise and buy bar-branded glasses (and bartenders’ leather jackets).

Of course, it would be a much rougher road if so many people hadn’t suddenly decided that whiskey is the stuff they must have in their glass. Whiskey sales have taken off in the US after decades of decline, and folks are willing and eager to try new whiskeys, especially from cool new distillers that fit into the
new love of local producers.

That demand has also hit the major producers, prices have soared, and a lot of popular products are gone from the shelves. Not great news for us, but perfect timing for the small producers. Their prices are more competitive, and they can get a solid foothold in the market.

Coming of Age
There’s more good news for the whiskey drinker. We’ve reached a critical mass of new producers who have 4-to-6yo whiskey available. Remember, that may sound terribly young, but American whiskey ages in a warmer climate and in new barrels. It matures more quickly than Scotch or Irish whiskeys, which age in cooler climate and used usually ex-bourbon barrels. While I prefer a 12-to-18yo Scotch whisky, I like my bourbons in the 5-to-8yo range.

More and more craft whiskeys are moving into that sweet spot, which means that more and more interesting experiments are getting to the age where we can see what they can really do. Young whiskeys can be delicious – one of my favourites, Dad’s Hat Rye, is great at nine months! – but there’s another level of maturation when they get older.

Six craft distillers you need to know about

We like innovative, creative whiskey, but not
poorly made, five-month-old whiskey. Keep
these distillers in mind for experience and quality…

Balcones, Waco, Texas
Grab that bottle of blue corn-made Baby Blue. Or the Texas Single Malt. Or if you think Ardbeg isn’t smoky enough, dammit, the Brimstone.
Maverick Drinks, 01892 888443

Cedar Ridge, Swisher, Iowa
Cedar Ridge sits in the middle of miles of arguably the
best corn grown anywhere. Taste it in their 5yo bourbon.

Koval, Chicago, Illinois
An eau-de-vie distiller makes whiskey; tightly focused, grain-forward whiskeys, with separate grain identities.
Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840

Leopold Brothers and Stranahan's, Denver, Colorado
Stranahan’s makes malt whiskey in new barrels at high altitude. Leopold Brothers is trying heirloom-grain types, different yeasts, and a throwback three-chamber still.

Rock Town, Little Rock, Arkansas
These guys fly well under the radar, but might just be the most underrated distillery in the US making excellent bourbon.

Some that are hitting that age that you’ll actually have a shot of getting include the following:

Colkegan is a burly mesquite-smoked single malt from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Aged at a dry 7,000 feet, it’s a scorcher.

Copper Fox has improved with age in the past few years. A single malt made with house-malted grain, smoked over applewood. Importer being arranged – watch this space.

Dry Fly in Washington State makes a variety of whiskeys from different grains, including a triticale wheat-hybrid whiskey, and a wheat whiskey finished in port barrels, both of which are notable.

Few Spirits makes an excellent, spicy rye just outside of Chicago, and it just keeps getting better as it gets more age on it. Founder Paul Hletko was on a European selling tour as I wrote this.
46.5% abv, £55.95/ 70cl; Maverick Drinks, 01892 888443

Hudson is well-known, and well-connected; they were bought by William Grant & Sons. Its Hudson Baby Bourbon is a Manhattan favourite. 46% abv, £31.84/ 35cl; William Grant & Sons, 01256 748100

Journeyman has been fairly low profile, but that’s changing as the Michigan-based distillery ships its well-made organic whiskeys nationwide.

Westland, the Seattle-based American single-malt producer, was bought by Rémy Cointreau in late 2016. Keep an eye out for its Garryana bottling, aged in Garryana oak, a local species that gives the whiskey a spicy barbecue-sauce character. Rémy Cointreau UK, 020 7580 6180

Westward is an American single malt, aged in new oak barrels, made in Portland, Oregon, from barley grown in the Pacific Northwest. Arriving late 2018

Whistle Pig is a special case and most bottlings are excellent Canadian-made rye, but its Farmstock bottling adds some young whiskey made from its own Vermont-grown grain.
(10yo) 50% abv, £73.95/ 70cl; Axiom Brands, 020 3774 6845

 Wyoming Whiskey is making whiskey the American way: on a column still, ageing in new barrels. But the high, dry terroir of Wyoming definitely does something very interesting to it.

What to Do?
You have several options at this point. You can skip the small producer whiskeys completely and stick with the tried and true. It’s not as backwards as it sounds. When producers like Buffalo Trace are ageing whiskey in Mongolian oak (had it; good, but not insanely different) and Beam is putting out Little Book (a blend of bourbon and malt, rye, and corn whiskeys that is fantastic and worth the big price), you’ve clearly got an industry that has accepted the challenge of the small producers.

There’s always new and interesting stuff coming from the big guys. The hard part is getting any of it – big companies, big customer lists, and small batches usually means disappointment.

You can dip your toe in the small whiskey pond. You could try something safe, that you know will be good, like a sourced whiskey that’s a solid 10yo. It’s different enough that your customers will feel daring, but you’ll feel hollow inside. So instead try a couple of those – because they’re good – but get a couple of the ones I've recommended. Mix with them, sip them, get to know them, and talk them over with your customers.

You probably don’t want to go all in at this point and get a whole section of these new whiskeys. Not enough steady supply, not enough willing customers, and not enough time to find them, get to know them, and then talk them all up.

And not all of these are going to be to your taste, or your customers’. Some of them are outright weird, some of them are overpowering, and some of them are just going to taste better in a couple of years. But maybe you want to get some experience with a few of them, so you know what’s coming down the pike.
It’s all educational, right? That’s how you learned about American craft beer, after all. Step up.

I heart US whiskey
Experts pick their favourite small-output hooch

Balcones Baby Blue Mike Raymond, co-owner, Reserve 101, Houston, Texas
‘Over the last few years, American cocktail bars have been using corn whiskeys such as Mellow Corn for cocktails, but I find the Baby Blue to be far superior with more depth of flavour, making for a better cocktail.’
46% abv, £72.95/75cl; Maverick Drinks, 01892 888 443

Dad’s Hat Rye Lew Bryson, author of Tasting Whiskey
‘My own favourite! Made about 20 minutes from my home, this is sippable, makes a great Old Fashioned, and has a nicely complex palate. The Straight (2yo) is even better.’
45% abv, £64.68/70cl; Master of Malt, 0800 033 7949

Sonoma County West of Kentucky H Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor, Elixir, San Francisco, California
‘Sonoma is probably the most advanced and aggressive [Bay Area distiller], with a dedication to honest whiskey that I appreciate. I love his West of Kentucky bourbon.’
48% abv, £52/70cl; East London Liquor Co, 020 3011 0980

Westward Single Malt Dustin Newsome, general manager, Bar Clacson and The Slipper Clutch in Los Angeles
‘This is a perfect example of a distillery making a signature style of single malt, informed by Portland-style craft beers, and a perfect reflection of the city it comes from. I stock it because I like it, and I believe in it.’

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