"You think you don’t like whiskey? That’s because you haven’t tasted my whiskey," Rick Wasmund challenges nose-wriggling visitors at his pastoral Copper Fox Distillery near Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains. According to Wasmund, and the dozens of other craft distillers cropping up around the U.S., when whiskey is handmade correctly using fresh, flavorful ingredients, folks can actually enjoy the complex taste without the burn.
Producing unique taste sensations is what craft distilling is all about. Wasmund differentiates his whiskey by hand-malting his own barley and flavoring the aging whiskey with smoked fruitwood chips. "I know how much I enjoy applewood-smoked chicken and bacon, so I decided to try it with my whiskey," he said.
Copper Fox is part of the rapidly expanding movement in the world of culinary arts called "craft" or "artisan" distilling; these spirits pioneers create limited-production, handcrafted spirits, usually sourcing local ingredients. Craft distilleries have become a favorite destination for food lovers and spirits aficionados, offering authentic agritourism experiences with unique tasting opportunities and tactile-friendly perks. And, explains Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute (ADI), the trade institution for craft distillers, "Farm-based craft distilleries are responsible for the greening of our industry. These places want to show you their dirt."
According to ADI, there are 523 licensed Craft Distilleries in the U.S., with hundreds more under construction or applying for certification. Due to antiquated laws dating back to prohibition, only 29 states currently permit craft distillers to conduct tastings and on-site sales. "We want the same rights as wineries," says Owens. He maintains permitting both sampling and sales onsite enables wineries, and also micro-breweries, to demonstrate the difference between handmade and mass-produced products. And if those establishments are any indication, it’s a sure bet that people are actively seeking out that experience of walking onto an authentic production site, watching hops turn into gin, and tasting the final product.
Few states celebrate their homegrown independent businesses like Oregon and Washington — the two together comprise perhaps the largest cluster of U.S. micro-distilleries. Washington’s 2008 craft distillery law allowed small distilleries to operate tasting rooms and sell limited quantities, and there are now 40 operating distilleries, with another 30 under construction and dozens of others applying for licenses. In Portland, Ore., locals love Distillery Row, buried in a warehouse park called Lower East-side Industrial District, featuring some highly acclaimed small-batch spirits producers. Their industrial-district facilities are compact, and while a few offer short tours, the emphasis is on the tastings. Those with more space, like Bendistillery in rural Bend, Ore., and Washington’s Woodinville Distillery have added elaborate tasting rooms.
Some craft distilleries operate pubs and event spaces where talented mixologists create scrumptious concoctions with fresh spirits. The latest and greatest distillery endeavor is hosting Bottling Parties, inviting spirits enthusiasts to assist them in quickly turning out their product. It’s a thrilling opportunity for the volunteers, who get hands-on sessions with the still, extra tastings, and often, a gift bottle to take home.
The marvelous thing about visiting a craft distillery is getting up close and personal with the distillers, production, and learning the stories behind their adventurous ingredients. Their settings, ranging from hip urban warehouses to pastoral farms, are as distinctive as the unconventional methods they employ to create their cutting-edge spirits. There are so many fabulous micro-distilleries in Seattle, for example, that Tara Fuller and Craig Krueger, two local celebrity mixologists, host high-spirited half-day tours. Each tour is different, as they select the three that have the most interesting goings-on a particular day. The tour features tastings a-plenty, including handcrafted cocktails and snacks created by famed Seattle chefs. And on a sunny ranch in hilly Hye, Texas, a hay-less wagon carts visitors down to Garrison Brothers’ distillery to watch these mojo-makers morph rainwater into bourbon. In Ashville, N.C., Troy Ball, one of the industry’s very-few female distillers, claims to have created a kick-ass moonshine that won’t leave you hungover. It seems that by only bottling the middle part of the liquid distillate called the "heart," they’ve eliminated toxic components like acetone and methanol, and sediments that provide that god-awful burning sensation and morning-after regret. What’s left is a sweet crisp ‘shine, densely flavored with heirloom white corn and pure local mountain water.
So whether you are interested in sipping some freshly made hooch directly from the source, the craft, or simply contemplating interesting additions to your home stash, craft distilleries are extraordinary excursions. But how to choose? We’ve scoured the country and identified 25 of the most intriguing distilleries to tour. In selecting, we looked for places dedicated to sourcing local or homegrown ingredients, those employing unique production methods, intriguing tours hosted by impassioned distillers with compelling stories, breathtaking or out-of-the-ordinary settings, and those that offer one-of-a-kind hands-on experiences. Needless to say, each is distinctively fascinating.