Why Craft Distilling Is So Dram Good

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James Rodewald loves to tell a story — and have a drink while doing so. When his job as drinks editor of Gourmet folded along with the magazine, he began editing books while researching his own. He crisscrossed the country visiting a couple of dozen seminal craft distilleries, each of which contributed something to the current revolution in craft distilling.

The result is American Spirit, which has just been released.

We asked Rodewald eight questions about the state of American craft spirits. Here are his replies, edited gently:

Why is this revolution of craft distilling happening just now?

There's been a movement to make things, toward less industrial forms of agriculture, and increased interest in a connection to the people who make what we put in our bodies. I think craft spirits fit all of those quite well. Additionally, the availability of large industrial spaces, as manufacturing disappeared, made it a bit easier to find locations for distilleries. The increased need for taxable products as that manufacturing base disappeared has led, slowly, to a more rational set of laws and regulations.

Who were some of the pioneers?

These names come immediately to mind: Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coales at Craft Distillers, Dan Farber at Osocalis, Jörg Rupf and Lance Winters at St. George, Stephen McCarthy at Clear Creek.

We had the craft beer revolution in the 1990s. Is this just an extension of that, or are there different patterns for each?
It is an extension, for sure, but it's also its own thing. Unlike the situation with commercial beer in the '90s, there are plenty of great spirits being produced by large brands. You don't need a craft distiller to provide you with flavor. On the other hand, you do need a craft distiller if the flavor you want is triple-hopped, double-smoked millet-quinoa whiskey. The patterns of development have been strikingly similar and have led some to predict a shakeout in craft distilling around the end of the decade. It may come sooner.
If you had to give a one-sentence description of the typical craft distiller, what would it be?

I don't see any way to encapsulate such a diverse group in a sentence, though they do seem to be overwhelmingly white and male. Beards abound. I suppose the one thing they all have in common is a desire for authenticity: Distillers and fans alike take great offense at deceptive marketing.

For a while, it looked like rye whiskey was going to be huge, but bourbon seems to have blown it away. Why is that?

Bourbon is sweet, and Americans like sweet. In addition, rye is not nearly as available, there's not a lot of ultra-premium rye (so it doesn't get as much media attention), and it's not always easy to drink on its own. As a cocktail ingredient I find it preferable to bourbon.

Is craft distilling a threat to the big boys, or is it more of a developmental league for them to test ideas and find brands to buy out?
Craft spirits are a drop in the bucket compared to the "big boys." It's not a threat, but it does present the large brands with an opportunity, and several are clearly out to take advantage of the interest in words like "craft," "artisanal," "handmade," etc. Diageo's Orphan Barrel program, the various "craft distilleries" being opened by the likes of Heaven Hill, these are signs that craft distillers have attracted the attention of the giants.

Finding distribution and sales channels in such a crowded market must be a bear. Are most of these folks making money?
No way. Not most, at least not yet. Distribution is one of the biggest problems for small producers. States that allow direct sales have empowered small distillers, but a broader market is necessary to make any real money.

If you were continuing your book, what would be the title of the next chapter in craft distilling?
Maybe: "The Whiskey Has Arrived." I'm just starting to see what I hope will be a wave of whiskey aged in big barrels. It looks like we'll soon be seeing New York Distilling Company's Ragtime Rye and Woodinville Whiskey Co.'s straight whiskey, and hopefully there will soon be more releases from Laws Whiskey House to complement its Four Grain Bourbon.