HEAD TO HEAD
By Lew Bryson
Meet some craft distillers who dare to put their mainstream bourbons and ryes up against the big producers’ whiskeys.
We’ve heard a lot of craft distillers (we’ll use “craft distiller” to mean small American distilleries established after 1980) say that taking on the big, established distilleries like Beam, Heaven Hill, and Brown-Forman head-to-head by making bourbon or rye whiskey is a fool’s errand. These big distilleries have been making bourbon and rye since Repeal, with institutional experience going back before that to the earliest years of the country. They make great whiskey, their plants are well-established (and either already paid for or expanding rapidly), and they have the economies of scale on their side, buying huge amounts of grain and glass, even water and power, and getting appropriate discounts for those purchases.
Faced with whiskeys as good, as mature, as Jim Beam Black, Evan Williams, or Old Forester for prices well under $30, how can they hope to compete with their younger, more expensive whiskeys? They decide to be different, making innovative spirits using alternative grains, hybrids of American and European styles, smoked grains, flavorings, or accelerated aging schemes, while avoiding putting out a traditional “bourbon” or a “rye.” Why fight it?
Some craft distillers have a different reaction: why not?
There are craft distillers who are making bourbon and rye, focusing on that part of the market, taking on the challenge. They may look like the craft brewers who took on the big brewers in the 1990s…but there’s a major difference. The big distillers make great, interesting whiskey. Craft distillers have had to shift the focus to their strengths: difference and locality.
Ryan Burchett, co-founder of Mississippi River Distilling (MRD) in LeClaire, Iowa addressed the issue. “We don’t have the benefit of saying it’s all better quality; there’s great juice being made by large producers,” he said. “But the uniformity of product made by the large producers…the small producer can make something that’s familiar but different, a small step out of the box to see what happens. Some will be very successful, and be the Sam Adams of craft distilling. Some of us will be like the local brewery, and will find a place on the table, and become your local flavor, your local product, your local difference.”
Burchett uses locally-grown grains in MRD’s Cody Road bourbon and rye, and that’s also been the focus at Dry Fly Distilling in Spokane. “Our model has always been to use the wonderful grains that are grown here,” said co-founder Kent Fleischmann. “That’s what small batch distilling is about, to us. We believe that where the grain is grown, the seed varieties, and the farming techniques are all important to the quality of the whiskey.”
Jeff Quint, at Cedar Ridge distillery in Swisher, Iowa may be sitting in the middle of corn country, but for him, “local” is about being local, an advantage with consumers who know where you’re from. “The advantage you have is ‘local,’” he said. “If you’re local, quality, and at all interesting, you can command a small premium. We’re going head-on with the bigs, and there’s plenty of room to differentiate. If you set our bourbon next to Maker’s, the difference will be obvious, and it’s up to you to choose.”
Youth Must Be Served
Local or not, the major difference for craft distillers has been (and still is, with a few small exceptions) that all they had to offer was young whiskey, often aged in small barrels. (See more about small barrels in the sidebar.) Craft distillers were forced into a corner American whiskey hadn’t been in since the 1930s; their bourbons and ryes were all well under 4 years old (leave aside unaged “white” whiskey, that’s a whole other phenomenon).
Some embraced it, some tried wood finishes to add depth, some bought some older stock and blended in their own younger whiskeys, and some tried accelerated aging experiments. There were also, it must be said, some who simply ignored the federal labeling requirements (or claimed ignorance) and didn’t put required age statements—or youth state-
ments—on their young whiskey.
In this era of super-aged wood worship, you might think that was a path to failure. But instead, we learned the truth of something Anchor Distilling founder Fritz Maytag said that was printed in these pages years ago: “But I submit to you, especially because we have a big shortage of rye whiskey, you are all going to discover the beauty of young rye whiskey.” That’s exactly what happened, and we learned a few things about young bourbon as well.
Carefully made spirit, the right barrel, and creative aging conditions can create good whiskey in a surprisingly short time. One of the best young bourbons I’ve had is Ranger Creek’s .36 bourbon, in their “Small Caliber” series (the .44 rye is good, too), a small barrel whiskey aged only 8 months…in a metal shipping container outside in the Texas sun. The evaporative loss must have been fierce, but there was plenty of vanilla and cinnamon on the palate to keep the drying oak in check.
“We use local Texas corn and the Texas climate to produce a regionally distinct version of traditional bourbon,” said Mark McDavid, co-founder of San Antonio’s Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling. “We keep our mash ABV down pretty low, and we make really tight cuts; in small barrels you have to be much more careful about putting really good quality spirit in.” They also decided to age their rye in used bourbon barrels (in the same conditions, for the same kind of short periods) to highlight the grain.
There are only small amounts of craft whiskeys on the market that are more than 2 years old, and even smaller amounts of older bourbon and rye. The veteran Anchor Distilling, in business since the early 1990s, doesn’t even have a lot of older stock, given their not-so-surprising decision to stay with “the beauty of young rye whiskey.” Isn’t the praise of young whiskey, the celebration of its distinctiveness, merely a Shakespearean attempt to make a virtue of necessity?
Not when you back it up by continuing to make young whiskey. At Mountain Laurel Spirits in Bristol, Penn., where all they make is their “Pennsylvania-style” Dad’s Hat rye whiskey (mostly rye, 15% malt, and a small amount of rye malt; no corn), co-founder Herman Mihalich is a firm believer in young rye; it’s what they plan to make going forward. “Even though we are preparing to launch a 3 year old straight rye,” he said, “we don’t plan to put away rye whiskey for really long aging (5-plus years). We think that too much time in the barrel takes the edges off of a sharp, spicy rye.”
Different Grains, Different Ages
Mihalich’s mention of releasing a 3 year old Dad’s Hat bottling brings up another issue. Do rye and bourbon whiskey age at different rates? It seems that young rye is more likely to be appealing than young bourbon. The distillers had different takes on that. “Rye is simply a more complexly flavored grain that leads to a better new make,” said Todd Leopold, of Leopold Brothers in Denver. “You haven’t lived if you haven’t had the first few liters off of a rye mash coming off a pot still. It tastes like you jammed a bouquet of lavender flowers into the condenser. There’s nothing like it.”
Phil Brandon at Rock Town disagreed. “I tend to think that small barrel bourbon is ready sooner than small barrel rye,” he said. “The sweet corn notes from bourbon seem to esterify sooner than grassy, spicy notes of rye. At least, that’s been my experience thus far.” Kent Fleischman thinks it’s more about process. “Our bourbon, as a young product, is not less palatable than a young rye because of the processes we take,” he said. “As important as age is, other factors are important. The cuts are very important; we take less in the cuts, allowing the barrel to do its work.”
In any case, young whiskey is, should be, different. “Regardless of grain, spirits that aren’t destined for long-term aging must be engineered and distilled differently,” said David Harries, master distiller at Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey. “If something’s going to sit in a [standard] barrel for 4 or 6 years, it can likely [be] distilled to a lower proof than something aging in a 5-gallon barrel for a shorter period of time.”
Ready to Rumble
Interestingly, not every distiller who’s making bourbon and rye, competing with the big distillers’ bourbon and rye, sees them as direct competitors. At their level, some see more competition with sourced whiskeys. “There are some companies out there that do a fantastic job blending and bottling,” said Fleischman. “It’s the story they tell, and how much truth there is in it.”
Few Spirits (Evanston, Ill.) founder Paul Hletko put his finger on the real issue with that. “Inauthentic sourced brands harm us all by causing drinkers to tar all [craft] brands as liars,” he said. “That hurts the category.” Quint, a former accountant, saw a bigger picture. “There are tiers of competition,” he said. “Locally, it’s the guy down the road. One step up, it’s the sourced guys; then the big guys; then vodka and gin; then it’s beer and wine. You have to look at them together, and individually.”
Todd Leopold looked at the challenge of selling, and saw craft beer’s educational success as competition. “When you look at beer fans, they can name six or seven hop varieties, and know what things like lactobacillus is,” he said. “This is an astonishingly knowledgeable group of people. I want that for distilling.”
Then he said something that put the whole idea of going head-to-head with the big distillers into a different perspective. “I don’t like the word ‘craft,’ and I don’t like the distinctions that some make between large and small producers,” he said. “I once got into an argument with a bartender who wanted to put me up on a pedestal as a ‘craft’ producer. I pointed out that Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace and Beam did the same doggone things I did with yeast and grain and barrels. So how can I be craft while they are not? He didn’t have an answer. It’s a silly distinction.”
At some point, it’s all whiskey. For whatever reasons, we buy it, we take it home, we pour it in a glass, and all the talk is hushed by the spirit. Who made it, how big they are, how old it is becomes less important than whether or not we like it.
Read entire article here: Whisky Advocate Winter 2015 | Head to Head