Whisky Advocate

Lew Bryson reports from the ADI’s Craft Spirits Conference

April 2nd, 2012

Lew Bryson, Whisky Advocate’s managing editor and contributor, is our man on the scene at ADI’s Craft Spirits Conference. He will check in with us periodically and report on the happenings.

I’ll be at the American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirits Conference here in Louisville through Wednesday, talking to new distillers and old ones, checking the feel of the industry, and representing Whisky Advocate’s interest in this new face of distilling. Things started last night with registration, which was combined with a little bit of drink and grub on the third floor of the Brown Hotel.

It was an interesting vibe in the room. I grew up with craft brewing, watching that industry grow from about 1983, so it’s a natural comparison for me; especially when you realize that ADI founder Bill Owens was also the man who started one of the very first brewpubs in America, Buffalo Bill’s in Hayward, California. So when I walked around the room, watching and eavesdropping, I was noting similarities and differences with the fast-growing days of craft brewing in the early 1990s.

For instance, both attracted support industries who saw opportunities in a new market niche. Still builder Vendome was there, with a portfolio of their work for small distillers; Alltech was showing off their technical expertise (while also pouring their whiskeys and beers, a popular spot); and there were bottle companies, records companies, and others who weren’t actually exhibiting…yet, but were checking things out. There were also more wholesalers and retailers and branding experts than craft brewing was attracting at this point in its growth curve; they’ve seen what happened with craft brewing, and that experience is helping to make this a faster-trending niche than craft brewing was. It’s simply not unbelievable anymore; we’ve seen the little guys charge more for an interesting product, and succeed.

The actual people at the conference, the distillers and future distillers, were a study in both similarities and differences. There was the same preponderance of men, and men who were clearly used to not fitting in (lots of hats, facial hair, and some tattoos and piercings, even a skateboard), and were perfectly comfortable with that. There was the same easy discussion of issues, the same general bonhomie.

But it was an older crowd than you generally saw at craft brewing gatherings 20 years ago. There are a lot more retirees here, more experienced entrepreneurs. Starting a distillery is expensive, and you can’t do it on a shoestring with some used dairy tanks and a re-purposed shrimp steamer; there’s not much of a used equipment market at all…yet.

After the scrum at registration, I was sitting in the bar, sipping a glass of Weller on the rocks (it was hot in there; the sun had come out, and I was still dressed in heavy clothes from the morning’s cold thunderstorms) and contemplating hitting the Few Spirits Texas Hold ‘Em tournament when I saw a familiar figure emerge from the elevators: Truman Cox, the new master distiller at A. Smith Bowman. I hailed him, we talked for a while about how he’s getting ready for a major launch (coming very soon) of what he’s been working on, and then I saw another familiar face: Andrea Stanley, of Valley Malt.

Andrea and her husband Christian are unlikely celebrities in craft distilling. Valley Malt is a micromaltings in western Massachusetts (watch for a piece on them in the next issue of Whisky Advocate) that is making all kinds of waves by hand-malting (almost literally) small batches of grains from barley to triticale, smoking malts, and experimenting with long-forgotten strains of barley ordered from the Agriculture Department’s huge seedbanks. It’s very exciting stuff for craft distillers and brewers alike.

Right now they were exhausted unlikely celebrities: they’d completed the installation of their major expansion (from a single one-ton malting vessel to four vessels) at 2 in the morning, got about two hours of sleep, then got up and drove to the airport for the flights to Louisville. Still, like the rest of us, they were excited to be in Louisville, temporarily the hub of craft distilling.

We got even closer to the hub when the four of us decided to go out looking for dinner and saw Bill Owens in a pizza shop. I went in to say hi, and Bill would have nothing but that we join him and his group – Tasmanian distillers, cork manufacturers, Swedish spirits consultants – for dinner. It was just a taste of the fun and stimulation the next three days will bring.



No Responses to “Lew Bryson reports from the ADI’s Craft Spirits Conference”

  1. MrTH says:

    It seems to me that the biggest difference between the “craft brewing” and “craft distilling” movements is that the brewers were trying to reintroduce quality beer styles that had disappeared from the American scene. There is not quite the same reinvention-of-the-wheel zeitgeist in the whisky world. One of the frequent contributors to the whisky forums posits that the “craft” designation is an insult to the established distillers, as if they were nothing more than pushers of homogenized bulk product, and not masters of their craft. He may have something of a point. The real “craft” boom in whisky came from within the industry, as people discovered that even giants like Diageo produced fabulous whisky in their various plants. How you look at this may depend on which side of the Atlantic you live on, since the distilling (and brewing) scenes in the US and the UK are very different. It might make more sense, in any case, to refer to the growing crop of small independent distillers as exactly that–small independents–rather than as “craft” distillers. It takes a little longer to say, but it’s more accurate.

  2. sam k says:

    MrTH, you are correct for the most part. Though the big boys bring quality and consistency to the market, the craft distillers can claim another part of the turf, for the most part: innovation. The crafts are innovating with mashbills, cooperage, aging techniques, and other areas that our traditional distillers are more cautious about, and in doing so are moving foirward in their own ways. It’s all good, or at least it will be all good eventually!

    Just wait till this trend makes its way across the Atlantic…and it will!

  3. John Hansell says:

    Great write-up Lew. I like the comparison to the craft brewing movement, which both you and I grew up with–and wrote about.

  4. whiskymonique says:

    Wish I was there Lew, poor planning on my part. Looking forward to more of your insights.

  5. Red_Arremer says:

    Thanks for the report, Lew. I’ll have to go check out this Valley Malt– Anyone know if tours or sampling can be arranged for?

    • sam k says:

      You wanna go chew on some malt, Red?

    • MrTH says:

      This story about Valley Malt appeared in the Boston Globe last August:

      I have a feeling that if you asked about a tour, they’d look at you like you have two heads…but I’ll bet if you give them a call, they’ll be happy to let you have a look. I probably ought to check them out myself–they’re just fifteen miles from here.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      You’re welcome, Red. Andrea and Christian are real nice people, but they are really, really busy, and it’s just them; most days it’s just Andrea, actually (Christian’s still working a day job as an engineer). So I’d be sure to call ahead to see if they can fit you in. MrTH, I think they’d probably figure you were just one more person who wants to open a micromalting: everyone wanted to talk to them at ADI. More on that soon; Andrea did a presentation on Wednesday morning that was the last thing I attended before driving home (which took 13 hours…).

  6. […] Lew Bryson continues his report on the happenings at the ADI’s Craft Spirits Conference and more! Read his first guest post here. […]

  7. Ben McNeil says:

    Truman Cox is coming out with something new? Given the very well-received response to the Bowman rye and 18-year-old bourbon, this is good news indeed!

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