Whisky Advocate

Guest Blog #1: Most craft whiskeys suck!

August 30th, 2010

(As promised, What Does John Know? becomes “What Do you Know?” this week–and next! Let’s hit the ground running with the most controversial guest blog. Our first guest blogger, Steve Ury of www.recenteats.blogspot.com, makes his point. And he doesn’t sugar-coat it.)

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Most craft whiskeys suck!

I’m sorry, but someone had to say it. This particular emperor has been wearing new clothes for too long.

The Phenomenon
Like every whiskey writer/blogger in the universe, I’ve written a fair amount about American microdistilleries; I even put together one of the first complete lists of American whiskey microdistilleries on the web (which I continue to keep up to date). It’s a fascinating and exciting phenomenon. Suddenly, after years of having only a dozen whiskey distilleries, the nation is awash in microdistilleries cropping up in every unlikely nook and cranny. The proprietors of these micros are, almost to a person, lovely folks. They are the type of creative artisans who bring a real love to their craft and have invested countless hours of sweat-equity. They pursue innovative new recipes and techniques; they epitomize the “little guy.” Who could not like them? The only problem is that many of their products suck.

I’m sorry, but I am tired of hearing raves about this great new, innovative distillery in Idaho with their first whiskey on sale for $85 plus shipping, only to find out that it’s been aged for 18 days and tastes like turpentine. I have had this experience multiple times. Despite their lovable heritage, craft whiskeys are mostly too young, too expensive and too crappy.

Don’t believe me? Last May, the American Distilling Institute (ADI), an association for craft distillers, had a craft whiskey tasting competition. A panel of experts blind tasted 65 craft whiskeys. The winner of the best in show award (Best Craft American Whiskey) was High West’s Bourye. But the whiskey in Bourye was not made by a craft distillery. It was made by a macrodistillery and purchased by High West, which blended it for Bourye. It turns out that the best craft whiskey in American isn’t a craft whiskey at all.

The Press
It’s time to admit that many of us in the blogging/journalistic community, out of a desire to encourage and nurture this young industry, have given these craft whiskeys a pass. If you read reviews of craft whiskeys you will continually see words like “interesting,” “innovative” and “experimental.” Reviewers seem afraid to come down too hard on these lovely folks, so we get a lot of euphemisms. Meanwhile, we continually see romantic puff pieces about one man’s brave quest to make quinoa whiskey in a remote Nebraska town. The big exception to this trend has been Chuck Cowdery who has not held back about craft distilleries, particularly those that aren’t really distilling.

These Ain’t Microbrews
There are constant comparisons between the microdistillery movement and the microbrewery movement, but while there are certain similarities, the two are really apples and oranges. Back in the ’80s, before the first big wave of microbrews, the vast majority of Americans were drinking crap beer. It was Bud, Miller, Coors, Schlitz – looks like piss, tastes like water. There was barely any alternative. The microbrewery revolution wasn’t just about smaller producers, it was about bringing flavor back to beer. Suddenly, you could get beer that tasted like something. The microbreweries continue to lead the way on flavor and the big guys, for the most part, continue to put out crap.

The story with whiskey is nearly the opposite. The big macrodistilleries put out some amazing quality whiskeys. I’m talking Parker’s Heritage, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Four Roses Single Barrel and Wild Turkey Rare Breed. They also put out innovative new whiskeys like the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection and the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection. Sure there is bottom shelf stuff out there, but the macrodistilleries give the whiskey lover plenty to choose from. In contrast, the micros are giving us less flavor and less age, and in the end, that means less care is going into the product. Unlike microbrews, they aren’t filling an important gap because there is no gap to fill.

I Said “Most”
Now bear in mind that I say “most” craft whiskeys suck, and by most I do mean the vast majority. However, Anchor’s Old Potrero and Charbay’s hopped whiskeys are excellent. I consider those two distilleries to be the only two I have tried that compete with the majors on quality. Everyone else is batting for the minor leagues at best.

I do love High West’s Rendezvous Rye, but as with their Bourye, it is not craft distilled. It’s a macrodistillery whiskey that High West has done a great job sourcing and blending. Sourcing and blending are real skills and High West deserves credit for blending and bottling a great whiskey, but it doesn’t count as something made by a microdistillery.

And I have nothing against craft distilling generally. I’ve written multiple posts on the fabulous craft distilled brandies from Germain-Robin and also enjoyed St. George Absinthe. I’m sure there are other good craft distilled spirits out there, but the whiskey sucks.

Now, I’m perfectly aware that mine isn’t the only opinion on the block, so I’d love to hear from anyone who thinks that these whiskeys really do measure up. Let me know which ones you love.

What Do You Think?
To the whiskey writing community I have to ask, are we doing any favors by coddling distillers who are putting out substandard products at inflated prices? Are we being honest with our readers about the line between “interesting” and “worth your hard earned cash”? Is our emotional investment in the innovation and enthusiasm of craft whiskeys clouding our collective judgment? Isn’t it time someone said it: Most Craft Whiskeys Suck! Maybe someday it won’t be the case, but today it is.

100 Responses to “Guest Blog #1: Most craft whiskeys suck!”

  1. John Hansell says:

    I would like to be the first one to chime in here. Have I tasted some craft whiskies that disappointed me? Yes. And I call them out too. Like this one. But, many that I have tasted aren’t flawed, they’re just still too young and are being bottled too soon. And yes, they’re usually more expensive than (and often not as good as) whiskeys produced by the big boys.

    I think one of the reasons they’re putting out whiskies at a premature age is that they need a return on their investment. The key difference between the craft beer movement and craft whiskey movement is that you can put out a really good craft beer in a much shorter time period. I suspect that, over time, we’ll see more mature craft whiskeys put on the market that will be equal in quality with the established whiskey producers. We just need to be patient.

    • Texas says:

      Well, certainly I am not as knowledgeable about the industry as you folks, but it seems to me that selling whiskey prematurely that is pretty much crap sure isn’t a model for long-term business success.

    • Dave Pickerell says:

      Amen John!!!!

      My experience is that many …most …of the craft distillers are under-capitalized and are therefore faced with a difficult decision …. do SOMETHING for cash flow, or stay out of the business. That cash flow problem leads most to making vodka and/or gin, but those truely interested in making whiskey need to do their best while releasing some product to the market when cash flow demands rather than when perfect maturity is reached.

      It is my belief …and hope … that given time, these guys will be releasing some marvelous products…just as soon as their cash flow concerns are asuaged. The jury is still out, in my opinion … but the great stuff IS coming!!!

      • Texas says:

        As Steve (aka Sku) pointed out when he referenced my post..what other industry would we accept this from where we forgive for giving us crap for 3 or 4 years with the promise of something better. I believe High West is distilling/ageing it’s own product that it will sell eventually, but in the meantime it is releasing some fantastic sourced whiskeys. I only wish they had been more upfront in the beginning about the fact that they did not distill them. Still better than releasing something just to try to sell it even if it isn’t ready.

      • Ryan says:

        I think you make a really good point there, Dave. These guys have PASSION enough to take over the world. But getting cash for this, or any, enterprise is at the moment nearly impossible. Keeping the business ALIVE has to be their 1st priority no matter what. At the same time I don’t know if I’d be able to forgive a company for selling me an $85 bottle of whiskey that they KNEW wasn’t really ready. I sympathize with the plight of the small business but alienating your customers isn’t the way to stay in business either.

        What I’m wondering is if we’ll see some good whiskeys in the next 5-10 years coming out of the craft distilleries that decided to make things like Vodka and Gin. Those companies created something they can bring to market fast and their sales should give them enough capital to invest the time and cash into a really great whiskey. I’m not saying you should hold your breath for “Hangar 1 Bourbon” but if they made one I’d be happy to give it a try.

        • scQue814 says:

          We don’t have to “hold our breath for Hangar-One Bourbon”… because we have their tasty ginger, pear, chipotle and raspberry vodkas to drink already. =) These guys started with the most popular spirit at the time. Now whiskey–namely bourbon and rye–is coming back around. The real question is whether H-1 will jump on that bandwagon… (And not that I wouldn’t mind tasting anything they product, mind you.)

      • Jason Pyle says:

        Over the long haul guys we will definitely be far better off. Access to more mature and better products. Plus there’s an “Everybody and their brother wants to distill” thing going on right now. Survival of the fittest will weed out those that just don’t have it.

        The biggest thing that sort of bothers me is, while the economy of scale is not there for these guys, we shouldn’t have to pay $50 for a 375ML of whiskey aged 4-6 months either. I’ll pay a little more just to try the stuff, but I can’t justify triple.

        As long as you have a premium price point it’s going to get lumped in with the premium products.

        Secondly someone in this long and fantastic comments thread mentioned innovation. I don’t see a whole lot of that going on. I see a lot of micro, but not really taking things to the next step. Some are malting barley, some are dropping wood “tea” bags into aging product, etc. etc, but few are doing much otherwise. And those things really aren’t innovative.

        Innovation is a big time missing component in this micro movement.

      • Nathan Foster says:

        I was just wondering when I was going to actually try a decent craft whiskey when my girlfriend presented me with a bottle of the WhistlePig you currently oversee the distilling of. I won’t pretend to be a seasoned taster of whiskeys, but this stuff sure beats anything I’ve managed to get my taste buds on so far.

        Despite the fact that it is bottled so close to home, I would not have considered the whiskey were it not for the assurance of a trusted friend. I was pleasantly surprised to find such a complex flavor in such an unfamiliar name.

        Thanks for sharing your talents with us yankees Dave!

    • PeteR says:

      John, I’m curious if you would ever tell us if a whiskey you are reviewing is downright bad. You mention this one disappointing review, but scored it a 69 instead of say a 16. In fact, I’ve never seen a score anywhere that’s below mid 60′s. I realize you don’t want to upset the distiller, but considering I’ve liked some mid 70′s review whiskeys, I would never know I’m buying turpentine labeled as whiskey unless the scores were actually in a failing range (59 or much lower).

      • John Hansell says:

        Peter, if you go to the top of my blog and click on the “Buyer’s Guide” link, it explains my rating scheme. I define ratings in the 60s as being whiskies with “major flaws” and “avoid”. That’s downright bad. And yes, anthing I rate in the 70s or 60s upsets the distillers. Trust me.

  2. Rick Duff says:

    I don’t have a lot of experience with these.. but what little I’ve had has generally been good. I have extensively tasted Tuthilltown’s line.. even buying a barrel (3 gallon) of Baby Bourbon. That Baby Bourbon (although expensive) was as good as any of the expensive and similarly priced boutique bourbons by the big boys. I also like their 4 grain.. found it as good as Woodford Reserve’s 4 Grain they put out a few years back (at a similar price.)
    I think you’re warning is right though… you have to take these things with caution.. and they are over priced. It’s closer to the wine industry than beer… a lot of big wineries put out great product.. but sometimes it is nice to support your local winery.. even if they are only producing wine with concord grapes.
    Hopefully down the road most craft whiskeys will get better.. however.. I think it takes deep pockets and patience to get that to happen!

  3. Serge says:

    Serendipity! I don’t know the American craft distillers at all but Oliver at dramming.com just interviewed me yesterday (strange idea ;-)) and here’s a part of one of my answers (about small European eau-de-vie distillers who try to make whisky as well):

    “More globally, I believe there are many misconceptions around the concept of ‘craft distiller’, ‘small is better’, ‘we do it by hand’ and all that jazz. Like it or not, whisky’s an industrial product, it’s not wine or even beer. I never tried to find a relation between the size of a distillery and the quality of its aged whisky but I’d bet there isn’t any, or at least that the maxim ‘the smaller, the better’ is plain wrong and a myth. Hem, didn’t I just lose even more friends? ;-)”

    I guess Oliver will publish the whole thing soon.

    • Horst says:

      I agree to what Serge says. The misconception here in Europe is the use of eau-de-vie stills for whisky. This will increase the fruityness of the brand extraordinarily. What you typically search in eau-de-vie. But this is counterproductive for Malt Whisky, where the hype is growing. For Single Malts you look for some fruitiness but not for an extreme one.

      In the end you have to build brand new whisky stills and you can not misuse eau-de-vie stills for the making of whisky. But this is expensive and I guess, that most new whisky distillers in Europe only for additional revenues in the hype.

      Kind regards,
      Horst

      • Davindek says:

        Hi Horst,

        Of course this raises the whole issue of aging in glass. Since eau-de-vie is aged in glass can we really be sure whisky does not changed once bottled?? ;-)

        Davin

  4. Jason Pyle says:

    In general I agree that *MOST* of the craft/micro products I’ve tried have lacked a lot of depth and flavor. They taste young and lack the maturity needed to be a “great” product. There have been some excellent ones also.

    I really think we’re going to see a reclassification where a “Young Whiskey” category is born in this country. That’s the only way to really pull them away from the more mature, more flavorful bourbons and american whiskeys out there.

    It’s not beer and it takes loads of time to mature properly. Perhaps we’ll see the smarter micros putting up stock for the long haul so that eventually we’ll get to try something with a bit more age to it. For now we’re definitely going to have to wade through some junk to find the gems.

  5. Vince says:

    I attended the ADI recently and have to say I agree that MOST of the MicroDistillers products do not measure up. I feel they are too young and I agree with John, that over time we may see some very fine whiskeys coming from these craftsmen.

    I see one major problem with the concept of a classification of young whiskeys, and that is the price that these are being sold at. I spent $55 for a Stranahans whiskey and I have to tell you, to my palate, it is awful. It tastes like stale beer to me.

    • John Hansell says:

      I’ve had some good Stranahan’s whiskey. I’d like to see how it tastes aged a little more, though.

      • sam k says:

        Agreed, John. It shows how much subjectivity there is between palates. I enjoy Stranahan’s quite a bit.

      • Vince says:

        John

        I know you gave it a good review and I normally enjoy whiskeys that you rate highly but as Sam says, the palate is very subjective. I do not think it is a quality whiskey, as mentioned, aftertaste is one of stale beer. Just to be fair, (because I thought it may be the bottle I purchased) I tasted it at the ADI and had the same feeling toward it. Its the only bottle of whiskey I have found undrinkable. I gave it away.

      • Luke says:

        John, as I recall Stranahan’s are wary of ageing too long as the virgin oak will eventually render the spirit identical to bourbon.

        • John Hansell says:

          Is there a problem with that? Or to look at it another way, why don’t they throw some good used barrels in the mix and then age it longer? (They probably are.)

  6. Alex says:

    My limited experiences have generally been as Steve describes. I can think of a partiularly hyped microdistillery whose product I absolutely hate. I’ve visited the distillery, too, and came away with a feeling that they had no idea what they were doing or just didn’t care. Their approach to aging is that they sell the whiskey when the orders come in. But their marketing is hugely successful.

    However I was just thinking that Stranahan’s is one of the outliers that I really like, at least the batches I’ve tried so far. It is expensive, though…

  7. Matt Z says:

    Good points, except I don’t agree that flavor and age indicate the amount of care being put into the product. In a few years, we can hope to see some older bottlings which will have been made with the same amount of care (whether a lot or a little), but will most likely be much more rewarding.

  8. Josh says:

    Amen! Take Wasmunds for example…I’ve met Rick and his wife and I have a lot of respect for what they’re trying to do and i am sure they are sincere in their efforts. However, the notion that dropping a “tea bag” of woodchips into a barrel of white dog for a month or four yields a mature, rounded whiskey, is a bit too much for me to swallow (pardon the pun).

    INMO there’s a very good reason why quality whisky is hard to come by…the work is hard and requires years, if not decades, of patience. There’s a lot of science involved, and more than a little luck.

  9. B.J. Reed says:

    I don’t have a wide experience with micro distilleries but I think DryFly in Washington is pretty good for its age and Solas has just begun to produce whisky and I have tasted their early (and I do mean early) nearly new make spirit and its got significant potential

    John makes a key point here – They have to get a return on their investment so maybe they are putting stuff out too early rather than sticking with Vodka/Gin and other spirits they can produce, bottle and sell right away.

  10. two-bit cowboy says:

    Is it really about the age, or are hopefuls coddling the Stranahans of the USA? I tried Stranahans in 2009 at a single malt Scotch tasting where the Colorado host slipped it in as a “surprise dram.” Have to agree with Vince @ 5: awful.

    Kilchoman’s releases so far are at or just older than 3 years. They’re terrific. Kilkerran’s 2009 Work in Progress was 5 and was also wonderful. Writers about such things suggest the quality of these “young” single malt Scotches are an indicator of how great they’ll be at 12 years of age. Wouldn’t that also suggest that if a whisk(e)y is sub par when it’s young it won’t ever achieve greatness? Dichotomy?

  11. George Jetson says:

    What is it that imparts the “craft” or “micro” moniker to a whiskey / distillery? Is it the scale of the equipment, the volume of the output, the paper used for the label? I don’t know if Templeton fits into your worldview of craft distillers, but it is certainly head and shoulders above some of the other smaller American whiskey producers.

    Where these “small batch” distillers have it over the big military whisky industrial complex is their ability to appeal to small niches of customers who would never be able to gain the attention of Sazerac long enough to recreate a long lost whiskey style. Granted the quality sometimes recreates the long lost style of bathtub gin, but as others have mentioned it takes a lot of time and money to get a proper operation up and running.

    There are always going to be duds in the marketplace and they will fall aside due to natural selection, but to paint the entire craft distilling movement with a crap brush is a bit draconian. I’d rather hear about who is doing it right and then let the marketing hyperbole fall on deaf ears.

    • scQue814 says:

      Well, George, if that’s the philosophy, then visible batch dating needs to become the norm in the micro-distilling sector. If we’re going to have to worry about the quality of a young brand, then the brand needs to be up-front about when it was malted, vatted, and bottled. If we’re supposed to “trying it again next year”, then we need to have a better idea of when next year is.

  12. Dutch says:

    My main experience with craft whiskey has been with the New Holland Zeppelin Bend. Aged three years in charred oak it has the youthful taste you may expect, but for a first time effort, I’m happy with the flavor profile, although I think the price is a bit high. $65 is too much for this one, I’ll probably not get anymore, I can find a lot of well made bourbons and Irish for that much or less, (Redbreast for $40 for example) if they were to price it in the $25-$30 range I’d pick up more, it is a nice sipper.
    If the craft whiskeys were priced according to actual taste and age we would be better off.

    • Scribe says:

      Dutch, your last line really hit home for me:

      “If the craft whiskeys were priced according to actual taste and age we would be better off.”

      I’ve posted here before about my confusion how a $$$ whiskey can earn, say, mid-80s in John’s reviews…while a $ whiskey can come in at the low 90s. I think if *ALL* whiskeys were priced according to actual taste and age, we’d have some sanity in the market — and good values across a broad spectrum of price points!

  13. Thomas Matthews says:

    I don’t have enough experience to comment on the substance of this post, though I can say I enjoyed the piece, and admire the experience and passion behind it.

    I would note that at Wine Spectator, we review wines — boutique and corporate alike — in blind tastings. That way, the “little guys” don’t get a pass because they have inspiring stories, and the big boys aren’t penalized because of their “industrial” approach. A level playing field is the best way to assess quality. Is that applicable to evaluating whiskey?

  14. George Jetson says:

    Oops, it looks like the Templeton I like so much comes from somewhere else, maybe Canada? Too bad, but my other rantings stand.

    • DavidG says:

      Seagrams in Indiana

      • George Jetson says:

        Yes, Lawrenceburg is the “official” partner distillery, but there still seems to be some controversy. No wonder I like the Templeton, the Lawrenceburg output is in some of my favorite American whiskeys.

  15. David D says:

    I agree with the idea because there are many American craft whiskies that I simply don’t like, however this is mostly because they cost way too much for their age. However, I can name you a few right now besides Anchor that are outstanding, namely – Steve McCarthy’s Single Malt from Clear Creek and St. George’s Single Malt made from Sierra Nevada malt. Prichard’s Single Malt is also very interesting (not in the euphemistic way) and the Corsair Rye which is not yet available is amazing for a one year old. As a major retailer, I have to be careful to buy products that sell based on good taste and I’ll tell you that I have exclusive cask purchases this year already for McCarthy, St George, and Corsair because their whiskies are fantastic.

    • John Hansell says:

      I also enjoyed Triple 8′s single malt. But at $888….

    • Chap says:

      Oh goodness, a single barrel of St George’s malt eau de vie? I guess I’m shelling out for *that* one.

      It’s nice to see a shout for Germain-Robin, too. I just introduced some people to their Shareholder’s Reserve brandy, one of my favorites.

  16. Jeff says:

    I have tried the following: Tuthilltown Manhattan Rye & New York Whiskey, Cedar Ridge’s Iowa Bourbon, House Spirits Single Malt, Roughstock Montana Whiskey, Stranahan’s, Templeton Rye. Templeton Rye is good, but as stated above was distilled elsewhere. The Tuthilltown Rye was not good straight, but was great in a manhattan, as advertised. Of all of them, Stranahan’s is the only one worth the premium price. Its got a completely different, full-bodies flavor. I don’t find that it tastes too young. Its got a deep, dark color, and is full of flavor. Some may not like the flavor, but to say its lacking flavor due to youth seems absurd.

    Having said that, I generally agree with the post. Craft distillers are going to have to do something different and innovative given the economic realities of distilling. Its going to be tough to compete with the big boys at their own game.

  17. This post really was a funny coincidence and I’m not suprised that Serge took the opportunity to put me under gentle pressure ;) Don’t bother, you won’t have to wait for long….

    Just like Serge, I have no personal expecrience with American craft whiskey. But I agree with him that “small scale” does not automatically have to mean “better whisky”. It took the macrodistillers decades if not centuries to refine their production methods in order to achieve good results. Somehow I get the impresison that at least European microdistillers often try to re-invent the wheel by pursuing a “hands on” and “trial and error” approach rather than to learn from the masters.

  18. Murrell Kinkade says:

    Maybe John is right. Maybe in time there will be some good micro whiskies out there but right now I am on Steves side. Most of them are terrible. Wasmunds which had such written promise, not so good in reality. Won’t try it again. There are others that I tried, gave away, hid in mixes and such and generally wished I had bought a good Bourbon or Scotch instead.

  19. Mr Manhattan says:

    Good piece. Thanks. We need to be patient and wait for some of these places to either a) show what aged stocks taste like or b) go out of business (and many of them will). We also need to wait for some of these new distillers themselves to be ‘aged’ a bit more. Time, not talent, is what I think separates some of these folks from their counterparts at places like Heaven Hill.

  20. Mike says:

    Oh Steve, thank you, thank you, thank you! I could not agree with you more. There is a book out there called Microtrends by Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne and they basically talk about this concept of “craft/artisanal” fill in the blanks and how they more or less have convinced the public that small is good. Not always the case. Whisky in my opinion is the biggest example of how this is 100% untrue. It is maybe one of the few instances in fact that it behooves the producer to have a couple bucks. Lets face it making whisky is not a cheap process and not a quick process. Cutting corners to produce “whiskey” is a farse. Small barrels, temp controlled warehouses do not fool me one bit. They taste young and underdeveloped.

    THEN! Gauging customers at $90+ for a bottle (or $45 for a half bottle…) of whisky that isnt even an actual whiskey by most of the whiskey worlds standards is a crime.

    Good call Steve! Whiskey making by nature is an art. Leave it to the true artisans who have created the heritage and “craft” of whisky making.

  21. Serge says:

    Many very eloquent posts!
    I just wanted to correct a wrong impression I may have left: when I wrote that ‘the smaller, the better’ was a myth in my opinion, I didn’t mean that ‘the smaller, the worse’ was any more correct of course.
    We have a great example here in France: Glann ar Mor in Brittany. Years of research and learning (in Scotland), a perfect equipment (gorgeous wee pot stills, wooden washbacks, coil tubs, direct firing…), impeccable wood… And a result that’s up there with the best Scotch in my opinion. On the other side, you have distillers who happen to have Hoslteins or other kinds of stills and who wake up one day with an idea: make whisky. Two days later they call a brewery and a friend who happens to be a winemaker and has barrels, one week later they make their first batches and presto, a few months later: bottled whisky! Then you call the local press and possibly some whisky experts and there, you have the new marvel. I’ve even seen one that was priced at more than 100 Euros a half! Of course, all that works even better when everything’s local (cereals, wood, water, workforce). After greenwashing, locawashing!

  22. BFishback says:

    I think the main problem comes with producers who try to age too quickly and use techniques. Small, infinitely, reused barrels and a lot of wood chips do not add the same depth. And then to charge nearly the same price as company who has been working on their whiskey for a hundred years or more is outrageous.

    On the flip side McCarthy’s from Clear Creek is a good craft whisky that is aged correctly, and priced appropriately.

  23. Sku says:

    First of all, a big thanks to John for publishing my post. I am humbled to be the one to kick off your series of guest bloggers. Second, a huge thanks as well to all of the great commentors (both in agreement and disagreement). I thought this was a conversation worth having, and I think it has, indeed, shown to be such.

    A few quick comments and responses.

    First, I completely sympathize with how difficult it is for the craft whiskey distiller to try and finance a start-up which doesn’t produce a decent product until five or ten years of ageing. However, putting out a substandard product (and at an inflated price at that) is not a good solution. As Texas noted above, it’s simply bad business. Would we accept that excuse from any other producer? Yes, it’s true, the cars our company makes are pieces of junk, but in a few years they’ll be great, so buy these and help us finance our company so one day, we can make decent products. I fear that many of these distilleries are blowing their good will with their current products and prices; they may find that consumers don’t have much faith in the distillery left once they start putting out the “good stuff.”

    Of course, there are alternatives. As has been noted, micros like High West, Templeton and WhistlePig are sourcing and blending whiskeys distilled by big distilleries, which presumably relieves some of the financial pressure. Many of the micros are also making unaged spirits such as absinthe, vodka and gin.

    Second point, I specifically stayed away from criticizing any particular distillery because I think this problems is widespread. I painted with a broad brush because I see a broad canvas. It wouldn’t be fair to criticize any particular distillery when nearly all of them seem to be doing it.

    Anyway, thanks again, and let the debate continue…

  24. James says:

    I wrote about this last year; I didn’t use the word “sucks” (I remember thinking it once or twice). I’m not a fan of the Charbay whiskeys, as much as I love most of what they do, in large part because of the price. I think they’re well made, but I’ve never gotten much pleasure from them. I’m also not an Old Potrero fan so you can discount everything I say based on those admissions. I am curious whether you’ve enjoyed any of the “artisanal” unaged whiskeys? I’ve had some really nice corn liquors from distillers whose “aged” product I wasn’t wild about. Oh, here’s the piece I wrote, just FYI:

    http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2009/03/kentucky-bourbon

  25. Mendy says:

    “Sourcing and blending are real skills ” Indeed they are, and in Scotland they have a name for people who specialize in those skills: Independent Bottlers. I don’t understand why companies are insisting on the Micro Distiller label over the Independent Bottler label. It isn’t as if they are mutually exclusive. At least then awards and tastings can categorize the whiskeys correctly.

    Does the US have an Independent Bottling tradition?

    • The Bitter Fig says:

      I haven’t heard much about an Independent Bottler tradition here in the States, but I hope a stronger one develops. I’m fairly new into Whisky, but everything I’ve experience has given me nothing but respect for the art of blending in general. Consequently, I feel that blended whisky and the skills involved is… under-appreciated isn’t the right term, since just about every whisky writer I read has had a very healthy respect for blends. They just don’t get talked about as much. A lot of blended whisky (and really, unless it’s single-cask, it’s all blended) just isn’t newsworthy. Kind of too ubiquitous and known to be worth coverage in a world where there is a lot of news, new whiskies, and so forth.

      I guess I just mean that I want the whisky community of writers, producers, and consumers (more emphasis on the later two) to give up some of the stigma about blends and focus more on what’s inside the bottle. Call a spade a spade, celebrate the good whiskies of any sort, criticize the bad, and not be afraid to of a five-letter word.

  26. You could easily switch it up and talk about the bigger distilleries churning out inferior product, the gripe here seems to mainly be about companies selling ‘young’ whiskies but surely they’re only doing that to make a buck?

    In Scotland for… example companies are now branching out and making other spirits (Bruichladdich) whilst others have released progressive whiskies (Ardbeg) and been hailed for their success.

    There are always good, bad and great products, but to have a go at a ‘movement’ as a whole (which the craft distilling surge in the US appears to be) is a tad ridiculous.

    I’ve seen this a lot recently with people turning against the craft distilleries (mainly in the US), to me it smacks of a build ‘em up, tear ‘em down attitude.

    The fact is that the proof is in the liquid. Not the bottle, not the label, not where it comes from. Saying, “It sucks…” doesn’t help anyone. Criticism is only good if it’s constructive.

  27. Alan Moen says:

    I’ve long been an advocate for so-called craft distilling, even before the movement really started, and I’m pleased to say that Michael Jackson once tasted — and liked — my own experimental whisky, aged in French oak. But although distilling is much different than brewing, I think that the small distillers are going through the same rough stage that craft brewers did when they started, when the quality of the beer they made was pretty uneven. I’ve tasted many, many bad craft beers in the last 25 years, and I’m happy to say that for the most part, there has been a great improvement in them now. However, there are a lot of run-of-the mill commercial whiskeys from large distilleries, too, and at least the different formulas and approaches being tried by craft distillers are shaking up the industry a bit.

    Still, the criticism that far too many “craft whiskeys” are being released before they’re mature is quite valid, and particularly a problem for small breweries who now distill, since they normally think of weeks or perhaps months, rather than years, to develop their products. So it makes sense that many of the best small distilleries in the U.S. now, like Germain-Robin, came from the wine and brandy side of the business. Even so, I have found whiskies like Stranahan’s or Clear Creek’s to be remarkable, young as they are. That’s a good sign of better spirits to come.

  28. Nate says:

    The major difference I see in the craft distillers currently producing whiskey in the US is in their business model, which has been covered throughout this discussion.
    Some seem to have abandoned all hope of holding aged stocks before they began and are either keeping all their stocks to a certain age then selling the lot, or else artificially aging their whisky and selling it extremely young.
    Some are buying old stocks of big producers while waiting for their own stocks to come of age
    Some are supplementing their income by producing unaged spirits as well, or else selling “futures”, barrels of new-make that their purchasers can bottle whenever they like.
    I think it’s currently too early to be passing judgement on most of these distillers. The question, I feel, is which business model will make for the best whiskey and sustain these businesses until their stocks are mature.

    • John Hansell says:

      Good point about the business model. I would prefer that they sell vodka or gin to sustain them with income while waiting for their whiskey to mature properly, rather than put out a premature product.

      • Dave Pickerell says:

        Found whiskey sales are also a very good strategy to gain cash flow while waiting on the house made “good stuff” to mautre…..without jeopardizing brand image or consumer loyalty…

        • Nate says:

          Dave, do we mean the same thing by “found whiskey” and “buying old stocks from big producers”? Perhaps I should have clarified and said “buying old stocks from big producers and bottling it under their house label.”
          and I DO wonder how it will affect the brand’s image and consumer loyalty when their house-made product comes of age and they begin selling a markedly different product from that upon which they built their name.

  29. Steffen Bräuner says:

    Turning this to Scotland. Which of Scotlands distilleries is considered a “craft” distillery ?

    I remember buying Arrans first 3yo, and that was worse than crap, but look at what they bottle today ?

    I’ve tried several samples of Daftmill and thats excellent whisky. Kilchoman seems to pretty popular as well at a young age

    MAcdeffe

  30. Jefffrane says:

    As a consumer, I definitely appreciate honesty from reviewers and the press and do not see that such people have a responsibility to coddle poor distilleries with inaccurate reviews. It’s true that Michael Jackson had a weakness for the gentle review in the early days of American craft beer revival, but the market either eliminated those brewers or pushed them to better work.

    Craft brewers, however, weren’t getting $60-70 a bottle.

    I happen to like Stranahan’s and find it a very interesting drink. For roughly the same cost, however, I can buy a bottle from the Antique Collection (when I can find it), and those whiskies are brilliant.

  31. B.J. Reed says:

    On other point – Scotch distillers will tell you that 60% or 70% of the quality and flavor comes from the wood and yet I wonder how many of these craft distillers even know how to source casks – I think its very very different to make beer, vodka,gin or any spirits that do not require aging in quality casks and then try to figure out how the aging process actually works with oak casks – Just a thought.

  32. John Hansell says:

    I’m still waiting for some of the craft distillers selling home-made product (not sourced) to chime in here…

    • PH says:

      Why would a craft distiller jump in here? That said, I recognize a couple of these names as craft folks…
      The quality of the whiskey is in the bottle – and the expression of the whiskey can be different. Few would say that an Islay is fundamentally and exclusively ‘better’ than a Highland or a bourbon – the detractors would surely say that they are different. Each bottle and expression speaks for itself. Each style is different, and while one may prefer Islay, another may prefer bourbon. Certainly, there is no excuse for a poorly executed, badly cut whiskey, and the craft distillers who do this will find their results on the shelf. Same with the ‘craft distillers’ who rely on neutral grain spirits, especially for their whiskey. But, there is zero reason to think that a whiskey that is ‘younger’ than a 10-12 year old scotch by definition cannot be a quality whiskey that will be appreciated. Maybe use of an efficient still shaves years off of aging – just as people prefer whiskeys that are not too ‘young’ they similarly don’t like whiskeys that are too old and over-oaked. Too much oak is not a sign of quality and an age statement is not a sign of quality either. White dog is not an aged whiskey – doesn’t mean its good, doesn’t mean its bad, but they are not the same product. I’ve had white dog that is delicious. I’ve had white dog that is fit for cleaning engine blocks. I don’t necessarily sit and enjoy a dram of white dog while savoring a fine evening in the same fashion I might an aged whiskey, but this is not a bad thing, just a different thing. The whiskey market need not be a closed world – bring on new tastes, new flavors, new styles. Some are doomed to fail, but a well executed, quality spirit can, and should, find success.

  33. Michael says:

    Could I possibly ask the very basic (if not naive) question?
    Why is there need for so many new distilleries? We have already enough NAS whiskies and experiments (like Bruichladdich) in Scotland. I really thought that we have enough choice on the market, with whisky imported from Japan, India and many other countries. As I said, I believe that if someone just focuses on Scotch single malt and American Straight Bourbon and Rye Whisky, the choice and variety is plentiful.

    • scQue814 says:

      I’d bank, Michael, that micro-distilling is less about trying to make something new to the market…. as it is about trying to make something new to the person distilling it. Do we NEED more whiskeys on store shelves? (Well, here in Pennsylvania, we do–but that’s a different argument). Typically no. But some of us WANT to taste the creations of passionate would-be distillers who aren’t just churning out product because their family has been doing so for xxx years. In the end, though, for most new distillers I don’t think it’s about the customer, but about the ACT OF CREATING.

  34. Mark says:

    What a fine start for the guest week, in terms both of post and comments!

    I’d like to make a point about expectations and the way we frame tasting these young artisan American whiskeys. Their youth alone, I think we can agree, increases the probability of a lower quality product. This is independent of the makers’ skill or passion. Also, we know that wood management is crucial among the skill set of whisky makers, as B. J. pointed out. It seems to me that these folks must develop the skills of wood management over time, even if they are talented in some basic sense. An analogy might be the the way a talented writer must develop skills over long, hard time of putting words to paper. Given how young their products are, I would suggest they can’t be sure whether they know what they are doing in the cask source/management dimension of the work. Time they haven’t yet had will tell. I suggest it follows that we should not evaluate their whiskies as full on, complete products (and so surely should not have to pay prices as if they were either, but more on that in a moment).

    I’d like to suggest expectations should be lower, in general, and evaluations should be geared toward helping these makers make their work better than it is. “Most” of these whiskies I’ve had do suck. That’s entirely unsurprising. As whisky lovers, our feedback should be along the lines of what seems to work and what doesn’t. When possible, we should ask questions about their techniques and decisions that help them think about their work in clearer, deeper ways. It’s about gathering info to make the work better than it is.

    In so far as that is a reasonable view, the makers need to have business models and marketing strategies that increase the likelihood of gathering useful information. Selling “whisky” that sucks at high price points is seriously wrong-headed; we should reject such strategies. But if the sourcing/blending option or the gin/vodka route creates cash flow, then I’m for helping support the cause of artisan/craft American whisky. Could marketing their young whiskies in sampler bottle packs be a good idea?

    Whoa, apologies for the long post. I came home from from reconstructive foot surgery today, and this thread made the afternoon much better than it would otherwise have been…even through the percocet haze. Thanks to Sku for the work and honesty, and best wishes to the artisans and would-be artisans trying to take American whisky further than it has been before!

  35. Davindek says:

    Excellent post and thoughtful, eloquent comments.

    First, I must agree, most craft distilled whisky (and all that I have tasted) is less enjoyable than kerosene. Of course I understand the need to generate cash flow, but feel that distillers should find some other way than prematurely releasing their “whisky.”
    Premature release does two forms of damage:

    First, it gives people a bad impression of the distillery. I recently tasted some 10, 14 and 15 year old Glen Breton that was really quite exceptionally good. Based on early releases of their 8 and 9 year old whiskies I had tasted some years ago, I simply had not taken them seriously as whisky distillers. By releasing product before it was ready, they hurt their reputation and it will take a while for people to figure out that they are now producing a really good product.

    Second, premature release gives the whole American whisky category a bad name. Now that people are learning that American whisky does not have to be aged at all, it will be much easier for whisky snobs to dismiss American whisky as a category.

    Let them add botanicals and call it gin; let them charcoal filter it and call it vodka, but please let them stop damaging their own reputation and that of the whole category by calling it whisky.

  36. Jimmy says:

    It’s interesting that it turned out this post wasn’t all that controversial. Sounds like pretty much everybody agrees there are too many immature whiskies being sold for too much money.

    I do think the post could have bolstered his argument by citing examples of cost disparity. How easy is it to name for example, a fine whisky put out by a major producer that costs less than a mediocre craft product?

    Also, nice of him to name Old Potrero as a success. That stuff is awesome, and very hard to keep on the shelf here in San Francisco. I still have yet to find an opportunity to take a bottle home.

  37. Serge says:

    All these posts are hugely interesting!
    However, I do notice that almost everybody’s mentioning wood and aging whilst little people talk about stills and other distilling/brewing equipment. It’s almost as if anyone could produce a good bottling provided you use good wood and care to wait long enough (and have a passion for your ‘art’). I believe that people such as Anthony and gang at Kilchoman managed to produce very young but very good whisky because they also had the right equipment (and hired true distilling experts from the start), what do you think?

    • sam k says:

      Highly agreed, Serge. There’s no question that one can produce quality new make and young whiskey. I’m reading some of these comments and wondering how new spirit that tastes like “crap” can eventually blossom into fine whiskey. That would indicate that the entire taste profile of an inferior product was miraculously improved over time by the wood in which it was stored. Poppycock!

      I think that, ideally, a new distillery making quality spirit should be able to release their whiskey at progressive points as it ages, say every six months to a year, and let their customers follow the whiskey as it matures and gains character without concern of tainting their reputation. If they start with a good recipe, quality ingredients, good equipment, dedicated research, and skilled distillers, the product really should never taste like “crap.”

      I’ve had craft whiskeys that I like better than others. Some have been pretty damned good, some have truly sucked.. The ones that suck probably won’t improve appreciably, magically, because of time spent in any barrel in any climate. I’m willing to give the smaller guys the benefit of the doubt, and have embraced craft whiskeys that others have not because there’s just…something there that I appreciate.

  38. Gary Gillman says:

    Good article and there are many interesting comments, but many approaches can be taken by the craft distillers, and all valid if they can find a market, which some clearly are.

    They can blend young whiskey with fruity or spicy flavours, possibly using some GNS as a base. Some of these drinks are great and wouldn’t taste the same if you used fully aged whiskey. Perhaps their closest analogy historically is to punch. And as mentioned, young whiskey often shines in a Manhattan, indeed the drink was probably devised for just such a spirit base, ditto the Mint Julep I think.

    They can sell vodka, gin or white rum until aging is complete, generally 4 years should suffice, which would allow a foothold to develop yet older product. They can sell their whiskey uncut and claim with complete correctness that this is a historical flavour: in the 1800′s, much whiskey was sold from a few months to 2 years of age. Anything over one year certainly was old then. Some people are willing to pay for a taste of history. Our tastes have been conditioned for generations now to like a well-aged product, but as with certainly historical beer styles, e.g., well-hopped IPA, or German sourish top-fermented wheat beers, some people find the historical tastes of interest.

    I think it’s hard to predict how this will pan out. To my taste, Potrero Rye always had a vigorous, young whiskey taste (oily and pungent), yet it has endured in the market. Is the profile really all that different from a pungent Islay malt? In taste they differ, but not really in the sense of their emphatic character.

    Some producers will find permanent markets for their young whiskey; some will evolve it into a more aged product closer to the mass-produced norm; some will develop unique fruited or other mixtures which show a young whiskey at its best; and some will probably come up with their version of a blended whiskey, i.e., combining a neutral-type base with some aged, batch-distilled product. And some will issue finally rounded, deep-flavoured 4-6 year old bourbon and rye.

    Time will tell but I think it’s all good.

    Gary

  39. dg says:

    thank you john for shaking the apple cart, i was feeling a bit alone out here, giving my unsolicited opinion.
    i have been saying for a while that you can not cheat time or mother nature in your attempt to make whiskey

  40. This is a difficult one. I admire the efforts by all those who are active in the micro distilling movement. I have nosed and tasted many different samples over the past few years and found the whisky which was the best tend to follow standard production methodology and those who tended to not be that good did not. It could be as simple as not properly aging the whisky in wood, some bizarre smoking method of barely, or trying to make great malt without a copper still. At the end of the day it is all about properly funding the facility. Funding is key and I have run the numbers for different distillery sizes and there is no real short term ROI on a whisky distillery unless they are fully funded, can produce quick and inexpensive secondary products like beer, vodka, gin, and etc to pay the bills while they wait, or blend someone else’s whisky to sell from day one.

    Slainte,
    Jeffrey

  41. Gable Erenzo says:

    There is no doubt that the Scots have figured it out. They really know how to make a fine SCOTCH. I enjoy many Bourbon expressions from the big boys down in KY, as they too have come closer and closer to mastering their quintessential American spirit. What really excites me however is tasting the white dogs from our fellow craft distillers. In my opinion, the true skill of the craft distiller is illustrated in the unmasked expression that is young whiskey. Though Ive always enjoyed whiskey made in the traditional ways of Scotland and America, I also cant help but smile when I try something so different and interesting from someone who has learned (many through self education) the craft well and taken it to new and unchartered waters. Some will not please my pallet and others will, but I certainly do not judge their expressions based on my favorite whiskeys….they’re apples and oranges.

    There is no doubt that every micro-distiller out there will benefit from further experience, honing skills and learning from mistakes. That said, negative characteristics in some of the less appealing spirits Ive tasted have less to do with the barrel maturation and much more to do with the fermentation and distillation side. If a spirit is made of quality grains, fermented properly and distilled with care and understanding, age in the barrel only affects the flavor, not the quality. A whiskey that tastes like “turpentine” or sub par to “kerosene”, most likely tasted that way before it went into the barrel. No barrel or amount of time will turn turpentine into quality whiskey.

    Surprisingly, some of the kindest words of encouragement and respect for the Craft Distillers movement have come from some of the distillers, ambassadors and business leaders in the Scotch and Bourbon industries. In most cases I believe their support comes down to their own desire to experiment and innovate. They too want the opportunity to show off their skill and creativity, but until now have been confined by strict theoretical parameters of what they can produce. For many years this industry was stale, seeing little or no innovation. With the rise of the craft distiller, we have also seen an increase of innovative bottlings coming from the big whiskey houses. As the Craft Distillers push the creative envelope and show that there is a market for whiskey outside the box, the big boys will follow. Don’t be surprised if we start seeing some macro-distilled, young quarter casked whiskey hitting the market soon (not to mention Laphroig, which has been using small casks far longer than any micro-distillery). As the large whiskey houses begin to embrace opportunities for innovation in whiskey, I believe that many critics will start to understand that there are many different ways to make quality whiskey, and thankfully there are many different pallets qualifying it. The craft distillers have found, or perhaps created, a niche for high quality, young spirits matured in innovative ways that are not trying to compete with the Balvenies or Woodfords of the world. Try them if you want, drink them if you enjoy, move on if that’s your preference. If you are in the latter group, stick with your favorites and just think about the money spent as an investment in the future of your passion or hobby. Im sure there are much less interesting ways you have spent $45.

    Cheers!

    gable

    • sam k says:

      “I’m sure there are much less interesting ways you have spent $45.”

      WOW! Truer words may never have been spoken. Excellent take, Gabel. Thank you for your refreshing perspective.

    • Gable, spot on with the quality of the white dog. I have thought more of the micro distillers should highlight their white dog while waiting for their spirit to mature or maybe not mature at all. This is an exciting time and people like yourself have the opportunity to change the way people perceive whisky.

    • Mark says:

      “A whiskey that tastes like “turpentine” or sub par to “kerosene”, most likely tasted that way before it went into the barrel. No barrel or amount of time will turn turpentine into quality whiskey.”

      Given my post above, I just wanted to express hearty agreement with this statement, and with the paragraph from which it comes. I still hold to the wood management claims, and think the two positions are compatible.

  42. Just for the sake of completeness, here the link to the full interview with Serge:

    http://www.dramming.com/2010/08/31/whisky-people-1-serge-valentin/

    • Michael says:

      Great review. Thank you. I usually start my day by checking Serge’s web site (in addition to Whisky Notes and “What does John know?”.

      I think that the following quote from the interview sums it all up and nicely comments on this particular thread (I am still amazed by this tendency to experiment, at any cost):

      “That’s the tricky part: they all seem to be willing to innovate in a market that seems to be dominated by concepts such as tradition, heritage or even terroir. Probably not easy.”

  43. George Jetson says:

    Sorry to be so analytical about the whole discussion, but I have seen many terms floating around in the lively discourse that I don’t think have any meaning or may mean the same thing. I guess there is no answer to my original question.

    What is it that makes a whiskey “craft”, “artisan”, “micro”? Can a “contract distilled” whiskey qualify? Are “small batch” whiskeys excluded? Are custom blended products from multiple distilleries considered a category?

    I have to conclude that it is an undefined term of art to describe anything that is not a mass-produced whiskey. Therefore, it is difficult to single out and condemn the practice, instead it is more a critique of bad whiskey and lazy marketing, no matter how it is produced or where it comes from.

    The most salient points for me are, buy “real” distillation equipment designed for whiskey production and hire some veteran master distillers to run it for you for a while. Don’t release it before it’s ready and get real with the expectations generated by your marketing campaign. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to form a trade association either to set some standards and voluntary policing to give the industry some credibility. Failing that, the trend will eventually wither and die a natural death and people will wonder what all the hoopla was about.

  44. Gable Erenzo says:

    DEFINITION OF “CRAFT” OR “ARTISAN” DISTILLER (American Distillers Institute)

    Craft distillers produce alcoholic beverage spirits by distillation, or by infusion
    through distillation or re-distillation. Maximum production for a “craft” or “artisan”
    distiller should not exceed 250,000 proof gallons per year. The “craft” or “artisan” distiller
    utilizes a pot still, with or without rectification columns, for distillation of beverage
    spirits. A distiller starting with neutral spirits produced by others, who redistills without
    substantially altering

    • Mark says:

      Thanks for providing the ADI definition, or at least part of it.

      For humorous aside, Sept 6, 2010 THE NEW YORKER, p. 59, a cartoon with a huge factory, stacks spewing as from a refinery, with this sign: ARTISANAL EVERYTHING, INC.

    • Gable Erenzo says:

      sorry, here is the rest of that definition

      …..substantially altering the neutral character of the spirit may not be said to be a “craft” or
      “artisan” distiller.

      • sam k says:

        Note that column stills, by this definition, are inherently evil and incapable of making acceptable craft whiskey. All you guys gotta have pot stills…but they’re conveniently allowed to have rectification columns (mini column stills) attached!! More bullshit, much like the early negativity cast upon the beer can by small brewers. Now that they’re getting bigger…man, those cans are the greatest container ever!

        Wanna bet this senseless rule falls by the wayside eventually?

        • Lew Bryson says:

          Glad someone said it, Sam. Pot still prejudice is rampant at ADI and in the American craft distilling (and consuming) ‘community.’ Guys…you diss column stills because you aren’t selling enough whiskey to run one! America’s large bourbon and rye distillers make excellent whiskeys on column stills. Don’t make fools of yourselves by chaining your definition to one type of still.

  45. Jason Pyle says:

    So in a nutshell it seems we have the “Wood is King” folks. Then the “Distiller is just as important” folks chimed in and made some great points. And of course the Age/Maturity debate is always valid.

    It really boils down to the marriage of those three things. Great distilled product, aged for a few months in decent oak is probably not going to turn out a great product. Decent distillate aged in beautiful oak for years is also not likely to yield a good product. It’s ultimately the balance of those 3 things.

    So the micro guys that are doing that the best will survive. Those that don’t will not.

  46. Let’s be honest with ourselves about the ADI, though.

    There were some ‘seriously?’ offerings. Yet there were some ‘wows’ as well. I certainly left with the concept that a couple cubes of ice would have really made some of those spirits sing.

    I worry that this kind of press will keep craft distillers from taking some of thier more adventurous offerings to ADI in the future, for fear of getting slapped in the face. The ADI should never be that place. It’s a conference, for craft distillers, that they may exchange information amongst themselves. The press was invited, in hopes that we could help in thier cause.

    Did we?

  47. Gable Erenzo says:

    A note to those of you suggesting that price gauging is going on in the Craft Spirits world.

    As someone mentioned earlier, the economies of scale in large spirits production is far greater than most would imagine. Think about the automated processes involved in making a bottle of Four Roses, or Buffalo Trace (and these are the small guys). Im going to be making some guesses here based on what I saw when visiting these places. Lets say they produce 100 barrels a day (conservative I think) and employ about 5 distilling staff daily, vs a micro distillery such as ourselves who’s output is more like 1 barrel a day with 3 full time Distilleryman. There is no automation here. All work is being done by a trained distiller who is making a reasonable salary, is fully insured and supporting a local family.

    Now, lets think about the grain. We buy a few tons at a time, I mean what small distillery has that much storage capacity to deal with much more? We buy this grain from local farmers at top dollar. This insures quality grain, decreases the amount of fossil fuel needed to transport, and helps to support the local community.

    Barrels. Most of the large distilleries have their own cooperages. Think about how much money you could save if you had the ability produce your own barrels. Barrels, aside from staff is the single largest cost. Many small distilleries use smaller barrels. This is a good way for small distillers to monitor their spirit quality without having to wait 2-3 yrs. Small barrels cost up to 10x as much per gallon of maturated spirit.

    Bottling. We bottle everything we make by hand. Through a 4 spigot filler, hand roll the labels, dip in wax and number EVERY bottle. 40 cases a day by two full time employees, NO AUTOMATION whatsoever. Then say 1000 cases or so per 5 people on the automated bottling line per day. Thats 20 cases per daily wage vs. 200 cases per daily wage. Automation saves money, but kills domestic/local jobs.

    Labels, bottles, corks, seals, etc. All purchased as needed in small quantities. This is obviously much more costly than buying in bulk the way the big boys do.

    Suggesting that cost structure could be similar for a micro-distiller as it is for the macro, based only on age and taste (which is obviously subjective), is ridiculous.

    Yes, I agree that if you are not the experimental type or dont have the money to properly nourish your family, you should probably stick with George Dickel (which is a great value whiskey). But if you are interested in seeing this exciting movement actually progress and begin to produce spirits more to your liking, take a chance, send the distiller your feedback (constructively please), and understand that NO ONE is getting rich off of craft distilled whiskey. Not yet at least.

    • sam k says:

      Well reasoned perspective, Gable. Good points all.

    • Gable Erenzo says:

      Thank you gentleman. As you can imagine, Ive done some thinking on this topic :-)

      Really though, aside from the initial recoil when I read the post title, I really think there are many solid points made here, mostly in a respectful way. Thanks for an interesting thread.

    • Davindek says:

      As I sit here enjoying a wee dram of Still Waters single malt vodka, may I say that I have no problem with micro-distillers releasing product on day one. I also support their charging what they need to, to make a reasonable profit, and encourage them to do so in order to get over the hump at startup. My only complaint is that they call it “whisky.”

      Some of it does taste good, although a vodka purist might say it is too flavourful, but some of it, like some 9-week-old spirit I tasted last week, really does not. I did taste one really excellent gin though, from a distiller who refuses to release his whisky before it is ready. This is what I would prefer to see them do: Offer a non-whisky product until their whisky is ready. However, they are the guys putting their money where their mouths are and it is so easy for me to offer advice while sitting at a computer with maybe $200, tops spent on micro-distilled product.

  48. Roddy Graham says:

    I think a point that has been missed so far is that young whiskies are much more like grappa or silver tequila than they are like old whiskies.

    If you like grappa / un-aged tequila then you are more likely to enjoy such youthful products.

  49. [...] being released too soon. They’re just immature, and they need more aging. (Okay, some of them probably won’t get better no matter how long they are aged in wood, but I think this is the minority, not the [...]

  50. Jim M says:

    As a consumer, I’ve tried several micro whisky’s. All, as I like them, with ice and mixed with 7 up. I, and everyone I know are not “whisky connoisseur’s” and cannot gag down Glenfiddich or other “top shelf” whisky’s straight. We do not want to spend huge money on a drink that closely resembles perfume.
    While many of you live and breath whisky, there are many more of us “regular folks” who enjoy mixed drinks.
    All that being said, I too have tasted great/not bad/umm,well, I won’t buy it again type whisky’s from a micro. Are they young? yes. Will they compare to a 15yo top shelf? Not to a whisky affectionado. The only issue I have is price. The first bottle is always to support a new/growing business.(almost regardless of price) If it is lacking, I don’t buy a second. Ultimately, THAT is the true measure of a whisky. Does it have a customer base and is it growing. Taste is very subjective. I gave away a bottle of Laphroaig, it was a present and it was disgusting…to ME, the presenter loved it.
    I will continue to buy micro as well as macro whisky’s and enjoy some/dislike some.
    I don’t like JD but I do like the majority of Canadian whisky’s. (which are typically lighter in taste and better suited for mixed drinks)

    I won’t tar all micro’s as bad or needing more maturation and I won’t tar all connoisseur whisky’s as too strong/foul. If I come across a micro or macro I like then I will buy it again.

    Sorry the post is so long but I feel all the comments so far were mostly from the “affectionado’s” and I wanted to bring a “layman” perspective to the table.

  51. Kent Rabish says:

    As with all other types of businesses if a distillery does not offer quality spirits that are worth the price over time the business will fail. I have read with interest the above post and understand where the whiskey community is coming from. New distilleries need revenue that is why most of us will start with vodka, gin, or another clear spirit to produce revenue. This is what we did although in the first year we did distill three barrels (53 gallon) of rye whiskey which we planned on selling as a straight rye whiskey (100%rye). Whiskey is an investment in the future, it is going to take time. After the first year in the barrel we sampled the rye and thought that given time this is going to be a interesting whiskey and so added many more barrels to age. At this time we have about 65 barrels aging, most are rye but we do have a bourbon also resting, all are in 53 gallon American white oak, #4 char. In these early years as a distillery we were running in the red but did invest in future whiskey. It is expensive and I could have been paying down my debt but we wanted to have a whiskey down the road. This is the challenge craft distilleries are facing.

    Many new craft distillers do not have the revenue to survive while whiskey is aging and are looking for something to provide revenue to pay the bills. In our distillery our vodka sales pay the bills so we have the luxury to sit on the inventory of whiskey and then we decide when to bottle. I will admit there is pressure to bottle sooner rather than later. The current rye whiskey we are selling is aged 2 1/2 years in the 53 gallon barrels. In a perfect world I wish I could sit on the barrels for another 2 1/2 years and longer to see the results but we also have bills to pay also.

    The craft industry is evolving at this time. Many will remain, some will fail. That is business in these times but over the long haul those distilleries who bring quality to customers and offer a spirit worth the asking price will survive and grow. One thing craft distilleries are bringing to the table are new ideas, some will hit the mark, others will not. Please do not get upset at this stage of the game with craft products. Micro distilling is evolving. As always the customer will decide by voting with their pocket book. I would just say enjoy the ride, see what is out there and sample the spirits offered. If you like them purchase a bottle and support your local distiller, if not move on to something else. We did send John a bottle of our rye to review. I will stick my neck out and attach the review to the post. I do believe John gives a honest review and does not let the pressure to inflate numbers alter his comments. Did we wish the point rating was higher, yes, but the review with tasting notes was fair and John did a good job of explaining the flavor profile.
    http://www.whatdoesjohnknow.com/?s=grand+traverse+distillery

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