Whisky Advocate

Are craft distillers creating a whiskey crisis?

August 4th, 2011

An article in The Atlantic last week suggests that a “whiskey crisis is looming” because craft distillers are aging their whiskey in small barrels in a (failed) attempt to accelerate the aging process, and then they are putting the whiskey on the market at a young age and calling it “bourbon.” (The issue here is that these bourbons aren’t as mature and complex as the straight bourbons being put out by the larger distillers and it’s going to drag down the reputation of bourbon.)

The author says they are cutting corners to save time and suggests that it could lead to a decline in the entire industry.

Read it here.

What do you think?

P.S.  I think this article is significant because it shows that the issue is now being picked up by mainstream press, not just bantered about by us geeky whisky bloggers.

107 Responses to “Are craft distillers creating a whiskey crisis?”

  1. Sam says:

    I think most consumers are smart enough that the companies trying to cut corners are the ones most likely to be hurt by this. Casual bourbon drinkers probably aren’t going for the craft whiskies to begin with and more experienced drinkers realize what is going on with these younger bourbons and either accept them for what they are or stay clear. There are way too many excellent and reasonably priced high quality bourbons out there for the entire industry to be painted with the small brush of these companies in my opinion. It may get some arm waving and mild hysteria in articles like these but it’s really an extremely small segment of bourbon we’re talking about here. There is a lot of experimentation across the board but when the majority of people think of bourbon they’re still thinking of something like Jim Beam’s regular white label. Things like aging in smaller barrels and using extra wood chips don’t even register. I think as people who consider themselves serious whiskey drinkers we sometimes ascribe too much import to things that most consumers don’t even think about. We may get up in arms about it or we may have lengthy discussions about it but it’s still such a small segment of the industry I don’t see it dragging down bourbon’s reputation yet.

    • lockejn says:

      Well said.

    • M Lange says:

      I agree, and I think the craft distilling industry will end up where craft brewing was in the late nineties: after an over abundance of start ups, a lot of breweries shut down. Most of the ones who didn’t make it failed because they weren’t that good, and most of the ones who did make it were making good products. I really think the market place will sort it out.

  2. Dutch says:

    I think experimentation is good, but I don’t believe the young startups with their small barrels will hurt the majority of the whiskey producers, we have so many fine bourbons in the affordable price range, that the majority of the whiskey drinkers will stay with them.

  3. We are one of the few Canadian craft distillers. The laws here prohibit us from selling as “whisk(e)y” any spirit not aged for at least 3 years in wood. (The exception is Bourbon, which can be aged a minimum of 2 years according to US law, assuming all other rules for calling it Bourbon have been met.) Note that the Canadian law does not just prohibit us from creating a product called “whisky” that is aged for less than 3 years, regardless of the size of cask used, but from selling any so-called whisky matured less than that, even if made outside Canada. Therefore, as tempting as it is to experiment with accelerated aging in small wood (which we have done a little of, with results we are not pleased with) we are forced by law to be patient and mature our whisky the traditional way. Though our whiskies are still at least 18 months from being legally saleable, every indication is that we will have a very high quality whisky with the characteristics that most consumers expect from a properly matured spirit.

    • John Hansell says:

      That’s the thing, Barry. American distillers can age a whiskey for one day and call it bourbon. It’s just not “straight” bourbon, which has to be a minumum of two years. (And four years without an age statement.) If we had a law here in the U.S. that required ALL bourbon to be straight bourbon, then this issue wouldn’t be as significant. (Although, we would still be debating the relative merits of small-barrel aging, I suppose.)

      • Wade says:

        While it can be called Bourbon the moment it enters the barrel, very few will put such a product on the market. Since Bourbon requires new oak barrels which can’t be reused for Bourbon, a 1 day old bourbon- even in small barrels, would be very expensive to produce. Garrison Brothers had a very limited release of a Bourbon which was not a Straight Bourbon, but is now only selling Texas Straight Bourbon. Is anybody else out there selling a Bourbon under 2 years old?

        • Clay Risen says:

          Well, here in NY people are falling all over two Brooklyn-distilled bourbons, neither of which can be much older than six months. By volume they cost twice as much as established brands, yet people pass over Evan Williams or Johnny Drum to get at them.

          I think it’s fair to suspect, if not assume, that a bourbon that isn’t called “straight” is indeed younger than 2 years — which includes most of the craft bourbons I’ve come across. The fact is that, at least for now, consumers don’t know what straight means (heck, most consumers don’t know that bourbon is whiskey, that sour mash bourbon is an effectively redundant term, etc.). (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the one who wrote the Atlantic piece.)

        • John Hansell says:

          Wade, I am pretty certain that the fast majority of the bourbon from craft distillers is less that two years old (and not Straight Bourbon). In fact, I would be willing to wager that most of it is less than one year old.

  4. John Hansell says:

    Contrary to comments 1 & 2 before me, I’m not so convinced that craft distillers are such a small segment of the market that they don’t matter. There are already more craft distillers making whisky than there are larger, established distillers. And the number is growing by leaps and bounds. Slowly but surely craft distillers will be getting more shelf space at retailers and also on the back bar at bars and restaurants.

    This exercise is not merely academic. I feel we are discussing an issue that’s going to continue growing in significance.

    • lockejn says:

      While there is a growing number of craft distillers, and their products may continue to garner additional shelf space, they’re simply not going to last if they aren’t as good as (often significantly) less expensive and traditional alternatives.

    • John Little says:

      You’re right…the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. But at this point, craft distillers just aren’t out there in great enough market share (not number of distillers) to affect the general drinking population. Yet. Heck, I talk to people in areas all of the country that have never heard of craft guys in their own backyard.

    • Mary says:

      I agree, John H. I see in my hometown liquor stores & out at the bars that a “yuppie” (for lack of a better word) crowd is tending to buy this “craft whiskey”. I was at a whiskey bar a couple weeks ago & the bartender automatically grabbed the “white dog” from the shelf when my friend asked for a certain whiskey. This distiller happens to sell “white dog” & good whiskey…..

      I do think this garbage flooding the market does hurt the overall reputation of whiskey – if that’s your introduction to whiskey….hmmmm Of course you could also argue that maybe it will introduce whiskey & people will move on to the “real” stuff. I do think we should have some tougher rules (like in Scotland) regarding age. The word “straight” is pretty much meaningless to anyone who is not a whiskey geek. I have had to explain this word to friends – & these are people who enjoy “good” whiskey.

      I do think over time, many of these small distilleries will fold & some who are putting out this “white dog” will move on to real whiskey & make a living with the good stuff. Personally, I don’t buy this young booze – why not just drink vodka?

      It’s definitely an interesting time for US whiskey.

    • I agree with John in part because the internet makes everyone equal. Micros may have a microscopic share of market but they have a big share of mind, both because of their direct internet presence, and their indirect presence through bloggers, bulletin boards, etc. Many especially younger drinkers who aren’t necessarily geeks rely on the internet as their primary source of information. They may understand that Hudson Baby Bourbon comes from a small distillery and Jack Daniel’s comes from a large one, but they probably don’t know many other details of how they differ. I don’t like it when new drinkers drink either very young or very old bourbon and think that’s how bourbon tastes, but what can you really do about it?

  5. John Little says:

    We make a variety of clear, unaged products as well as a variety of whiskies, mostly bourbon. We age whiskies in a wide range of barrel sizes, from 5 gallon all the way to 53 gallon barrels.

    There’s obviously plenty of whiskey on the market from the big guys that’s consistent and great. We drink it too. We try our best not to say that we’re better, but that we’re different. Young whiskey in a small barrel is different (we like it very much) but consumers will ultimately figure out if they like it enough to pay for it or not. I think one of things that will be important to us in the future is how to blend small barrels with big barrels to obtain the profile we desire….and that our customers are accustomed too.

    The article questions whether craft guys like us will damage the industry. I think that’s a huge stretch. Small guys could only dream of having enough exposure to affect the market. If we do, I’m pretty sure it’s for the positive, not the negative.

  6. Wade says:

    If you are going to call it Bourbon in the US, then there are laws about the aging process. Hence no shortcuts. The biggest selling brand of Bourbon in US is Jim Beam White, which is aged 4 years – the minimum required to be a Straight Bourbon without an age statement on label. There are not many craft distilled products labeled Straight Bourbon out there. I tasted pretty all of them and they are much better than Jim Beam White.

    So if Jim Beam White has not dragged the reputation of Bourbon, I don’t think craft distillers will either.

    • John Hansell says:

      Wade, I disagree with you. I have tasted most bourbons from the craft distillers (more than you, I am going to assume, given that it’s my job to do so), and I am going to be bluntly honest here. I would prefer Jim Beam over the majority of them. Why? because a lot of the bourbons from the craft distillers are very young (from 1 month to 1 year old).

      • Wade says:

        John – I did state craft Straight Bourbons (at least 2 years old) vs. Jim Beam White. There is a big difference between a 2 year old Straight bourbon and a 1 day old bourbon.

    • Vince says:

      I went to the ADI last year in Louisville and got to taste about 15-20 different craft whiskey’s. I can tell you that I thought 2 were acceptable to good and the rest?? I would take Jim Beam white label in a minute over any one of them.
      I commend craft distillers and I think in a few years we will see the quality of their product increase (as their whiskey ages more). Ultimately, I welcome them in the marketplace and I do not think they will have a negative effect because to Sam’s point at the start of this thread, whiskey drinkers will discern what is good and what is not acceptable and will create (or eliminate) the market accordingly.
      The thing I love most about bourbon is that you can get GREAT bourbon for a very reasonable price. If I was a craft distller that would be my biggest fear. They will never be able to compete on price and currently their quality cannot match what is on the market for half the price they are charging.
      I am also going on record as saying those Hudson products (of which I tasted at WhiskeyFest) are way overpriced and frankly overrated. (in my opinion)

  7. woodisgood says:

    At the end of the day, there’s one fact that will determine the success and failure of a bourbon, whether aged one year or twenty: taste! Quality will always be the key.

    • A Scientist says:

      Maybe things will be different in the world of bourbon concerning this, but I got two words to challenge the “quality” and “taste” metric to success in the drink market: Bud. Light.

      • Bob Siddoway says:

        Bud Light is more a result of successful branding and marketing than quality, much like Jack Daniels in my opinion. Brand loyalty can override all other factors for some people. That’s a whole different issue than the quality/taste argument for whisk(e)y.

        I’m just hoping some of these small craft distilleries are setting aside some of their product so it can be properly aged and develop the depth of flavor that can only come from longer aging. Depth of flavor is different than just giving a whiskey an oakier taste by using small barrels.

    • John Hansell says:

      Yes, but how many consumers have to get burned in the process? I remember buying the crap beer during the beer boom and the shitty cigars during the cigar boom.

      Maybe history has to repeat itself again, but at least I can do my best to bring the issue to as many people’s attention as possible so they are at least aware of what’s going on so they can make an educated decision.

  8. Neil Fusillo says:

    Honestly, I would hardly call that a crisis. If people like the taste of what they drink, they’ll drink it. If they don’t, they won’t. The idea that younger whiskey produced in smaller barrels to create an aged ‘appearance’ will somehow disrupt the understanding of the market is pure and simple FUD. People who drink expensive, aged bourbons generally know what they’re getting into. People who don’t simply don’t care. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t taste the same because of a different process, it doesn’t matter. It matters whether or not it tastes GOOD. Jim Beam is bourbon, aged traditionally. I find the stuff vile. Laphroaig quarter cask is Scotch aged in a smaller cask. I like it a lot. Is one better quality than another simply because of the way in which it’s processed? Or because of the taste? Which REALLY matters when drinking whiskey?

    • John Hansell says:

      I agree with you that I don’t think it’s a crisis. I do think that a minority of the “craft distillers” out to make a quick buck have the potential to tarnish bourbon’s name and reputation. I also think that some consumers are going to get unnecessarily burned in the process.

      • Neil Fusillo says:

        There’s always a potential for anyone to shaft those unfamiliar with the drink, though. If the first beer I ever tasted was Bud Light, I’d probably have been VERY turned off by it. With Scotch, if the first drink someone had was Laphroaig, they might think all Scotch is horrid and never try it again. Does that mean Laphroaig has a chance to damage the reputation of Scotch and shouldn’t be allowed to call itself such?

        Craft whiskeys will have good and bad variants amongst them, much as any other whiskey does. But I would hesitate to worry about the overall fallout of some of them working strictly toward producing schlock at cheap costs. It may turn some off to whiskey entirely, yes. But so might any other whiskey that simply doesn’t strike their fancy, be it produced in the traditional way, or produced by cutting corners. I doubt that percentage will increase or decrease based on a change of production methods from certain distillers.

      • Lazer says:

        You’re right John, friends shouldn’t let friends drink bad whiskey.

    • John Hansell says:

      P.S. And I must point out that Laphroaig Quarter Cask is only aged partially in quarter casks, not 100% of it’s aging life.

  9. Scott says:

    I see in the Atlantic article a decent case against the quality of short-aged craft spirits. What I don’t see is even the remotest hint of a case for negative economic impact on anyone. And with good cause: There is very little basis for concern about the market here. An influx of low-quality product into an established market is not a novel phenomenon in world history; it’s not even a novel phenomenon in the booze business. The rise of craft brewing brought a lot of crap beer onto the market in the 1990s. Most of the inferior craft producers went out of business (or went back to home-brewing) quickly. Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors? Still in business.

    Unlike some sectors where a flood of cheap (quality) and inexpensive (price) new entrants has undermined consumer confidence in established brands, cheap spirits tend to be more expensive, not less, than established brands. Again, comparable to craft beer. If a naive consumer drops $50 on a crappy craft bourbon, he is not likely in his next purchase to abandon bourbon in favor of bottled water. Rather, he’s likely to retreat within the sector and spend $20 on an established-brand bourbon.

    The economic danger here is to new-entry distillers who actually make quality spirits. A consumer, once burned with a $50 bottle of liquid woodchip, is unlikely to be willing to spend $50 for an another bottle that’s new to the shelf. That’s a real problem for craft distillers, just as it was in the early 2000s for the second generation of quality craft brewers. But bad as that dynamic is for new entrants, it actually reinforces and entrenches the market position of established brands. What’s bad news for Joe Craft Distiller is good news for Beam, Jack, Maker’s, Buffalo Trace, etc.

    • Scott says:

      Plus, what’s the biggest story in American distilling this year? Stranahan’s inability to produce in sufficient quantity to meet nationwide demand for its high-quality spirit, and its resulting contraction back into its very limited home market. If there were a “crisis” in the bourbon market, we would be hearing very different types of stories. Stories, for example, of excellent craft distillers like Stranahan’s closing their doors because they can’t find distribution or can’t compete at retail with a flood of lower-priced or lower-quality craft spirits. Stories of the big players eliminating brands or cutting production, not adding new brands and increasing capacity.

    • Dutch says:

      I have to agree with Scott on this one, rather than hurting the established distillers, the bad $50 craft whiskey will only dissuade the buyer from buying a different $50 craft whiskey fearing a repeat, and will continue with a whiskey he knows and likes.

      • Mary says:

        That is assuming the average consumer knows what a “CRAFT” whisky is in the first place. If you don’t know your whisky brands, they are all the same; except that some have a higher price tag (& often taste awful).

  10. sam k says:

    I think it’s good that this is being discussed in the mainstream press. As awareness of the craft category is raised, interest in whiskey overall will rise along with it, hopefully bringing more people into the segment.

    Personally, I’m not worried about hurried craft whiskeys bringing the category to its knees…craft will be the segment that suffers if the perception becomes overwhelming, which I don’t think it will. I think most aged craft whiskeys remain immature and overpriced, but I’ll bet that changes for the better in the next couple of years as the category heats up and becomes more competitive.

  11. Jamie says:

    Jim Beam hasn’t. The only thing craft distillers are going to do is give drinkers more choice. The big boys don’t seem too concerned because they are investing millions in new plants. If I want a good bourbon I know where to find it. IMO Craft bourbon is overpriced, lower it and broaden the base.

  12. Wow – what a response – just over an hour and almost 20 replies. First off – Geeks are cool – so says the mainstream media.

    As far as this ‘crisis’ is concerned – I am sure that the people putting bourbon on their labels are following the rules and regulations as defined by law (hopefully). Small cask aging may be a fad but people are buying it. I think that as these new distilleries get older and lay down more casks that they will move away from short-term/small cask aging. I also think the average consumer who goes into a shop to purchase bourbon has a basic knowledge of spirits – they know how to read labels so the word ‘crisis’ is a bit extreme.

  13. Lazer says:

    Isn’t this what the bottled in bond act was all about? Besides what’s the crisis? This will just drive the prices of the good stuff down, and that’s good for us, the expert consumers.

  14. JC Skinner says:

    I recall having a debate in here with some craft distillers over the EU requirement that whisk(e)y be 3 years matured. The US distillers wished to have that relaxed for their benefit so that they could market 2 year old and younger spirit as bourbon whiskey in the EU. The argument was that they considered it to be whiskey so the EU ought to concur. My argument back was that the EU is fully entitled to define whiskey as it wishes, and has the benefit of tradition to back up their minimum age requirement.
    I see an analogy here in this debate. Those who wish to hold whiskey to a minimum age standard (and concomitant quality) are now threatened by others who, seeking to turn a fast profit, hope to sell underaged spirit as whiskey, thereby eroding the quality and the reputation of the sector overall.
    As I argued previously in the European context, it does the sector as a whole no favours to cave in to pressure from the fast buck merchants. Clear labelling guidelines are needed in the US as elsewhere. I concur with John that the terms ‘bourbon’ and ‘whisk(e)y’ should be withheld from spirits under a certain minimum aging.

    • Luke says:

      Seconded JC!

    • John Hansell says:

      Yeah, that’s the thing. If ALL bourbon had to be straight bourbon (or aged at least for two years even if not in virgin charred oak barrels), I would feel a whole lot better, and the bourbon industry (both from craft distillers and the big guys) would be better off for it. In fact, I wish the U.S. market was like Scotland and Ireland: minimum three years aging in oak, not two.

      • Mary says:

        YES! That would solve many problems & give the consumer some truth in labeling.

      • Ryan says:

        Agreed, John. And if I may, I’m baffled by this polarity motif of American whiskey as an industry (and culture) siloed into either craft, or non-craft segments. The American whiskey blogosphere is riddle with one bias (e.g. anti-craft or anti-establishment) berating the other… or praising itself whilst pretending the other is irrelevant. It’s quite the zero-sum piece of work and as goes the tarnation of one segment, so goes the tarnation of the other. Oddly rare are discussions of benefit to all consumers (as your’s tend to be) fostering more prestigious standards and criteria for all products. Merely wrangling over the clichéd merits and demerits of fiefdoms lets all distillers off the hook, not just emerging ones. If there is a crisis, then there lies the culprit.

      • I think this is the best route. By strengthening the laws on bourbon and easing the laws on corn whiskey definitions I think a happy medium could be reached.

        Since a bourbon, by definition of the Standards of Identity in Distilled Spirits by the ATF (now the TTB) is 51% corn mash, distilled to no higher than 160 proof, barreled in charred, new oak at no greater than 125 proof and corn whiskey is almost exactly the same except for the fact that the mash must be 80% or greater corn, I think this could be worked to cover this. By adding the stipulation that bourbon must be aged a minimum amount of years (2 or 3, say) and then by lessening the amount of corn needed for a corn whiskey, you could fix this. Since most mashes of bourbon are upwards of 75% corn anyway, by lowering it to 65% corn or so would allow any spirit not aged for 2 years “corn whiskey” and anything aged over 2 years “bourbon.” Problem solved. Well, legally.

      • JC Skinner says:

        Gotta agree with you, John. I was burnt a few times on craft distiller bourbon until I realised it was basically new make or nearly new make.
        Being honest, much as I try not to let those experiences influence me, I find myself drinking a lot less US whiskey currently, which would normally be a summer go-to drink. So on a personal level, I have to admit, it’s eroded my confidence in the sector as a whole, even though intellectually I know it shouldn’t.
        I like Bacchus’s idea – (corn) whiskey for under 2 years old, bourbon for 2 years and older, and maybe upgrade the straight bourbon label for a higher age bracket again.
        I’m not sufficient an aficionado of bourbon to know whether upgrading the age specification from 2 to 3 years would possibly make some bourbons too woody, but I’m going to trust John on this one and guess that wouldn’t be the case.

        • Ryan says:

          Given the number of Bottled in Bond Straight Bourbons (minimum 4 years and 100 proof) cranked-out since the late 19th century, it seems highly unlikely a minimum 3 years of maturation for Straight Bourbon would make it seem “too woody”. Most of the consensus “great” Bourbons are a heckuva lot older than that.

  15. Kevin T. says:

    Very interesting article. Has there been any discussion about what would happen if the barrell size was increased? Say 75 gallons? Would you be able to age a bourbon even longer without it being overcome with wood flavor?

    • Dutch says:

      Scotch is aged in larger barrels, some 50 gal, some 66 gal (hogshead) and 132 gal (butts)

    • The Bitter Fig says:

      Bourbon is also aged in new oak, with more active tannins and wood sugars, and typically in warmer, dryer climates. Hotter weather is thought to help the whisky cycle in and out of the wood more quickly, and impart woodiness sooner. The barrel size isn’t the only thing allowing (and also requiring) longer maturation for Scotch whisky than for bourbon.

      However, I’d be keen to try bourbon-style distillate matured in a more Scotch-like manner – longer years in a cold climate in refill barrels. Heck, maybe even full sherry maturation. It wouldn’t be bourbon, but I care less about the name than the quality of the finished whisky.

  16. robinrobinson says:

    The article is the wicked truth behind the craft movement, and to see how this will play out, you only have to look back to the ’90s for the proper analogy. I was there for the bubble and burst of the internet startups, where one good idea spawned a hundred inferior imitations, and newly minted MBAs would show up at investor fairs with business plans written in pencil on the back of an envelope looking for cash. And they got it. Most of them crashed and burned, but out of it came companies like eBay, Amazon and PayPal.
    It is no doubt we are experiencing an American rennassaince of whisky, unprecedented since Colonial times. But in the same way as the tech bubble, the rapid proliferation of many of these companies will cause them to crash and burn, run out of cash, get swallowed up and in general let the laws of the marketplace remove them from sight. But I have no doubt that a new category of American whiskies – not Bourbon, not rye, but something yet unforseen and unique – will rise out of it, much to our delight. And that will be worth waiting for. In the meantime, we slog through the endless variations of white dogs with oureyes on the new horizon.

    • John Hansell says:

      Indeed, all we have to do is look at the craft brewers here in the U.S. and their creativity and innovation. We had to slog through their “bad beer” phase but we are now reaping the benefits.

      I am more than happy to drink the craft distillers’ gin and vodka and provide income for them that way, while they mature and care for their whiskey properly before putting it on the market.

      • robinrobinson says:

        John, I’m with you on that, the white goods are much more palatable and more fun in cocktails.

  17. Louis says:

    From my point of view, the only crisis is that are so many craft distilleries, that it is all but impossible to keep track of all of them. I can’t see anyone but a rank newbie getting so confused that he/she gives up on bourbon altogether. Hint, look for the full bottle priced in the $15-40 range, rather than $45 for 375ml.

  18. Rick Duff says:

    I think it’s all a bunch of worry about nothing. The good craft distillers will get the shelf space nationwide based on quality.. the others will be limited to regional areas based upon people’s desire to support local products.. not that it’s a better product. I think every state of the US now has wineries.. most of the states can’t produce stuff that competes with the West Coast or Long Island.. but they are still supported locally because people like locally produced food.

    People will learn from taste… and inferior local product won’t put a hurt in the major products.
    I’ve do have to say I’ve had some small barrel aged “bourbons” that were aged under 1 year be a h@ll of a lot better than some straight bourbon’s I’ve bought from Kentucky. Not many.. but a few of them.

  19. Chris says:

    I think the term “crisis” is way off-target. Regardless of how the so-called bubble in craft distilling turns out, I don’t think it’ll hurt established brands or the industry as a whole, except maybe with hipsters who try craft whiskey because it’s the new cool thing to do. The article seems to be making a lot of unwarranted assumptions. The biggest one is that it assumes that aging in small barrels is a strategy doomed to failure. The author cites a number of simple, immature whiskies as proof. But poorly-made whisky isn’t going to be any good regardless of the barrel size or aging period. And the fact that some whisky was released too early after small-barrel aging just means that the people making it either don’t know what they’re doing, or can’t afford to wait. Either way, they’ll be punished by the market. It also bothers me that the author seems to be under the impression that whisky has been deliberately aged in oak for “hundreds of years” which is flat out not true.
    The only really valid point is that cutting corners and releasing immature, poorly-made whisky is a good way to go out of business. But is this news to anyone here?

  20. There are many assumptions here that are just plain false:

    Rick Duff: The good craft distillers will get the shelf space nationwide based on quality. the others will be limited to regional areas based upon people’s desire to support local products

    Where does such a concept come from? I personally have no plans to distribute outside NY, and that makes my products automatically inferior? And it also shows a lack of understanding how spirits are distributed in the US, where a small group of state regulated monopolies control the market.

    The majors have been cutting corners for years, but it hasn’t seem to hurt them. How many people know that until the 1970’s, the maximum legal barrel entry proof in the US was 110 proof. Now it’s 125 proof. You may think that those extra degrees of proof don’t matter but they change the extraction from the oak and that changes how it ages.

    Until there is a BLIND TASTING of craft whiskey versus Jim Beam White people should discount the claims about the quality of the latter. Yes there’s some poor craft whiskey out there, but I doubt that the majority of such spirits would score lower than JBW. I could be wrong, but the only way to score it is by a blind tasting. So that things like age statements on the bottle don’t skew the results. Do it with all of your reviewers Mr. Hansell, so it’s not just one persons view, and publish the results. I’ll happily send samples of one month old bourbon, two month old bourbon, three month old bourbon, and six month old bourbon for comparison.

    And if you want to make it really interesting, invite some MA readers to participate. I think it would be interesting to see if the average whiskey drinker scores things the same way as the experts. And please include some women reviewers. ;-)

    • John Hansell says:

      Cheryl, I’ve tasted nearly all the bourbons on the market right now from the craft distillers. Some are better than Jim Beam and some aren’t. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone. And after doing this professionally for 25 years, I can assure you that I’m not going to let an age statement (or lack thereof) affect my judgement one way or the other. The stuff either tastes good or it doesn’t.

      Now, I might add that the only thing wrong with a lot of the craft whiskey I taste is that it just isn’t aged long enough. There aren’t any major flaws. They just need more time, that’s all.

  21. M Lange says:

    As someone working on opening a craft whiskey distillery, these are issues I have thought about quite a lot. Here is what I have come up with.
    I am planning to make some spirits to sell right away (or quickly) and others to age out in full sized barrels. I plan to make a genever style gin, an apple brandy and a white whiskey. The white whiskey will not simply be a “white dog” version of an aged product, but rather a product designed for consumption un-aged (distilled to a higher proof, more conservative cuts, etc). For anyone who has tried some of the white spirits from Koval in Chicago, you know that you can make very interesting unaged, grain-based products that are much more flavorful than a vodka or white rum. A lot of whiskey enthusiasts will pass on these products, but others like them and I do feel they have a legitimate place on the shelf.
    I plan to make a straight rye and a malt whiskey to age in full sized barrels for at least 5 years, until I deem them ready.
    I also plan to make one small-barrel aged whiskey, though not a bourbon, rye or any other style made by the big distilleries. All the articles I’ve read ragging on small barrel whiskey include a statement indicating that there are some good whiskeys being made in small barrels. The Atlantic article mentions Garrison Brothers, Tuthilltown just got a Double Gold medal at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition. A lot of people (I’ll agree the vast majority) aren’t doing a good job with their small barrels, but it can be done well.
    Unrelated point: blended bourbon is made in the US by mixing a minimum of 20 percent bourbon with Grain Neutral Spirits (cheap unfiltered vodka) and some artificial coloring. Yes, it says “blended” but the word “bourbon” is right there on the label. If that stuff hasn’t succeeded in destroying bourbon’s good name, I don’t think some bad craft distilleries will do so.

    • sam k says:

      I have never seen nor heard of “blended bourbon.” I have seen plenty of “blended whiskey,” but that is not labeled as bourbon. Can’t find any on an internet search, either.

      Do you know of specific brands you can cite as evidence?

      • M Lange says:

        The only one off the top of my head is Jeremiah Weed. And you are correct, most blends are labeled “blended Whiskey,” not “blended bourbon” but I believe the requirements are the same (only needs to be 20% of the actual product blended with Grain Neutral and coloring), though I could be off on that.
        The point, however, remains the same. There are very cheap, very bad American Whiskeys on the market that have been on the market for a long time, yet this hasn’t led to a decline in the entire industry.

      • Rick Duff says:

        Bourbon Supreme – Kentucky BOURBON Whiskey A Blend.
        Produced in Kentucky. Bottle by American Distilled Spirits Company, St. Louis, MO.
        (www.luxco.com)
        51% Whiskey 36 Months Old
        49% Grain Neutral Spirits
        (Taken from a label of it.)

        On the top of the front label it says “Distilled Whiskey”…

      • Blended Bourbon must be at least 51% straight bourbon on a proof gallon basis. The rest can be any other kind of whiskey or neutral spirits. Diageo makes a Jeremiah Weed blended bourbon and Ten High is a blended bourbon in some markets, a straight bourbon in others.

        • M Lange says:

          Ah, so the rules for blended bourbon are different from those for blended whiskey. Good to know, thanks as always for keeping me informed Chuck.

        • sam k says:

          Thanks for the clarification, Chuck.

  22. Morgan Steele says:

    I’m disappointed with the article. The author provides speculation and argument but not much evidence. Certainly, he did not make the case to support the “looming crisis” of the title. The author writes that he is “bothered” and has a “concern” but I couldn’t glean why I should be. Could craft distillers create a crisis wihin the industry? Sure. Did the author make a compelling case? Not in my opinion; frankly, I see a lot of good coming from crafts. An interesting discussion for the pub later, though. (Maybe, that was his point.)

  23. Amit Sawhney says:

    John,

    I’ve read most of the comments on this posting, but no one has mentioned that the quality of a craft product depends to a great extent on the craftsman. If we look at some of the better craft whiskies out in the market today, there are really good craftsmen making those whiskies. Jess Grabber from Stranahans, Lincoln Henderson from Angels Envy (who needs no introduction), Dave Perkins from High West, Phil Prichard from Prichards and even John Glaser who makes great craft Scotch Whisky.

    I do agree with Robin that in time we will see some of the good ones making great products down the road; but just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so will a massive storm sink most of them. We can only hope that the good distilleries survive.

    This rush for getting products to market using any and every marketing implement available to them (social media and Gucci cocktails using bar tenders as brand ambassadors) will in my opinion lead to negative growth in terms of typical bourbon consumers in the next five to ten years. These craft whiskies might just turn out to be a fad and people new to bourbon might very well be turned off bourbon for life if they try a poorly made whiskey as their first bourbon ever. I’ve met a few of these skeptics in the last three or four months myself and I had to pull out a Pappy to change their minds.

    The established distilleries don’t have to worry about negative growth right now as they’re going after a very vibrant and relatively untapped market of female whiskey drinkers. At least they’re creating new product categories (flavored whiskey – god help me) and these products sell. The problem with the new younger craft whiskies is like you said earlier, that they fall under the same category as bourbons. We definitely need a clear demarcation of categories and better labeling laws.

    Are craft distillers creating a whiskey crisis? Maybe not just yet, but I do believe that we’re getting close to a tipping point and the little things we do in the near future (like this discussion) may well influence how things shape up in the industry.

    Best,
    Amit.

    • DavidG says:

      Compass Box, Angels Envy and High West are using mature whisk(e)ys from the big players and doing interesting things with them. This discussion is dealing with actual distillers of product.

      • Amit Sawhney says:

        David I know that they are, but as a consumer I pay for a finished product and not where it was made.

        Maybe these craft distillers should follow these guys and release their own whiskies when their products are ready for the market.

  24. Oscar V Hightower says:

    John, thanks for posting this and bringing up this subject.
    I agree with you about these new micros have a long way to go, just like the micro beers it took about a decade for them to shake out the bad ones.
    With whiskey it may take a couple of decades.

  25. Fedup says:

    Do the socialists on the West and East Coasts really want to put every small business in America out of business? What do you want a Bourbon Czar? Let the consumer decide. If a craft distillery produces crap, nobody will buy it. If it produces a really good product then the big boys will be pushed to do better.

    • Ryan says:

      Two of the most foolish rhetorical questions I’ve seen in a WDJK comment field.

      • Fedup says:

        Foolish huh? See how Sam K likes his choices in PA? All we need is a powerful lobbyist from KY or the big boys in general and next thing you know we have a law that manages to kill off the craft distillers.

        This is one very stupid and dangerous idea..that craft distillers are killing the bourbon industry.

        If you think my comments are foolish, keep voting the way you are obviously voting and see how you enjoy your 2 choices of bourbon in 10 years. We already have a state-run automaker..GM…not that big of a leap.

        • sam k says:

          Fedup, I will say that this is not a Republican/Democrat issue in the least, and if our two-party system doesn’t wake up to the realization that we’ve got to work together to survive, we’re truly sunk.

          Remember these words: United We Stand, Divide We Fall. We need to unite in this country, right now, like never before, or access to good whiskey will be the least of our problems.

        • Ryan says:

          Yes, foolish. And you know nothing of my beliefs or how I vote.

    • I never heard of America having socialists?. My country got many, about 40-50%

      Steffen

      • Red_Arremer says:

        It’s a hangover from coldwar ideology Steffen, the notion that government regulation of any type of product investment or economic paradigm = socialism = bad.

        Of course whisky *is* over-regulated in PA. Associating this over-regulation with socialism may be a rhetorically potent criticism, but it’s also deceptive because it implies that things would be better for whisky in a libertarian scenario where alcohol would not be regulated at all. The truth is that some whisky regulations are good and some bad– We must sift through them lest we through the “straight bourbon” baby out with the “state liquor monopoloy” bathwater.

  26. Todd says:

    Just to play the Devil’s advocate hear… I know that I am a mere beginner drinking bourbons and whiskeys. Still developing my tastes. It is definitely an acquired taste. Did any of you really try it the first time and say, “This stuff is great!, why haven’t I been drinking this stuff since birth?!”

    The problem with many craft distilled whiskeys and bourbons seems to be the lack of taste due to lack of proper aging. Perhaps newcomers to the bourbon/whiskey world will actually begin with the local micro-stuff, enjoy it or at least acquire a taste for it, and move on to bigger and better bourbons.

    There’s always a chance.

    • sam k says:

      Good point, Todd, and I would tend to agree with you on that. Once the novice palate develops, though, things may change.

      We also need to remember that what we’re calling “unaged craft” now was pretty much analogous to what whiskey was back in the days of the Whiskey Insurrection…clear, unaged, small batch products from local sources. Nothing says we can’t revel in that resurrection to whatever extent.

      • Fedup says:

        So SamK, how do you like having your whiskey choices dictated by the People’s Republic of Pennsylvania. My guess is, not so much.

        • sam k says:

          Can’t stand it, especially since I’m a whiskey guy. Our choices in both bourbon and scotch are pitiful. PA, statewide, offers only a fraction of the brands found at a single store like Liquor Barn or Binny’s. There is a push on now to privatize, and I can only hope that it is successful!

          • robinrobinson says:

            There is some slightly good news on that front: In 2010, PLCB created a segment called “Fine Wines and Spirits” and designated around 35-40 stores that opened up their shelves to smaller brands (like Compass Box) and more esoteric fare in wine and spirits found in commercial states. These stores were segmented around per capita income demographics, with the majority focused in the Philly/Pgh areas. You can find a list of them on the PLCB site. Its not as extensive as those you mentioned, but a darn site better than a few years ago. Additionally, and you may already know this, there is a larger online catalog to be found there as well that don’t have shelf spots. Happy hunting.

          • John Hansell says:

            I did notice, and appreciate seeing, Compass Box whiskies at my local specialty shop here in the Lehigh Valley.

          • sam k says:

            Well, much like the overall lack of customer focus in their stores, the PLCB makes it impossible to find that list of specialty spirits stores on its Web site. I went to their home page, then to “For consumers,” then to “Store locator” and could only do a search by town and store type. That listing of store types includes “boutique,” “one-stop shoppe,” and “premium collection” stores with no explanation for what each type represents. I can find no other reference to store types anywhere on their site.

            I have a premium collection store in my town, but I know that only refers to wine. This premium collection location was supposed to have been one of the stores slated for a spirits upgrade (according to the PLCB Users Group, an unaffiliated site), but that hasn’t happened yet.

            Boy, I am enjoying this experience about as much as shopping for whiskey in a PLCB store!

    • I agree with you Todd

      Most if these craft distilleries bottle their stuff at an age just too young. Having tasted Old Potrero’s Hootaling I’d say that good whiskey is possible, it just needs years. But as long as customers buys this young stuff it will be sold. I think bad whisky will damage those that bottles it. The craft distillery catagory might be damaged as a catagory, but I doubt this will spread to established distilleries. Some distilliries just have the luck they have good stuff at a young age (Daftmill, Kilchoman) others don’t (Arran, but thats 15yo now and good). Same will happen in USA. USA even have a climate that will mature whisky a bit faster than Scotland. Maybe a wee cask is a double effect that doesnt produce any thing good. I have tasted good whisky from quarter casks and blood tubs from Scotland

      Steffen

      • Red_Arremer says:

        Have you tasted Daftmill Steffen?

        • Yes, at a couple of distillery visits :-)

          Good whisky. No peat, No fast casks, just good “old fashioned” bourbon and sherry ones, no early bottlings. Now 5 years and I reckon he wont bottle before at least 8yo. Something to look forward to!!

          Steffen

    • Tazz says:

      Tood-> Did any of you really try it the first time and say, “This stuff is great!, why haven’t I been drinking this stuff since birth?!”

      YES! Isn’t that why we’re making all these comments?

  27. sam k says:

    And keep in mind that barrels weren’t always 53 gallons. They ranged all over the map in the very early days. 43 gallons was another accepted size from the late 1800s to the 1970s.

    Cheryl is right…the only thing constant is change!

  28. Too many big reactions to check them all out ;-)

    I agree with one of the first statements that eventually the market will sort it out. As seen in craft brewing and before that with start up wineries, it made some impact, but most small start-ups were sorted out by the consumer:

    Bad product: they’ll shut down after a while. Promising product: people will keep buying them if they’re affordable. I think most start-ups craft distilleries produce products of low quality to make some money initially, but goodwill will only get you so far.

    What I hope these small craft distilleries will do is spark some innovation in the larger brands. I have the feeling that the big Kentucky distilleries are releasing more and more ‘off the beaten path’ whiskies than before, and I like that!

    • sam k says:

      As directly evidenced by Heaven Hill’s new Trybox unaged whiskeys.

      • Red_Arremer says:

        However, Trybox is a good example of a big distiller being inspired by craft distillers in a way, which is not at all exciting…

        • sam k says:

          Well, yeah, but they wouldn’t have ever released such a thing without the crafts, which shows the crafts’ influence in the arena, regardless of what you think of the outcome.

  29. robinrobinson says:

    John, overall a great discussion topic, thanks for posing the question. And thanks to Neil for writing the original article. It proves the point that we’re past a trend and into a movement, and with all movements, the volume of voices from the market place will help to shape its future, especially those outside of us “geeks” who will speak mostly from their wallets. Drink up! (but responsibly).

  30. Lawrence says:

    I think any cutting of corners by craft & established distillers will result in a lower quality product being offered in the market place and this will only hurt the well earned reputation currently enjoyed.

    I also have to wonder who these 200+ craft distilleries are going to sell their product to and how the established distillers will react since there are only so many dollars available in the category.

    I certainly hope they stick to their knitting and maintain quality.

  31. Dutch says:

    Or could you rephrase the question as

    “Is the Mainstream Media creating a whiskey crisis”?

    But that may be a question for another thread ;-)

  32. howardf says:

    I work with a guy who has a side gig as a brand ambassador for a craft-ish bourbon. This isn’t apples to oranges, because he represents one of the companies that is slapping a boutique label on mass-produced whiskey. He goes around to bars and events and hands out samples of their products, and he’s told me that many people pick up the bourbon bottle, see the “aged less than four years” statement on the bottle, and won’t even sample it. These aren’t whiskey geeks or experts, they’re the great unwashed masses. To think that the public is being misled isn’t accurate, they already seem to know better.

    I’ve had this particular product in a bar, and I probably couldn’t choose a winner between it and Beam White. The real issue is that this retails at $30, so if I can’t say it’s better than Beam, I certainly won’t pay a premium for it. My personal experiences with craft whiskey are all these boutique labelings, and I can’t say that any of them are worth the premium. Is Whistlepig in the same ballpark as Sazerac 18? They’re $5 apart in cost, but worlds away in flavor.

  33. Dan Garrison says:

    Mr. Hansell and Mr. Risen,

    Please come visit us at Garrison Brothers Distillery and try our bourbon. While you are here, we will offer you a taste of all three previous releases of Garrison Brothers and the forthcoming November release. We’ll also share some of our favorites from Kentucky: George T. Stagg, Pappy Van Winkle 23, Old Drum, W.L. Weller 12, and Makers. We’ll provide these samples blind and ask you to choose your two favorites.

    If you DON”T select my bourbon as one of your top two favorites, I will donate $500 to the charity of your choice.

    Come visit us here in Hye. Then be the judge of whether our distillery might be “damaging the reputation of bourbon.” Around here, bourbon is sacred and we will fight like hell to defend it.

    • Ryan says:

      Pardon me Mr. Garrison for jumping in here, but I do not see where anyone in either this discussion, or in Mr. Risen’s article, can be quoted judging Garrison Brothers for, “damaging the reputation of bourbon.” In fact, Mr. Risen stated: “I’m particularly fond of Garrison Bros., from Texas, which ages its whiskey for two years in 10-gallon barrels.”

    • Ryan says:

      That doesn’t clear anything up. Whom are you citing for stating that Garrison Brothers is, “damaging the reputation of bourbon.”?

  34. Gary Gillman says:

    The legal definition of bourbon (not straight bourbon) allows that name to be used on a product aged as little as a few months. This reflects the history of the drink, when in the 19th century, much bourbon was aged 1 year or so and rarely more than 3 years. Three years was old. This is the historical background behind the label of, say, Very Old Barton, which is 6 years old.

    The fact of whiskey being aged more than 4 years can perhaps be explained by a desire to emulate the palate of brandy from Europe. (Scotch whisky development too was affected by that intent IMO).

    This doesn’t mean that a palatable, flavourful product can’t be made in the lower age bracket mentioned and even going as low as a few months. Some of it will suit certain cocktails more than neat sipping, but not all. And a cocktail made with young whiskey can be something different than, and superior to, a cocktail made with a woody older bourbon.

    I think the point can be made that some (a lot?) of bourbon and rye on the market has lost its whiskey character due to being over-aged. The craft distillers have an opportunity to present whiskey which expresses the essence of the grains it is made from, provided of course the result tastes good. A very oily or piney-tasting young whiskey is not to my own taste, but I’ve tasted a number of young craft whiskeys which avoid that corner of the field and offer some great whiskey flavours.

    The more I think of it, the more I am coming to the view that products like Jim Beam White, Maker’s Mark and Jack Daniels sell in the numbers they do precisely because the wood flavour doesn’t dominate the product.

    Taste is all that matters and the new crop of distilleries have a chance to make something interesting and creative, some of which at least will duplicate what bourbon was in the early years, i.e., not always long-aged and made in a pot still or brought off the still at a low proof.

    Gary

  35. Rob says:

    First off, I’m not an advocate of small barrels (not yet anyways). But I feel we are missing some important aspects of the maturation process (aside from extraction) that will be influenced by smaller barrels. With barrel aging we have 3 aspects to consider: addition, subtraction, and modification by reaction.

    1) Addition: Extraction of compounds is faster in smaller barrels due to surface area to volume ration. So what is extracted? Cellulose is too crystalline and strong to be broken down (during heat treatment and extraction), so it has no effect on the flavor profile. Hemicellulose is broken down during heat treatment, extracted during maturation, and contributes body, color, burnt sugar, and caramelized flavors. Acetic acid is also a product of hemicellulose heat treatment and plays an important role in the development of fruity esters. Lignin is broken down during heat treatment, extracted during maturation, and contributes vanilla flavor along with sweet and spice aromas. Tannins breakdown easily and are extracted readily. Tannins are VERY important when considering oxidation-reduction reactions (discussed below). Finally, lactones. Oak lactones are derived from small amounts of lipids in the oak, and the conversion process of lipids to lactones increases dramatically during heat treatment. There are high levels of cis lactones in American oak that contribute the coconut flavor we all know. cis lactones and trans lactones also contribute rose-like or celery-like aromas, respectively. While it may take 2-3 years for some of the more crystalline compounds to be extracted, this process is quickened in small barrels. It’s an accepted belief by the community. Although I’m not convinced small barrels can achieve the same balance as a 53 gallon, I’m also not convinced that smaller size doesn’t play a part in the subtraction and modification by reaction aspects.

    2) Subtraction: This is made up of two components – evaporation and adsorption on the charred surface of the barrel. Evaporation is obviously quickened. Consider the difference in angel’s share in small vs. big. Now this begs the question, do the unwanted volatiles such as sulphides evaporate more quickly? Consider now adsorption. I would think that adsorption on the charred surface of the barrel is again going to be influenced by the surface area to volume ratio. Would this process not be quickened in a smaller barrel?

    3) Modification by reaction: Here we have the establishment of equilibria among acetaldehyde, ethanol, and acetal; polymerization reactions; and oxidation-reduction reactions. The real kicker here is that many of the reactions here are DEPENDENT on the components extracted from the wood. Take oxidation for instance. Aside from the fact O2 will pass more readily through 10 gallons of spirit than 53 gallons, cask driven oxidation is actually activated by tannins. These tannins of course come from the oak, and the more readily they are extracted, the quicker the conditions become suitable for oxidation to occur. This oxidation is directly linked to the equilibria of acetaldehyde, ethanol, and acetal. One product of tannin oxidation is hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide reacts with ethanol and produces acetaldehyde. The acetaldehyde then reacts with ethanol to create desirable acetals.

    Like I said, I’m not an advocate of smaller barrels. I’m bringing this up because it seems that many aspects of maturation could be linked to the size of the barrel, not just extraction of compounds from the wood. Maybe the problem with small barrels is they all too often harbor whiskey for only 6 months to 1 year. Perhaps a 3-4 year old bourbon in a 10-15 gallon barrel will create a very nice spirit? I’ve yet to try a small barrel bourbon that compares to a 53 gallon, but does that mean it’s impossible?

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