Lew Bryson reports from the ADI’s Craft Spirits Conference
Lew Bryson, Whisky Advocate’s managing editor and contributor, is our man on the scene at ADI’s Craft Spirits Conference. He will check in with us periodically and report on the happenings.
I’ll be at the American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirits Conference here in Louisville through Wednesday, talking to new distillers and old ones, checking the feel of the industry, and representing Whisky Advocate’s interest in this new face of distilling. Things started last night with registration, which was combined with a little bit of drink and grub on the third floor of the Brown Hotel.
It was an interesting vibe in the room. I grew up with craft brewing, watching that industry grow from about 1983, so it’s a natural comparison for me; especially when you realize that ADI founder Bill Owens was also the man who started one of the very first brewpubs in America, Buffalo Bill’s in Hayward, California. So when I walked around the room, watching and eavesdropping, I was noting similarities and differences with the fast-growing days of craft brewing in the early 1990s.
For instance, both attracted support industries who saw opportunities in a new market niche. Still builder Vendome was there, with a portfolio of their work for small distillers; Alltech was showing off their technical expertise (while also pouring their whiskeys and beers, a popular spot); and there were bottle companies, records companies, and others who weren’t actually exhibiting…yet, but were checking things out. There were also more wholesalers and retailers and branding experts than craft brewing was attracting at this point in its growth curve; they’ve seen what happened with craft brewing, and that experience is helping to make this a faster-trending niche than craft brewing was. It’s simply not unbelievable anymore; we’ve seen the little guys charge more for an interesting product, and succeed.
The actual people at the conference, the distillers and future distillers, were a study in both similarities and differences. There was the same preponderance of men, and men who were clearly used to not fitting in (lots of hats, facial hair, and some tattoos and piercings, even a skateboard), and were perfectly comfortable with that. There was the same easy discussion of issues, the same general bonhomie.
But it was an older crowd than you generally saw at craft brewing gatherings 20 years ago. There are a lot more retirees here, more experienced entrepreneurs. Starting a distillery is expensive, and you can’t do it on a shoestring with some used dairy tanks and a re-purposed shrimp steamer; there’s not much of a used equipment market at all…yet.
After the scrum at registration, I was sitting in the bar, sipping a glass of Weller on the rocks (it was hot in there; the sun had come out, and I was still dressed in heavy clothes from the morning’s cold thunderstorms) and contemplating hitting the Few Spirits Texas Hold ‘Em tournament when I saw a familiar figure emerge from the elevators: Truman Cox, the new master distiller at A. Smith Bowman. I hailed him, we talked for a while about how he’s getting ready for a major launch (coming very soon) of what he’s been working on, and then I saw another familiar face: Andrea Stanley, of Valley Malt.
Andrea and her husband Christian are unlikely celebrities in craft distilling. Valley Malt is a micromaltings in western Massachusetts (watch for a piece on them in the next issue of Whisky Advocate) that is making all kinds of waves by hand-malting (almost literally) small batches of grains from barley to triticale, smoking malts, and experimenting with long-forgotten strains of barley ordered from the Agriculture Department’s huge seedbanks. It’s very exciting stuff for craft distillers and brewers alike.
Right now they were exhausted unlikely celebrities: they’d completed the installation of their major expansion (from a single one-ton malting vessel to four vessels) at 2 in the morning, got about two hours of sleep, then got up and drove to the airport for the flights to Louisville. Still, like the rest of us, they were excited to be in Louisville, temporarily the hub of craft distilling.
We got even closer to the hub when the four of us decided to go out looking for dinner and saw Bill Owens in a pizza shop. I went in to say hi, and Bill would have nothing but that we join him and his group – Tasmanian distillers, cork manufacturers, Swedish spirits consultants – for dinner. It was just a taste of the fun and stimulation the next three days will bring.