About These "Boutique" Distilleries That Are Springing Up

…do they produce spirits that differ from the stuff made by the big guys? I mean, distillation is a pretty simple process-you boil the alcohol-H2O mixture, the alcohol vapors are condensed, and you have alcohol. These small operations sell their stuff for incredible prices ($100 for a pint of whiskey). Are they worth it?
To me, most of the flavor (of distilled spirits) comes from the ageing process-am I right?

Try telling that to all the Scottish Whiskey producers who have spent many hundreds of years perfecting their craft. I suppose if you just want to get hammered you can buy a bottle of Jack Daniels, but there is a real difference to a well-done Whiskey from a small manufacturer.

I’d have to say yes. I’ve been to several, off the the top of my head: Hangar One/Saint George Spirits, New World Spirits, and New Deal Distillery. The products at all were superior. Hangar One plain vodka in particular is extremely smooth, much smoother than big mass produced vodkas. Their whiskey is excellent. New World Spirits’ black walnut liqueur is amazing, and New Deal Distillery’s ginger liqueur is very nice indeed.

Yes, the general process of distilling is the same but small batches with high attention to detail make for a very different result.

Both the two places in the SFBA and the one in Portland offered tastings. Portland has a spirits renaissance going on, in an area known as “Distillery Row”. I would urge you you visit one or all of these.

Given that aging is measured in years, even decades, when we are talking about premium whiskey, where were these people back in the 80’s and 90’s when, presumably, these products were being distilled and barreled to begin aging? What have they been producing to sell in the meantime to keep bread on the table? Call me cynical, but the process doesn’t seem to lend itself to a sudden blossoming of boutique producers.

Well, in 1982 Jorg Rupf started St George Spirits and began producing eaux de vie and liqueurs. In 1996 he was joined by Lance Winters. Their first whiskey was released in 2000. The bottle in my pantry is undated, but according to the website:

“We released our current bottling, Lot 12, in May 2012. St. George distiller/blender Dave Smith ventured deep into the far corners of our whiskey library and drew from 15 different barrels ranging 5–12 years in age (with an average age of 7.5–8 years).”

As for the other products, to the best of my knowledge vodka, liqueur, and eau de vie don’t require long aging.

In 2007, my now ex-wife and I were well on the way to opening a craft distillery. We’d secured half of the start-up capital and had a bank and SBA loan lined up. We had a still sourced, priced, and bid, and were negotiating shared space with a local brewery that was expanding. And then the recession started and the capital dried up.

Most spirits don’t require aging, so you can get them out the door immediately. Vodka can be crafted from raw material in five days using the most basic setup, three days with the right still, and one day if done like the major players do it. The difference between the small distilleries and the big players is why there’s a market for the boutique liquors. Following is a quick primer…

Vodka is the easiest and quickest spirit to make, and serves as the financial underpinning of a distillery while it gets other products to market. Vodka is legally defined as a neutral spirit, and can be made from anything fermentable. What most of the big players (and some of the most recognizable craft distilleries) do is purchase industrial corn ethanol, run it through their own still, filter and bottle it. When shopping for vodka, read the label. If the label reads “distilled from grain”, there’s a decent chance it originated from corn ethanol. So they’ll try to stand out some other way, touting either the number of times distilled or the filtering agent. Most of this is bullshit, if you know how to read the label. Any vodka is, by definition and process, distilled at least three times. Corn ethanol from a plant in Omaha is technically “triple-distilled”. Most vodka distillers are going to have a setup with a pot still, a short column, and a long column. If they buy ethanol by the tanker and run it through their own still and columns, the corn ethanol suddenly becomes “six-times distilled vodka” (cf Tito’s in Texas).

The filtering is a little less bullshit, sometimes. Since vodka is defined as “neutral”, it is supposed to have no taste. Definition notwithstanding, both the raw material and the filtering agent will impart hints and notes to finished product. (I’ve tasted vodkas small-batch distilled from wheat, applejack, mead, and port, and there are certainly distinctions.) Ketel One (the ‘cleanest’ mass-market vodka IMHO) makes a point of advertising their raw material and their filtering agent, as does Grey Goose (wheat and limestone respectively in both cases, IIRC).

The vodka market is saturated, so a distillery has to do something to drive sales. A small distillery will never compete on the bottom shelf, but they might make a mid-shelf product for a bottom-shelf price. Or a top-shelf for a middle-shelf price. Or an exquisite top-shelf product. Different craft distilleries have taken different tacks.

You have to get the vodka and gin out the door to stay afloat while working on signature products, but even then it’s always advised that someone in the mix keeps her/his 9-5 to make the mortgage and the note. While pushing the clears (clear liquors) out, a distillery might exploit niches in liquors and such that also don’t require aging. Then it might get out a “young whiskey”, aged five to six months. All of this is to generate a revenue flow that allows the time to create artisan products like whiskey (which must mature for at least two years in barrel to be described as “whiskey” without the appellation “young”).

Here is where the craft really comes into play. The raw material, the casking strength, the casking material, the water, the filtering agent, the casking length—all play a part in the character of the resulting spirit. If a distillery can last long enough to get a whiskey of any sort out the door, then it will survive or fail on its products’ merits. And the process is so variable dependent that the product will be unique. Were two distillers to use the same recipe, cask at the same strength in casks sourced from the same place, and age for the same period, the product would still be different. The source water is different. Barrel rotation schedules may differ. A one degree Fahrenheit difference in average daily temp while warehoused will make a difference. Distilling is equally science and art.

To answer the OP in short: no. If you’re buying vodka to mix into a punch, you probably won’t know the difference. But if you sat down and tasted McCormick’s (corn ethanol run through a continuous or “stripping” still), Tito’s (corn ethanol run through a three-column pot still), and my (sadly, hypothetical) vodka (mashed from organic wheat, distilled entirely on a three-column pot still, and filtered through limestone), you would easily discern the difference.

And for scumpup: had things gone according to plan, I’d be rolling out a very nice 5-year old whiskey right now, with casks set back for 10, 12, 15, 18 and 30 year intervals (sob). Those that started in the late 90s (and there were a healthy few of them) would be rolling out 15 year old whiskeys right now.

ETA: OP, to amend my answer, most flavor comes from aging process/materials yes, but a significant portion is set at the beginning.

Azraiel, that was an awesome post, and I wish your distillery had survived!

Moving to CS.

Good post. Just out of curiosity, were you also planning on producing any gin? Where I live, there are a couple regional brands I’ve tried–Dry Fly and Crater Lake (formerly “Cascade Mountain”)–and I’ve liked both of them (Crater Lake, in particular, has a nice taste to it). Have you tried these and how do they compare with the big brands (i.e., Bombay, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Beefeater, etc.)? I’m only a novice when it comes to judging gins so I’d like your imput?

I have tried to be very open-minded, and I am far from being an “alcohol snob” of any kind (my favourite whiskey is blended, for example, and I’ll drink premiere cru or Concord grape wine equally happily), but I have never in my life tasted hard liquor from a boutique distillery that didn’t have some sharp chemical taste in it which made me wonder if I was going to end up in the hospital. Last month I went to a tasting of local micro-distilleries and I could not finish more than the first sip of any of them.

I’m a beer and whiskey man myself, so I’m not much help. But really, it’s about what you like in the end.

Neither of the mentioned distilleries’ products have made it to my neck of the woods, but I’m not at all surprised that they turn out excellent product. I corresponded with the guys at Dry Fly quite a bit, as they were just ahead of us in start up. We were sourcing a Christian Carl still and they had just bought one, so the North American rep put us in touch. (The still on Dry Fly’s “About Us” page is very similar to the one we had lined up.)

I wouldn’t hesitate to buy anything from Dry Fly, as they operate with an ethos very much like what I wanted to bring. They’re good guys.

tl;dr The distillers you tasted started the heart cut too soon, ended it too late, or both. They maximized quantity over quality, unfortunately. There are a lot of mediocre-to-poor micro-distillers, just as there are micro-brewers.
Well, you’re not going to end up in the hospital anyway. Even if what you were tasting was methanol and not congeners (which it was), the antidote for methanol poisoning is ethanol. To “go blind” or be poisoned or any of the other scare myths perpetuated by the government during Prohibition, you’d just about have to consume pure methanol.

We corresponded with one micro-distillery (which will remain nameless) in your area and they were going the “buy fuel-grade ethanol and redistill” route, unfortunately. Others in the area may be doing the same.

That said, the source doesn’t account for what you tasted. You tasted poorly timed cuts, or cuts made with maximizing quantity over quality in mind.

Every still run has three phases: heads, hearts, and tails. The heads or “foreshot” has the methanol and the most astringent congeners. The middle of the run–and especially the middle of the middle, or the “heart of hearts”–should come pretty damn close to slightly sweet water in a vodka/gin run (much more complex in a whiskey run). The tails have most of the stinky fusel oils. The tighter and smaller the heart cut is, the purer the flavor. But it also means much less product. A good still master strives to get just the right cuts to balance flavor. It sounds like the still masters you encountered either weren’t good or privileged volume over flavor. Either option is saddening.

Anyone else think azraiel should start an Ask the Distiller thread?

I’m wondering if you’d indulge me in an experiment. If you (or the Reader) can spare $20 and you have a really good liquor store nearby, would you try something for me? Go the the store and buy a bottle of Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1. It comes in a squat and round 375 ml bottle. Try it and tell me if your reaction to it is similar to your reaction to the micro-distilleries’ offerings. I’d be fascinated to know.

I’m flattered, but it would be a misrepresentation.

Yes, I read a whole lot of theory. I went to distilling conferences. I corresponded with both established and establishing distilleries. I had a business plan, an accountant, and a financial adviser. I had all of my materials sourced. I did test runs on sugar and wheat mashes on a home still.

But I never operated a distillery. I never put in 7-day 16-hour weeks to get a business off the ground. I never had spectacular failures or unexpected successes when trying new recipes. I have no experience opening a cask expected to be awesome and finding it skunked. Nor of finishing a meh run and discovering it’s a perfect solution to something I’ve been trying to create.

An art historian can talk about art, but shouldn’t be described as an artist. I can talk about distilling, but I’m not a distiller (yet. Dreams deferred but not abandoned, and all that.)

Of course, I meant 16-hour days seven days a week…

I don’t know how unique this is to the world of micros, but the Mississippi River Distilling Company in Le Claire, Iowa does a couple of neat things.

All of their spirits are made with local (within 30 miles) grains. Even their spent grains get recycled. You can also get “batch notes” for every bottle. There is a unique code that you enter at their web site and you get bottling date, which farmer grew the grains, even who (usually volunteers) bottled the hooch.

Example here. They seem to be doing well. They have put out your typical gins and vodkas and also they have put out a bourbon (that sold out two batches instantly)

You can also adopt a barrel.

This video apparently covers it better than I did.

azraiel, I’m curious about the difficulty or lack thereof that a new distillery would encounter in getting it’s product(s) onto liquor store shelves. Given the vast number of producers out there and the tremendous amount of product already on liquor store shelves, I would think a new producer would have a difficult time being picked up by a distributor and an even more difficult time getting retail stores to shelve it. Yet I get the impression from your OP that had you been able to get up and running, distribution would have been pretty much automatic. Is that impression correct, or would you face new hurdles in trying to bring your finished wine to market? Thanks in advance for any insight you can provide.

OK, I’ll be the pedantic jackass, but isn’t “skunking” specific to beer? As in, the reaction of light to certain hops chemicals that gives a particular skunk odor, which would not be present in distilled sprits?