Craft Whiskey Distillers Take on Experimentation, Terroir and Authenticity

FILED AUGUST 7, 2013

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Depending on how long you've worked in the industry, you may recall a time when domestic whiskies were made almost entirely by the Big Seven whiskey distillers. Thanks to the growth of the craft spirits segment, that is no longer the case. And with small brands and distillers comes experimentation and the evolution of the category. "We're seeing changes in American whiskey that we haven't seen on this kind of scale - perhaps ever," said Paul Clarke, spirits enthusiast and writer behind The Cocktail Chronicles, to kick off a panel discussion at Tales of the Cocktail.

The panel was comprised of Dave Pickerell, former Maker's Mark master distiller turned distilling consultant, Chip Tate, founder and distiller at Texas-based Balcones Distilling, and Wes Henderson, coo of Louisville Distilling Company, which owns Angel's Envy Bourbon. All three panelists are known for their experimental methods and whiskies.

All three agreed that the art and craft of producing goes well beyond just distillation. Both Chip and Wes have built their brands (at least some of them) on innovative maturation techniques. Recall the original Angel's Envy bourbon was one of the first American whiskies to be finished in port casks, which has since inspired several others to follow suit. The list of American whiskies aged in port barrels now includes: Dry Fly Distilling's wheat whiskey, one of the Big Bottom Bourbons, and Abraham Bowman limited edition port-finished bourbon, among others. Meanwhile, Chip added that one of Balcones' seven whiskies was finished in a European oak barrel. "People say you're not supposed to do that," said he said. "Why not? It just has to be oak."

Interestingly, Dave said back when he was at Maker's Mark (between 1994 - 2008) he was allowed to do a lot of experimenting with barrels under the radar. "There are a tremendous number of variables available to the big guys," he said. For example, Maker's Mark partnered with GlenMorangie years ago to do an experiment in maturation. They each swapped a barrel of their respective product, which was then left for 12 years to mature at the other's warehouse. "Basically over a 12 year period, we determined that one year in a Maker's Mark warehouse was worth about four or five years in a Scotch warehouse, which would explain why Scotch's are rarely sold under 10-12 years and bourbon are rarely sold over 10-12 years," he said.

IS TERROIR THE FUTURE? Scotland has distinct regional identities and wine has terroir, but could domestic whiskey be headed for a similar geography-based labeling? "I am a firm believer that we are in the early stages of terroir as an element of description, especially in bourbons and ryes in the United States," said Dave. He went on to say that at Hillrock Estate Distillery (where he is master distiller) every product they make has a hint of clove and cinnamon. They've actually begun to mark the individual fields from which they harvest grain. "I don't know if we're going to see that level of terroir or not, but we're certainly going to find out."

"I think that's one of the more marvelous things about American whiskey right now is that there are geographical significant that will become more and more discernible as there are more and more products," he continued.

Chip added that terroir is the basis of what they do at Balcones. "In the beginning we always said we didn't want to make whiskey in Texas; we want to make Texas whiskey." He says even though he loves peated whiskey, it didn't make sense for them to do one in Texas.

"Something that started as a premise and focus really kind of turned into a religion for us in terms of trying to do what makes sense for us to do where we operate," he added.

AUTHENTICITY AND TRANSPARENCY: The debate over craft distilling versus bottling has led many to call for more transparency in the industry. "There's definitely examples of companies that have suffered because of not being transparent," said Wes, adding that the type of consumers who are going to spend the money on premium spirits are going to be educated. The implication being that they will eventually find out if a brand isn't what it says it is.

It doesn't take much arm-twisting to get Chip to talk about the need for transparency in craft spirits. "For us it's really important that when you read our labels and bottles it is exactly what you think it is." He said that in the past there was a natural divorce of whiskey production, the facility it's made in and the brand owner. "There's nothing wrong with most of what's going on out there, it can just create a sense of disappointment when people think it's one thing and find out it's another. "

No matter where you fall on these issues, I think we can all agree it's an exciting time to be in the American whiskey category as distilleries both young and old are pushing the boundaries of experimentation and flavor.

WSD BRIEFS:

GLAZER'S HAS APPOINTED JON HOBBS AS VP, SALES for Diageo/Moet Hennessy (DHM) in Missouri. The appointment was effective August 1. He will be responsible for the newly created off premise and key account DMH business in the state, charged with hiring the team, building sales growth and developing and maintaining relationships with key accounts. Jon will report to Pete Carr, evp sales and marketing, DMH. Recall that Diageo/Moet Hennessy recently pulled its business from Major Brands in the state in favor of Glazer's. This resulted in a lawsuit, which actually has wider implications when it comes to franchise protection in the state (see WSD 06-27-13). Ultimately the judge determined that Diageo could indeed pull its brands from Major, but that it had to pay damages (see WSD 06-26-13).

DIAGEO IS PUMPING AN ADDITIONAL $120 MILLION in its Plainfield, IL bottling facility, where it packages Smirnoff No. 21, Smirnoff flavored vodkas, Smirnoff Ice, and a range of Diageo's new-to-world products. Three new high-speed bottling lines, a flexible production area, and several high-tech packaging machines allows the facility to bottle a wider range of Smirnoff Vodka flavors. The site currently bottles approximately 31 million cases of product per year, which is equivalent to 372 million 750ml bottles. This is part of Diageo North America's investment of more than $250 million in its manufacturing network since 2010.

JOSE CUERVO TEQUILA IS LAUNCHING A NEW NATIONAL ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN starring actor Kiefer Sutherland. The "Have a Story" campaign was created by McCann Erickson, New York, and includes magazine and digital advertising and a social media pre-launch effort. Check out the ads at youtube.com/watch?v=pX7ndkyqimM and www.youtube.com/watch?v=RybQDda_Ezg.

MARTINI IS LAUNCHING A LIMITED EDITION EXTENSION, Martini Gran Lusso vermouth, to celebrate its 150th anniversary this year. It has been in the making for more than eight years and is limited to 150,000 bottles worldwide. Gran Lusso is available internationally from July from premium outlets at a recommended price of $30 a bottle.


Until tomorrow, Emily

"Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion."
-Georg Wilhelm

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