Many consumers believe that smaller is better. Few ventures seem to fire the imagination more than the boutique winery or the microdistiller—the family-owned David versus the corporate Goliath, turning out a handcrafted product against all odds.
In the world of spirits, craft distillers have been the rage in recent years. These distillers were usually defined as those producing fewer than 40,000 cases annually. Lately, however, craft distillers have been growing larger, and some are morphing into nationally distributed brands. While marketing can keep the romance alive, the challenge is maintaining quality at much higher production levels.
Solutions can be creative. When Patrón Tequila built its new distillery in Mexico a few years back, the company was faced with the problem of keeping quality high as the brand approached sales of two million cases each year. Distiller Francisco Alcaraz solved the puzzle by constructing 12 small facilities under one roof, each designed to turn out artisanal tequila.
Here’s a quick roundup of some intriguing craft distillers’ spirits to try:
RYE: WhistlePig, Shoreham, Vermont ($70).
Rye is the hottest spirit on the market right now, and this is one of the best—100-percent rye, 100 proof and 10 years old. It’s made by Dave Pickerell, who spent 14 years at Maker’s Mark. WhistlePig is owned by Raj Peter Bhakta, who grows the rye on his 400-acre farm. On the tongue, this rye is big, bold and dramatic, with lots of caramel, vanilla, honey, spice, pepper, tannin ... and class. It’s an unforgettable whiskey.
VODKA: Death’s Door Spirits, Washington Island, Wisconsin ($30).
Coming from a background in economic development, Brian Ellison, company founder, decided to help the island’s farmers make their wheat crop more profitable. The vodka has a light and lyrical nose, and a rich texture accented by hints of white pepper. Combined with something floral, such as Dolin Vermouth, this would make a striking martini.
GIN: Spring44, Loveland, Colorado ($30).
Co-founder and CEO Jeff Lindauer claims to have “the purest water on planet Earth”—emanating from a spring 9,044 feet up in a national park in the Colorado Rockies and untouched by any municipal water source. Aromas of anise, juniper and orange rind dominate the nose; gentle flavors of lemon and orange coat the palate, leading to a resonant finish. Spring44 is the only gin we’ve encountered that could be described as elegant.
BOURBON: Angel’s Envy, Louisville, Kentucky ($50).
Legendary distiller Lincoln Henderson retired in 2004 after nearly 40 years with Brown-Forman, where he developed Woodford Reserve, Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel and Early Times. He’s spending his golden years making this bourbon, and it’s a stunner. Aged four to six years in charred white oak casks and finished in Port barrels, the texture is rich, sweet and unctuous, with impeccable balance.
CANADIAN: Forty Creek Barrel Select, Grimsby, Ontario ($25).
Canadian whiskey is the Rodney Dangerfield of spirits; rarely does it get any respect. A few sips of Forty Creek will change that. It’s made by John Hall, a winemaker who opened the first independent distillery in Canada since 1939. He distills the corn, rye and barley separately in small copper pot stills and ages the ingredients in white oak barrels before blending them into his “Meritage” whiskey. It’s rich and brawny, filled with spice and flavor. It will change the way people think about the potential of Canadian blended whiskey.