Monday, June 24, 2013

RE: Craft Whiskey Isn't Always Better

Maybe by now, if you're as enthused about spirits as I am, you've seen the Slate article come across whatever media you decide to frequent. The Slate article that shares a title with this post. A Slate article that, for pretty much all intents and purposes, knocks around craft distilling something righteous and fearful. An article that says things like:

In America’s evolving whiskey landscape, however, smaller isn’t necessarily better. Some excellent craft whiskies have emerged in recent years, but the distilleries responsible for big names like Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, and Four Roses make whiskeys that a surprisingly high number of microdistilleries struggle to match.


Even the most basic offerings from many big distilleries—brands like Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam Black, and Wild Turkey 101—are excellent products that I find more complex than many craft products that are much more expensive. Higher-end products from these same big distilleries—Eagle Rare Single Barrel, Knob Creek, and Russell’s Reserve—are very hard to compete with, especially at the prices they charge.

It's ruffled some feathers. Some dander is up, it's true. But not mine. And it's not because I don't feel threatened by it or that I think it's borderline satire.
It's because I agree with it.

This isn't to say that I'm cut my roots and have shackled myself to the big boys. Don't worry, I love craft distillers. But the article itself crops up a LOT of good points that I feel that small distillers should take to heart. And I'm going to go through them, one by one.

Non Distiller Producers

I love Smooth Ambler. I think it's fantastic. I like High West. I could drink their Campfire until my eyes bleed. And I appreciate the fact that they are pretty open with the fact that, yes, that isn't really their product. It's product they've bought and bottled under their label. And I'm fine with that. Good whiskey and truth, what's not to like? If you're looking for more information on this, go check out Chuck Cowdery's post on it. He sums it up nicely.
What I don't like is people that DON'T let consumers know what their buying. That's just dishonest and it gives not just yourself but the industry itself a bad name. Be up front. Be honest. Don't become the proverbial snake oil salesman here. If you believe that you have a good product, let it speak for itself, regardless of where it comes from. If people like it, they won't care that it came from another distillery. They won't care as long as when they put their lips to the glass it is tasty. But to make a brand out of purchased whiskey and pass it off as the blood, sweat, and tears of labor in your budding distillery...that's just heartbreaking. And it makes your life difficult. Now that there's a whiskey shortage, how do you explain to people why your whiskey tastes so radically different? And if people find out that you are bottling something someone else made, what makes you think that they'll give you a chance when you start releasing your own product? Good brands are built upon trust.

Aging Your Product

This is probably my favorite quote from the entire thing:
For whiskey startups operating on shoestring budgets, four years is an eternity to wait before earning revenue. Many have attempted to dodge this obstacle by selling younger whiskies or attempting to quickly extract wood flavors by using smaller barrels, wood chips, ultrasound machines, pressure cookers, and even by playing loud bass music to agitate the whiskey. Upstart distilleries say these techniques do for their whiskeys in a matter of months what otherwise takes years.

Guys...stop. Just...just stop. Every time I hear of some small distiller thinking that they've found the Rosetta stone of fast aging, I die a little bit on the inside. Trust me. You CANNOT. SPEED. UP. AGING. Things take time. Chemical processes need to happen. Evaporation, esterification, ethanolysis...these things don't happen overnight. Or over-week. Or over-month. Think over-year. No matter how much you pressurize and agitate and saturate with wood...your spirit will not age faster. I'm sorry. So please stop claiming that the techniques you're using make your whiskey just as old as commercial stuff. It makes us, again, look bad. To be sure, there is a niche market for these kinds of whiskies. Heavy wood profiles can make for interesting cocktails and pair extremely well with cigars. People DO buy them. But don't exclaim that they are the same as a Jim Beam Black. Please don't. Don't feel the need to compare to commercial products. Be your own product.

Why Craft Whiskey Isn't Always Better

Here's the one I'm assuming everyone will get angry at me for. I've tasted a lot of pretty solid craft whiskey. I've tasted some amazing craft whiskey. I've tasted some bad craft whiskey. And that was from just one producer. I've run the gamut of whiskey available from the craft distilling world and it is as varied as can be. Sometimes, this is a good thing. Like vintages of wine, some batches are better than others and that is certainly a drawing point for some. But for a lot of other people, it's not.
A long time ago, I was drinking with friends one night and I professed that I liked Bud. They all started ragging on me at that point. "How can you like that swill?" "I thought you had better taste than that." Blah blah blah. They ragged on me for a bit until I explained why. I like Bud matter where you go in the country, in the continent, hell, in the order a Bud and you get a Bud. You don't get something that tastes sorta like Bud. You get a Bud. It may not be the best out there but it is consistent. And being consistent is much, much, MUCH harder than anyone gives it credit for. To be able to reach for a bottle of Booker's or Old Granddad or Redbreast and have it taste exactly the same is not only impressive from a distillers point of view...but it's comforting from a consumer's point of view. Sometimes I want to try something new, different, exciting and I'm willing to pay for it. But I don't want to try something new, different, and exciting EVERY time. The craft distilling movement has major troubles with consistency. Whether it's by choice or it's by just figuring out what we're's a problem. I'm sorry but it just is. And until we can safely put out product that, no matter who grabs it or when they grab it, it tastes the will BE a problem.

To those that have said that this is a horribly written, wrong article, I humbly disagree. It is a well-written article in my eyes that points out problems in the craft community that we should be addressing. If we can successfully address these problems in a positive manner, it will give us all the more credence in the distilling industry. If we can't, I believe that it will significantly hinder us. But that's just me running my mouth as usual.


  1. All too true. Craft brewing did this to beer and now craft distilling is doing this to spirits. Eventually the market will parse itself out but in the meantime, craft isn't necessarily better.

  2. You like crappy, watered down beer cause you can get it anywhere on earth. And you use that as a knock on craft distilling. Sounds well thought out and objective.

    1. Trust me, I am far and away the least objective person here. I have only worked in the craft distilling industry, which is why this is a radical departure from what I normally say.

      In terms of the "crappy, water down beer"'s not my favorite but if there's nothing else I'll take it. I know what I'm getting. I've had far too many experiences where I've bought bottles of spirits and, upon purchasing the second bottle, found it to be absolutely nothing like the first. Consistency is key for consumers, is all.

      My favorite beer is Samuel Smiths Oatmeal Stout, actually. Yum.

  3. Good post.
    John Little