Whiskey is the most popular spirit in the United States, where there are now more operating micro-distilleries than in Ireland and Scotland combined.
Two months ago I was given the hefty task of reporting on the state of craft whiskey in the United States to date. I was both thrilled and petrified — thrilled because I had a lot of whiskey drinking in my future, and petrified because how could a journalist who had only been legally drinking for two years be at all authorized to do this?
The answer: She’s not, so she calls in the experts.
Here are 4 things they had to say about American craft whiskey:
1. It starts as craft beer.
“When you’re making whiskey, you’ve got to make beer first,” says Thomas McKenzie, the master distiller at Finger Lakes Distilling. It’s true — whiskey is essentially distilled beer, and more often than not, American distillers made beer before they made whiskey.
Darek Bell of Corsair Artisan Distillery says, “Craft distilling is still very early in the movement. It reminds me of the first generation of craft brewers. All the sudden we had mass experimentation with ingredients and packaging and labeling,” he says. This mass experimentation lends itself to a lot of innovative whiskeys distilled with weird ingredients. Many distillers are creating entirely new categories of the spirit, which leads me into my next point about whiskey culture in the United States.
2. It simultaneously melds tradition and innovation.
Whether a distiller is making the same recipe that his great-grandfather made in the bootlegger days, or infusing his whiskey with wormwood and cannabis, he is practicing a time-honored tradition notorious throughout history for uniting the tired and thirsty. In that same vein, there is a push, especially in the United States, to reinvent whiskey. “You’re seeing a new generation discover whiskey. [It] still has a stigma, a stereotype of older guys in a hunting club with their cigars,” says Bell. “You’re seeing that the Millennial generation doesn’t want to drink what their dads drank.”
Bell also points out the ease at which new distillers can do this whiskey reinvention. He makes my third point.
3. It is ambiguous.
“It really doesn’t take very much for whiskey to be alternative because it has been so narrow, so conservative, so rigid over the years,” says Bell. According to the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, there are more than 30 types of whiskey, all specifically defined by ingredients used, alcohol by volume, proof, and the nature of the spirit’s aging.
The rigid definitions of whiskey types are causing a lot of distillers to name their spirits something other than “whiskey” while many others are just making up their own styles. Bell says this is essential to the livelihood of small craft distillers.
“Small companies can take more risks on adventurous, different and out-there products,” he says. “In fact, they must be creative to survive.”
4. It runs in our blood.
Almost every whiskey distiller I’ve talked to has told me that his father, or his father’s father made whiskey. Some say it skips a generation, others say it was their destiny. “It’s one of those things — you have to have it in your blood,” says McKenzie. “The people in Kentucky call it a blood disease. It gets in your blood and you can’t get rid of it.”