The American craft distillery boom, along with its subsequent mark on local economies and culture, is undeniable. In 2016, the American Craft Spirits Association concluded that upward of 1,300 craft distilleries were in operation throughout the nation. This is a pretty staggering statistic when contrasted with 2010 when only 200 or so were in existence.
This growth is not, fortunately, confined to clusters tucked away in parts of the country that one might label “hip” or “trendy,” inevitably overrun by an insufferable hipster millennial population. Nor is it isolated to blue-blooded whiskey-producing regions of the country already well known for their spirits, such as Kentucky and Tennessee. Even the good ole’ corn-fed Midwestern states have seen an influx of these craft distilleries and the whiskey mania they bring. My home state of Indiana has seen the number of operating distilleries more than quadruple from just 5 in 2013, to already 29 at the time of writing this article, thanks largely to the 2013 creation of the Artisan Distiller’s Permit. That legislation enabled distilleries to sell directly to customers and run onsite tasting rooms, which has enticed a number of, shall we say, “spirited” (Haha. Look, a pun!) entrepreneurs to try their hand at running their own distilleries.
Heart Cuts in America’s Heartland
For my part, I am grateful to any and all factors contributing to the explosive growth of craft spirits and am constantly amazed by its effects on the community that I operate within daily. It is impossible to overlook the ease and speed with which these craft distilleries have enmeshed themselves into Indianapolis culture and the accompanying social scene. The captains and crews of these distilleries have served as whiskey evangelists, inciting the proliferation of whiskey savvy and interest throughout the community. Previously the words “Indiana” and “whiskey” were synonymous with mass produced bourbon out of the Lawrenceburg factory MGP or with harvesting corn to ultimately make its way into the mashbill of several high profile labels. That is changing as these distilleries continue to assert a strong presence in the region and create spaces to gain and exchange whiskey knowledge.
Distiller or Businessman?
While, by and large, this is the landscape each of these distilleries are collectively and diligently creating in the Midwest, I can’t help but notice another type of craft distiller entering the market. One perhaps less focused on honoring the storied spirit that is whiskey, with traditions traveling from the coasts of Islay to the Sea of Japan with a layover at Mount Vernon. To illustrate the difference I’m giving to you a ticket to a hypothetical whiskey festival in the Midwest. (Yes, I’m very generous. You’re welcome). Pick any state; it matters not. At this whiskey festival, you will meet two local craft distilleries that reside at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. I apologize in advance for exclusively using the “he” pronoun in the following bit but as we all know, ladies can’t be distillers.
Upon entering this whiskey festival, the first booth you encounter is showcasing the whiskies of one of our two local distillers. The man behind the booth has managed to gather quite a crowd around him and is animatedly telling the story of his whiskey; the grains grown and harvested on his family farm or other local farms; the treasured custom hybrid still he ordered from Germany which he could barely await the arrival of; the used bourbon barrels they were able to procure from Maker’s Mark or perhaps from a brewery in Michigan, previously used for stout. His passion about his whiskey and the process he’s adopted and tweaked over the last few years has the crowd thoroughly engaged. He has even managed to capture the casual whiskey consumer’s interest with the sort of nitty-gritty details of whiskey production that they previously thought were too tedious to delve into.
Now, we must acknowledge that his distillery is newer and small. And, as such, he must operate within tight constraints: smaller finances, bare-bones equipment, less distilling experience, limited staff, and fewer years for aging. The young four grain whiskey may be a bit unrefined and unruly, but in it we see the beginnings of a solid whiskey that will continue to improve with further maturation and as the distiller becomes more confident and masterful in his craft. You walk away from his booth with a positive experience, new knowledge, and true respect for the passion and skill the man exhibited. This man is clearly a distiller first, businessman second.
From here we saunter (or skip, run, or moonwalk, depending on how many hypothetical glasses you imbibed) onto the next booth which is reserved for our other local distillery. This man stands in stark contrast to the last in that he is strikingly less gregarious. He waits for you to approach and ask for a sample but does not volunteer details as he pours a little into the plastic shot glass. He may be the owner, or just as likely, he sent a substitute. Either way, they are exchangeable, as neither seems to have much of a personality. You ask about the mashbill and the owner dispassionately responds, “corn, wheat, and rye” but offers no specifics on the approximate percentages or about the origins of the grains. If you are instead talking to the automaton he sent in his place, this person is entirely unable to answer the question and not especially eager to bother finding out.
If you’re like me, you’ll probably proceed to ask how they learned to distill whiskey and they may respond that they didn’t learn until after managing to use their impressive business plan to coax money out of investors’ pockets. They had time to kill before the distillery equipment arrived so they took a week-long crash course in a bordering state. You might think to yourself, this seems like an awfully horse-before-the-carriage approach, but you keep that thought to yourself.
You continue to attempt to pry information and conversation from the man and, at one point, ask about fermenting and the selection of yeast. He simply says fermenting takes a couple of days and the type of yeast makes no difference. “Yeast has no effect on the flavor of whiskey,” he says, “so it doesn’t matter what yeast you use.” You nod, finally decide to stop harassing him with clearly unwanted questions, and begin to sip the whiskey. The last of your remaining optimism says to let the whiskey speak for itself. Just because this guy is as animated as a stuffed fish, you remind yourself, doesn’t mean his whiskey isn’t something great.
Well, you taste the whiskey and feel the agonizing death of optimism, finding that it is thin, devoid of substance, and is as uninspired as its creator. The whiskey has no character and was clearly produced with the singular intent of minimal adherence to the legal dictates necessary to be labeled “bourbon” or “rye” or whatever the product is half-heartedly trying to mimic. It’s also unsurprising then when you later discover that this distillery’s website is mostly populated with the owner’s bio, which makes sure you are painfully aware that he neglected his MBA degree and a cushy corporate job to fearlessly tackle the risky unknown that is entrepreneurship. There is also a convenient page of cocktail recipes you can utilize to mask the pedestrian product almost ironically called a spirit. Considerably less of the website’s real estate is dedicated to the actual whiskey, its production, or its components. This guy is a businessman first, distiller last.
This whiskey tastes great… smothered in this cocktail
This latter distillery is thankfully an exception, not the rule. But I can’t help but observe a trend toward prevalence in the last few years. And what fascinates me most about this is that the growth and demand for artisanal whiskey has allowed even these distilleries popularity. In some cases even REALLY popular. The naïve part of me was perplexed for quite some time: How can we be both increasing whiskey appreciation and also embracing inferior, uninspired whiskey? But that is my inner optimism leading me to mistake whiskey enthusiasm for whiskey appreciation. What I have come to realize is that this whiskey trend does not always denote an increased interest in whiskey itself, but is sometimes just a symptom of the latest iteration of the mixology phad.
We saw the rise of cocktails in the early 2000s, which will likely bring to mind parody-like caricatures of women prancing around in $1,100 stilettos and sipping on cosmopolitans or Appletinis. Whatever image you associate with the time period, you will certainly remember that vodka was the principal spirit of choice. Later gin became popular (and still is), and now we are in the midst of the whiskey cocktail surge. It makes sense. Many people cannot seem to endear themselves to the spirit when served neat. Putting it in a cocktail can instantly make it palatable. Plus whiskey has some moxie to it. It’s a bit more “macho” and evokes an authentic, artisanal, slightly abrasive or untamed image. And if you’re using an American whiskey in your cocktail it’s like adding a splash of unapologetic patriotism to your drink (‘Murica!).
To see if this craft distillery boom was part and parcel of the cocktail trend I took a list of the 28 distilleries currently operating in Indiana (excluding MGP) and identified which of those distilleries actually produced whiskey. Of those 28, I was able to conclude that 21 of those distilleries currently produce whiskey in some form (whether moonshine, bourbon, rye, etc.). Note: some of these distilleries are quite small and have no website; therefore I resorted to Facebook or user reviews in order to obtain a listing of spirits. I tried to be as accurate as possible.
Of these 21 distilleries that produce whiskey, only 8 exclusively focus on whiskey. The majority of these 21 whiskey-producing distilleries make upwards of 4 spirits, which typically consist of vodka, gin, and various flavored liqueurs. Additionally, many of these distilleries have websites that highlight the use of their spirits in cocktails and include various cocktail recipes. You’ll also find that the more popular distilleries typically have annexed tasting rooms or restaurants in which mixology plays a prominent role in the customer experience. Some of these distilleries are like the Teavana of the whiskey world. Teavana, ostensibly a premium tea outlet, is less focused on showcasing delicious, delicate, high quality tea that is to be served alone, but instead on selling you some mediocre tea that you are to entirely overwhelm with all of their sugar and honey products that you can smell from the other end of the shopping mall. And the same situation arises in many successful craft distilleries. The point is, the consumers are likely there for the complicated marriage of herbs, fruits, juices, spirits and God knows what else; not so much for the whiskey itself. And the hipsters. They are probably there to see the hipsters too.
Mixology: The Gateway to Whiskey Consciousness?
Is this bad? Is this good? Truly tough to say. If people are enjoying themselves and the drink in their hand, it can’t be a bad thing. When it comes down to it I’m just glad that there are so many great local whiskey distilleries that are thriving thanks to a new and eager pool of whiskey consumers. Local distilleries like Starlight. The Starlight Distillery is owned and operated by the Huber family who have been producing wine on their ancestral vineyards in Southern Indiana for seven generations. It was in 2004 when the Hubers branched out into the spirits world with the release of their first brandy, and in a few short years they began distilling a bourbon that Hoosiers* can truly be proud of. Starlight, alongside other Indiana distilleries like Bear Wallow and Old 55, embody the perfect foil to the whiskey-producing Teavanas of the region that mystifyingly draw approximately equal buzz in the community. But maybe even the cocktail peddling “whiskey” distilleries can serve as forms of entry point that help ferry some across the gap from college shot taker to whiskey aficionado, with a stop in the sugary world of heavily mixed cocktails in between. If this proves true, then it doesn’t seem overly ambitious to expect that these consumers will then begin to hold these distilleries accountable to producing quality whiskey that can not only be tolerated, but actually enjoyed, straight. As the spirits industry continues to evolve and change, so does its consumer base… albeit at a seemingly slower pace.
*Hoosier is a really goofy term for an inhabitant of Indiana.