The Craft Spirits Movement: What took you so long?

We have craft beer brewers and boutique wineries, farmstead cheeses and small-batch coffee roasters. And now we have distillers cooking up artisanal spirits. Finally.

We’re in the midst of a national renaissance in craft distilling. We had, at one point, more than 14,000 mostly small-batch distillers in this country. Then Prohibition hit, and their numbers were reduced to fewer than a dozen licensed distilleries. It remained a highly concentrated industry throughout the 20th century with fewer than 80 distillers operating by 2000, and more than 90% of the market is still in the hands of a mere 20 companies. Small craft distilleries have been doubling in number every two or so years for the past decade, currently totaling 264 operating in 38 states, but still only capture less than 1% of the market.

Distilling has unique challenges and entry barriers that you don’t find in craft beer and wine-making. For starters, distilling of any kind requires a slew of federal and state licenses. That’s right, any kind; even home distilling for personal use is illegal. No mere by-product of America’s puritanical streak, home distilling is in fact illegal in every single country in the world, with the sole exception of New Zealand. As a result, while many in the craft beer industry have roots as home brew hobbyists, would-be distillers have had few opportunities for the free-wheeling experimentation and technical exchange of a community of amateurs. As a distiller, you’re either a scofflaw or a professional.

If you’re a home distilling who wants to go the legal route, you’ll need a distillery permit from the Federal Tax and Trade Bureau and another from your home state; you’ll need separate licenses and bonds for production, bottling, labeling, and storing spirits; and of course your kitchen, basement, or garage has to pass muster with health and safety inspectors. $100,000 or so later, you just might be approved to cook up your first mash.

And then you wait.
The time frame for spirits is another hurdle. Beer spends a few weeks in the bottle and it’s good to go; whiskey might need three years in a barrel before the first sip. Vodka is a popular choice within the craft spirits movement because it’s essentially ready to drink as it runs out of the still. There’s also been an effort to attach cachet to artisanal renditions of unaged whiskey that are marketed as ‘white dog’ or ‘new make,’ whiskey —a.k.a. moonshine.

Many within the new generation of craft distillers share an experimental ethos and commitment to sustainable and local ingredients, like so many of the food and beverage artisans that preceded them. They’re a little late to the party, but we’re glad they got here.

Proof 66 rates and reviews more than 4,000 spirits, including many homegrown and microdistillery releases.

Homedistillers shares news, tips, and techniques among a community of 5,000 members. No doubt each and every one a New Zealander.


One Response to The Craft Spirits Movement: What took you so long?

  1. Pingback: Homemade Gin | Gigabiting

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