After a decade’s growth, the US craft distilling scene is showing signs of maturity – with a playful side, as Ian Buxton reports

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The boom in the US craft distilling scene is around 10 years old, and there are now reputedly more than 2,000 distilleries in operation, with at least one in every state (yes, even North Dakota in case you were wondering).

Let’s pause for a moment and let that number sink in. Not all meet the hotly-debated ‘craft’ definition but that’s a lot of stills by anybody’s standards.

Inevitably, some consolidation is already taking place. The highly-regarded Hudson whiskies have been acquired by William Grant & Sons; Westland in Seattle, long seen as a pioneer of American single malt, is part of Rémy Cointreau (alongside Bruichladdich); Constellation Brands, a giant US concern, bought High West; Smooth Ambler is also in French hands, with Pernod Ricard in control; and FEW Spirits is today in the Samson & Surrey portfolio alongside Widow Jane Bourbon. Even the Edrington Group has a ‘strategic partnership’ with Wyoming Whiskey.

So how are the others faring and what might the future hold? I spoke to Paul Hughes, formerly of Heriot-Watt University and now Professor of Distilled Spirits at Oregon State University. He confirmed the optimistic outlook, while highlighting the obstacles faced by the new entrants.

“With now over 2,000 distilleries in the US, the current state of craft distilling here is buoyant,” he told me. “Even though unaged white spirits are popular members of many craft distillers’ portfolios, there is an unabated passion around craft whiskeys, despite the challenges around cash flow and managing the maturation process.”

American Distilling Institute president Bill Owens sees growth ahead.

Over at the American Distilling Institute, which represents the small distilling industry, runs an annual conference and publishes ‘how to’ guides, President Bill Owens shares Hughes’ upbeat assessment. He notes that: “In 2018 some 1,540 craft distilleries in the US produced 6.5 million cases. The industry is expected to produce 8 million cases in 2019. The growth rate for the industry is 31 per cent.”

Encouragingly, he goes on to explain that despite the relative ease of producing vodka and gin, around “80 per cent of the spirits produced by craft distilleries are whiskey” and, he claims, “94 per cent of the craft distilleries are producing spirits from raw material.”

If correct, that may just be the best news yet. A number of US craft ‘distillers’ were widely criticised for buying spirit from Indiana’s giant MGP distillery and labelling it as their own. Good though that whiskey undoubtedly was and remains, MGP is hardly a craft operation. But, as more and more of these smaller operators have their own fully aged stock to work with, the number of rebadged whiskeys is falling away. What’s more, free from the legislative restrictions on Scotch whisky, they’re busy experimenting– in fact, many see this as their <raison d’etre>.

Paul Hughes anticipates a trend to “more application of accelerated ageing methods and the growth of oaked white spirits”. Meanwhile, distillers such as Balcones in Texas are using blue heirloom corn and smoking their whiskey with sun-baked scrub oak; Marko Karakasevic at Charbay in the Napa Valley distils a hoppy whiskey from an IPA beer wash. The Virginia Distillery Co. import single malt to blend with their own American single malt and age the result in weird and wonderful barrels, including a cold brew coffee-soaked cask.

Actually, I think that’s enough innovation, so let’s leave it there!


This column is from the May 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership

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