There once was a time in America, not that long ago, when we had brewers, winemakers and distillers. It was a simple, orderly era. Each group existed among its own kind, occasionally venturing to sample the wares of another group, but never straying.
The danger for any brewer going into distilling is if you don’t make great products it can reflect on your beer. Making great spirits requires a great palate.
Hops, grapes and grains, with the occasional fruit, nut or spice thrown in for good measure. Brewers, winemakers and distillers—all doing their best to gain a greater share of the consumer’s stomach.
Sure, there were some giant multinational companies crossing the boundaries. But it was done in rigid corporate structures, with operating divisions and subsidiaries. It was not all that surprising when a liquor company like Seagram’s bought into wineries. Constellation Brands went from being just a wine producer to owning spirit brands, a brewery and the U.S. rights to a fast-growing imported beer by the name of Corona. Diageo, through acquisitions and mergers, amassed an empire that ranged from Guinness Stout to Captain Morgan Rum to Beaulieu Vineyards. And even America’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, started playing in two fields by announcing last year that it was marketing spirits under the Jeckyll & Hyde label and importing Ku Soju, a 48-proof Korean spirit.
But now it appears we have entered the crossover era of craft producers crossing lines. Brewers are distilling. Vintners are brewing. Consumers are drinking.
Early craft beer pioneers have caught the bug. Fritz Maytag of the legendary Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco operates a winery and a distillery. Bill Owens, who founded Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub in Hayward, CA, and ran a couple of beer-related publications, is now the president of the American Distilling Institute. The ADI provides information resources and advocates for small distillers, plus hosts an annual Craft Distilling Conference.
“I don’t know if the potential volume for artisan distillers can match the growth of craft beer,” says Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head Brewing in Delaware. “However, I don’t think the early craft brewers at New Albion or Sierra Nevada envisioned how large the craft brewing movement would become.”
Calagione is one of the pioneers who has decided that if brewing beer is fun and profitable, then distilling liquor also holds potential. “Our goal in opening the distillery was to further expand on our concept of off centered ales for off centered people,” Calagione says. “We don’t brew to style, we never have since we opened the brewery in 1995.”
Dogfish Head is sticking to that approach under distiller Mike Gerhart, who crafts rum aged in French oak with wildflower honey, a gin called Jin and a liqueur distilled from honey and flavored with maple syrup called Be. Dogfish Head’s Vodka Erotica is an exotic flavored vodka made with rose water, watermelon juice and a number of secret spices. If you show up at the company’s Rehoboth Beach pub you can even sample small batch specialty vodkas made with chocolate and vanilla beans.
At Rogue Ales in Oregon, the brewing of extreme beers also led to the making of extreme spirits. Always up for a challenge, founder Jack Joyce said Rogue decided against making vodka in favor of starting with rum because “we figured if we could make rum, we could make anything.” Light rum and dark rum moved them to a rum flavored with hazelnuts and then to a spruce gin that contains 14 ingredients. Rogue is considering other products, perhaps a brandy, flavored vodkas and even beer schnapps.
“Beer is really hard to make. You have to deal with lower alcohol contents and a high level of sanitation. Booze is real forgiving along the way,” says Joyce. “The danger for any brewer going into distilling is if you don’t make great products it can reflect on your beer. Making great spirits requires a great palate. You have to balance the various ingredients along the way.”
In addition to its brewing and distilling licenses, Rogue also holds a permit for a winery, but has no plans to start crushing grapes.
“We have a bit of a brand problem, since someone else uses the Rogue name for wine. Plus there are 300 wineries in Oregon. We don’t think there is a need for another one,” Joyce says.
In Massachusetts, Jay Harman has become a triple threat in the drinks world. Starting with Nantucket Vineyards in 1981, then Cisco Brewing in 1995 and onto Triple 8 Distilling in 2000, he has seen each business up close and personal.
“It’s a juggling act. It’s seasonal where we are with tourists out here for eight to nine months, then we have three to four months to regroup,” Harman says. The company gets its grapes from Washington state vineyards, bringing in juice for the whites and crushing red grapes on site. The company brews a range of beers and uses honeybell oranges from Florida to make Triple 8 Orange Flavored Vodka.
Triple 8 has been raising money to fuel new brands by selling futures on 53 gallon barrels of single malt “Notch” whiskey. The futures that went for $3,000 a barrel back in 2000 now sell for $6,000. Harman uses Cisco’s Whale’s Tale Ale, minus the hops, as the wash to distill to make the whiskey, which is aged for at least five years in used bourbon casks. He predicts the 200 750-milliliter bottles that come out of each cask could sell for as much as $200 each.
Brett VanderKamp, president of New Holland Brewing in Michigan, started brewing beer in 1997 and added distilling in 2005, making a brandy, rum and whiskey.
“What is important to us is that New Holland is known as a great brewery,” VanderKamp says. “I think New Holland will always be a brewery that happens to have a distillery.”
Still, the company is getting creative with its distilling operation and is making some very interesting products. It started distilling and laying down whiskey using several grains in a mash that is double distilled to 115 proof. On the rum side, VanderKamp says New Holland is “dabbling” with small batches to determine the right mix of cane sugar and molasses, as well as trying different barrel combinations for aging, including used bourbon barrels. On the brandy side, the company distills its product five times and is selling juniper- and raspberry-flavored products.
Beer for the Grape Harvest
Along the shores of Seneca Lake, it was the winery that came first in 1978, then the brewery in 1997. Wagner Vineyards is among the larger Finger Lakes wineries and also operates a popular restaurant, in addition to Wagner Valley Brewing.
“Beer is the beverage of choice for winemakers during the harvest,” says Laura Wagner Lee, who handles public relations and commercial sales for the company. The winery operation is still much larger than the brewery, but it gives Wagner a real point of differentiation.
Wagner Valley brewmaster Dean Jones notes that many people touring local vineyards save Wagner for the end of the day. “They come in and taste the wines, but they end up on our deck overlooking the lake with one of our beers. It’s a nice change of pace,” Jones says. The brewery turns out a number of draught only and bottled beers, including Wagner Valley IPA, Sled Dog Doppelbock and Sled Dog Trippelbock Reserve.
The crossover movement among brewers, distillers and vintners is growing. You can find it in Flagstaff, AZ, where the Mogollon Brewing Co. and Arizona High Spirits share ownership. In Denver, Flying Dog Brewing and Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey share common owners and a wall. In Massachusetts, Buzzards Bay Brewing and Westport Rivers Winery can be found along the state’s southern coast. Others will soon join them.
At Michigan Brewing outside of Lansing, president Bobby Mason is working with distiller Kris Berglund to release some specialty vodkas and Celis Flemish Style Gin over the summer. In Chapel Hill, NC, proprietor Scott Maitland of the Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery is awaiting the delivery of a still and equipment. Top of the Hill Distilling will make vodka and gin, with plans down the road to make a whiskey.
“Our plan is to use exclusively North Carolina agricultural products. We’ve been looking around for a warehouse to store the whiskey if we go that route and I’ve found a piece of property that would work for that and be perfect home for a winery,” Maitland says. “It takes seven years for the vines to mature to make wine and in the meantime we could use the grapes to make brandy.”
Firestone Walker Brewery in California started in 1996 and is the offspring of Firestone Vineyards, which began making wine in 1972.
“It’s a bit of a homebrewing project gone awry,” quips proprietor Adam Firestone. Firestone is a third generation operator of the Santa Barbara winery and is a partner with brother-in-law David Walker in the brewing company. At first the company was looking for a use for old chardonnay barrels and considered making single malt whiskey or sherry. They then thought about wood-aged beers. They found out the used barrels had microbial issues that prevented them from being used to age beer. Then they turned to a system similar to the Burton Union technique developed in 1840, where beers are fermented in the oak barrels. They focus on pale ales and use British yeast strains.
Does Firestone think there is room for more crossover drinks companies?
“The real thrust in the market right now is in quality, higher-end beverages. I can definitely see any small winemaker or craft brewer crossing over because it is all about the passion and interest in making great products,” Firestone says.