All About Beer Magazine - Volume 34, Issue 5
November 1, 2013 By

Could the next big thing in beer actually be whiskey?

We are not talking about the use of former bourbon barrels for aging beer. That trend is well-established. We mean the real 90-proof variety. Some think that breweries might just propel the craft spirits sector—and whiskey in particular—through the roof.

According to the Brewers Association, more than 2,800 breweries now operate in the U.S., with several hundred in the planning and development stages. According to the American Distilling Institute, there are now 523 distilled-spirit plants producing liquor in America. In a turnaround from the five years ago when many small startup distilleries marketed vodkas and gins, 295 distilleries now make whiskey.

According to Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute (ADI), the number of U.S. craft distilleries is about to multiply. Washington state, where 52 distilleries currently operate, has 30 stills under construction and another 30 that are working toward getting their licenses.

“When we started ADI 10 years ago, many of the distilleries were located at wineries and orchards and would operate for a couple of months when fruit came in. That is all changing now,” Owens said. “Brewery distilling is where this is going.”

This contention is supported by the fact that brewers such as Anchor, Dogfish Head and Rogue that have operated stills for several years are being joined by the likes of Ballast Point and other established craft breweries.

New Holland Artisan Spirits, the distilling arm of Michigan’s New Holland Brewing, is one of the breweries that have gone headlong into the whiskey market. Starting with rum, gin and vodka, the company now has a whiskey lineup that is growing to include 8-10 malts.

“A lot of our focus in recent years has been on malt whiskey,” says Brad Kamphuis, New Holland’s head distiller. “We have experts in brewing, and we let them handle making our wash. Our brewery has a lot of creativity. They play to seasonality, and we have the same attitude.” At New Holland, this has spawned a “Brewers’ Whiskey” line that features season offerings, such as Ichabod’s Flask, a spiced whiskey that is inspired by the brewery’s pumpkin ale.

“We see a trend of clear spirits in the craft segment fading to the background,” Kamphuis says. “We are seeing more barrel-aged spirits coming forward. Whiskey is leading the way, but you are seeing barrel-aged rums and gins popping up.”

The changes in craft distilling mirror the evolution that has taken place among craft brewers, albeit at a more rapid rate. In the early days of the craft beer movement, many startup brewers proudly offered two kinds of ale: an amber and a golden. Nowadays, most brewers have 4-6 year-round offerings, with seasonals and special production runs piled on top. At last year’s Great American Beer Festival, judges handed out medals in 84 beer categories covering 134 beer styles. Compare that with a decade earlier in 2002, when 58 Great American Beer Festival gold medals were awarded. The difference for craft distillers comes from the fact that there is less of a quality divide between what they are aiming to produce and what major national and international players market.

“When I started Buffalo Bill’s (brewpub in California), people like us and Sierra Nevada knew we could make better beer than Budweiser, Millers and Coors,” Owens said of his days as a brewer. “The standards are pretty damn high for a whiskey. The new generation of craft distillers is not fooling around. They have to compete against some pretty high-quality whiskey, and 99 percent of it is produced by big distillers.”

Owens says the reasons for the growth in the number of craft distilleries and the product lineups are many, starting with the fact that the process of making a wash—the first step to producing whiskey—is the same as making wort to brew beer. Secondly, craft distillers today are investing in pot stills to do their own distilling, where just a few years ago many purchased neutral grain spirits for rectifying or opted for corn cookers that were cheaper and could turn plentiful corn into white dog, or unaged whiskey.

Kamphuis notes that many distillers started with unaged white spirits as a way to gain cash flow and buy time while brown goods were aging in barrels. Many craft distillers are using 10-gallon or 15-gallon oak casks instead of standard 53-gallon barrels for aging. These smaller barrels help mature the spirit more quickly, but they do create some controversy among purists who insist on an aging statement as a judge of the quality of a whiskey. Kamphuis says the smaller barrels are also useful research and development tools for new distilleries trying to perfect flavor profiles. New Holland is currently using 15-gallon casks, but is also laying down whiskey in 53-gallon barrels and will eventually primarily use that size cooperage.

Owens says that an emerging segment of the craft distilling market is what he calls “mid-cap distilleries.” These operations are well-financed, spending $3 million to $7 million on everything from equipment to marketing before a drop of liquor leaves the barrel house. Because of the strain put on still manufacturers by this growth, it can take 10-18 months from the time an order is placed just to get a new still delivered.

Not all craft whiskey makers are brewers. One of the earliest, Clear Creek Distilling in Oregon, got its start in 1985 making eau de vie, a fruit brandy, after founder Steve McCarthy spent a summer in Europe visiting distilleries.

“It was 1981 and no one was making eau de vie in the U.S. There was no Google back then to do research, so I spent a summer in Europe visiting distilleries,” McCarthy says. “There was an awesome emptiness in the U.S. There were only a couple of other craft producers. We started making pear, apple and kirsch, and also made a grappa.”

“The whiskey thing came out of thin air. I was on vacation fishing in Ireland, and it was rainy and the fish were not biting. But the inn where I was staying had a great selection of peaty single malts,” McCarthy says. “I had really never had them before and fell in love with the taste.” McCarthy returned to the U.S. and struck a deal with Widmer Brothers Brewing to make a wash for McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt, an Islay-style whiskey.

McCarthy believes whiskey “is the most interesting” segment of the craft distilling category.

“There is huge promise in artisan whiskey,” McCarthy says. “There are some really talented people making craft whiskey, and they are doing some good marketing. These are genuine guys, smart and some with money. There are enough of them to build a category.”

Whiskey Tasting Notes

McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey

From Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, this bronze-colored whiskey has a rich peaty nose and smoky flavor that will remind Scotch fans of Islay. This is for good reason since the malted barley used in the whiskey is imported from Scotland. The spirit is aged in Oregon oak, and the wood is clearly present. For a whiskey with so much flavor, it is soft and approachable. 

Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Finished in Port Barrels

This 86.6-proof whiskey is from relative Kentucky newbie Louisville Distilling Co. and master distiller Lincoln Henderson. It has a light bronze color and has a slight maple nose. This whiskey ages first in new charred oak barrels and then is finished in port wine barrels for a minimum of three months. The flavor is round and smooth, with vanilla, maple and a hint of the wood. The company plans to break ground this year on a new distillery in Louisville.

Balcones 1 Texas Single Malt

This 106-proof has a slightly herbal and honey nose. The amber whiskey ages as it moves between several different types of barrels. The result is a single malt that has a fresh, yet mellow flavor. Wood tones combine with some layered fruitiness. 

Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey

This 90-proof whiskey is bottled by Mountain Laurel Spirits in Bristol, PA. The whiskey is aged for 6-9 months in charred white oak casks. There is a nice grainy quality to the spirit, and it has subtle bits of wood and spice to the finish. Not a big rye in the traditional sense, but a nice drink.

New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon

This 80-proof Bourbon is first aged in new charred oak barrels before being moved to beer barrels for finishing. The amber whiskey has a mellow nose that opens to a rich, caramel and peppery spice flavor profile. The finish lingers with a nice fruit and spice edge.

Ole George Whiskey

From Grand Traverse Distillery in Michigan, this 93-proof whiskey is a rye that has an edge from the 100 percent rye mash bill. Plenty of rye character and the wood comes through with hints of almond, honey and maple. Lots of nice things to enjoy in the finish of this one.

Pine Barrens American Single Malt Whiskey

This sample is from batch 8 made at Long Island Spirits in Baiting Hollow, N.Y. The distillery uses an English-style barley wine as the base for the spirit. The hoppy ale is then double-pot distilled. It is aged in oak casks, and the result is a golden spirit with a barley nose. There is plenty of wood character in this spicy whiskey.