“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.”—Thomas Merton (via thatkindofwoman)
I just found out a micro-distillery that will specialize in rye whiskey is opening up in my town. I'm pretty jazzed about it, and I'm wondering what you think of the micro-distillery movement and if you've gotten the chance to sample any of this small-batch whiskey.
No doubt this question is a can of worm. I’m going to answer in full, so I apologize for the length. To keep it simple I am whole heartily in support of the micro-distillery movement. When it comes to doing things on a small, local, craft, and sustainable level, I am almost always in support. And the industry as a whole does need some new blood to come in and mix things up. Yet, the largest mistake, the one I think which is central to the whole debate going on, is to assume that the micro-distillery movement is congruous with the micro-brewing movement in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. You hear many boutique guys saying things like, “micro-distilling is where micro-brewing was 20 years ago.” In all reality this is not, if only partially, true. The claim is that, just like the giant breweries (bud, miller, etc) who dominated the playing field for so many years, and gradually let quality decline through increased “proficiencies” and additions of cheap adjuncts (rice or whatever), that large distilleries have done the same – let quality decline in favor of quantity. Now, as has been declared by some micro-distillers, they have come along to “save” whiskey. The problem with these claims is they aren’t really true. First, the whiskey industry has taken a very different path than the brewing industry has and the quality you can find on a whole is very good. Second, the micro-distilling “industry” on a whole has not been very successful (yet) on creating really good products. Why? It comes down to two (main) things that have done the whiskey industry well the past couple hundred years: tradition and aging. So as to keep this relatively short, I will skip the fairly obvious factor, tradition, and say something about barrels. This I believe is the largest debate in the whole whiskey industry right now.
Starting a micro-distillery is very expensive and to actually provide a good product which is comparable to market standards, say you’re making bourbon, you need to age it at least 4-8 years in new charred oak barrels. What is happening with these small time (usually one or two man) operations is they cannot sustain themselves by producing a product which takes 4 years to come to market. They need money now, so they use smaller barrels (5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels) which equal less aging. Both the size and length you age a spirit in the barrel will dramatically affect the outcome. So with many of these small time setups claiming that they are producing similar products of the big guys (“my two year old – “baby bourbon” - whiskey is as good as your 8 year old bourbon whiskey”), when they are actually producing quite different products, somewhat makes a mess of things. They might be good in their own right, but not what one would consider to be traditional bourbon, scotch, etc. There are good producers out there though: Stranahans from Colorado, St. George Distillery from San Francisco and Edgefield distillery from Portland, OR – not surprisingly they are using 48 to 53 gallon barrels.
Ultimately, I do believe that the larger and older producers on a whole have better products, but only because of traditions developed and the time they have been producing their products. There are some big distilleries that produce really bad stuff, but that is not so across the board, like it was with beer in the 1970s and 1980s. What will be interesting is to see what will happen in 2, 4, and/or 8 years when all these small distilleries start releasing their whiskey which has been adequately aged. That is the point when the whole market is going to change.
So get excited about the new rye distillery and support them any way you can (they’ll need it) - just know that it’ll take years before you can actually taste a really good rye.
Here is a link to a blog post I wrote which talks about this – it is more of a link to experts who actually know what they are talking about.
I am a very big drinker of whiskey, but I have recently found myself on more of a budget. I was wondering what you might recommend that falls on the lesser side of expense.
I feel you on that one. If you wanna keep it around $20 I would suggest American. Most of these are my go-to’s and all readily available: Rittenhouse rye ($20). George Dickel Tennessee Whisky ($20). Bulleit Bourbon ($22.99). Buffalo Trace ($20). and Jim Beam Black ($17.99). And like I said on the last question I received Wild Turkey 101 (22.99).
I'm a big fan of Woodford Reserve. What are some of your favorites? Always like to try new whiskeys/bourbons.
A couple of good ones that come to mind: Willett Pot Still Reserve Single Barrel is great. Honestly Wild Turkey 101 is a really good bourbon. Nice heavy rye and spice forward. Even better, I would say, than Wild Turkey Russel Reserve - which is also good, well balanced and refined. Lastly Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, 9 Years Old. All of these raise the abv with Knob Creek being barrel strength. All benefit highly. All but the 101 a little bit more $ than woodford but worth it.