In Great Spirits: America’s Craft Distillery Boom
In 1953, an aspiring distiller in Kentucky had a vision. While most local spirits makers were producing as much volume as possible in order to turn maximum profit, Bill Samuels Sr. decided instead to focus on putting out the best possible product. He called his brand Maker’s Mark, a nod to its artistry and authenticity.
By today’s standards, a quality-over-quantity philosophy is nothing extraordinary. Samuels, however, was a bit ahead of his time. For many years, the company saw no growth. In 2000, Maker’s finally added a second distillery, identical to the first in every way. “We’re the only distillery in the world that has ever expanded that way,” explains Rob Samuels, Maker’s Mark COO (and grandson of Bill Samuels Sr.). “We were very careful about how we expanded because Maker’s Mark means something to people all over the country and all over the world.”
More recently, modern artisan distillers have recently followed in the Maker’s small-batch footsteps. “The more we buy from [large corporations], the more we lose our art,” explains Steven Grasse, a spirits industry veteran with more than 25 years experience.
The driving force behind such brands as Hendrick’s gin, Narragansett beer and Spodee wine, Grasse set up his newest operation, Tamworth Distilling & Mercantile, in a historic inn in New Hampshire. Working out of a botanical kitchen that he describes as “basically a chemistry lab”, Grasse has spent the past few months experimenting with new distilling techniques and recipes. Tamworth is about to introduce its first products to the market, and Grasse is optimistic about its reception.
“People are more educated about eating and drinking things that are just better,” says Grasse. “They may not be able to go out and buy a Ferrari, but this is a small luxury they can afford.”
Tamworth is just one of hundreds of small-batch distilleries to open its doors in the past few years. “Several years ago, people became interested in organic, local food,” says Taryn Kaponica of Leopold Bros., a family-owned and –operated distillery in Denver, CO. “Beer followed, and now the spirits industry will follow, too.”
Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits Alameda, CA equates the direction of the spirits market to that of another popular agricultural product. “Thirty years ago, coffee was Folgers, Hills Bros. and Chock full o’Nuts. Now we know where our beans come from, how we like them roasted and who is going to roast them that way.” Winters envisions a similar, regional fallout with distillers, wherein each area of the country produces its own, unique spirits.
Why now? “The real question is ‘why didn’t it happen a lot sooner?'” he says. “It’s happening now because it’s about time!”