American Whiskey: Craft Work

“We believe in fearless experimentation,” says founder Darek Bell. “We make unique, innovative and unusual products that do not easily fit into the existing whiskey categories. Our motto is simple: if it has been done before we do not want to do it. Our goal is to expand the horizons of whiskey making.

“We make smoked whiskeys using unusual smoked fuel sources, that is, not dominated by peat. We make whiskeys that use mash bills foreign to mainstream distilling that utilise unusual grains such as quinoa or malts used in brewing but rarely in distilling, such as chocolate rye malt, biscuit malt, or caramel 120. 

“Our brewing background has strongly inclined our approach. There are so many malts and grains used in beer making that for some reason distillers have never used. One of our favourite sayings at Corsair  is ‘beer is simply whiskey that hasn’t yet reached its true potential’.”

Threat to old order

With consumers increasingly looking for new trends and ideas, craft distillers such as Corsair offer a real threat to the old order in the future. When that happens is to be seen, but the day is not far away. Indeed, it’s a sign of how serious the leading craft distillers are that the likes of Tuthilltown, Balcones and Corsair have distanced themselves to a large extent from the American Distilling Institute with the formation of a new organisation, the American Craft Distillers Association, which is less about helping new distillers set up, and more about opening new doors worldwide.

“The formation of the ACDA signalled to the US industry the arrival of an industry association representing craft members,” says Tuthilltown’s Erenzo. “It is unaffiliated and not part of the Distilleries Council of the United States (DISCUS). The first task is the pursuit of a discounted Federal Excise Tax for the craft producers, similar to the discount enjoyed by microbrewers and wineries.”

That’s an internal American issue, as is the desire of some of the established craft brewers to draw attention to, and shame, the American craft distillers who are giving the sector a bad name. Several are simply buying in spirit and putting it in their own bottles and implying they distilled.”

But it’s only a matter of time before they turn their sights on foreign markets. And that might have implications for the European whiskey market. The new producers don’t have the same respect for the three-year rule as the traditional distilleries, for instance.

Chip Tate, who has just expanded his Balcones distillery having originally built it from scratch, says that it is not about the three-year maturation rule at all.

“I have already been contacted by the Scotch Whisky Association and I politely told them that their comments had been noted but I didn’t engage with them,” he says. “They don’t like what we’re doing but that’s their problem. Our view is that it’s for America to decide what American whiskey is, and American whiskey does not have to be three years old. We want American whiskey to be recognised in the same way as Scotch is.

“But it works the other way round. We believe that America shouldn’t define what single malt whisky is. At the moment single malt whisky must be matured in virgin oak barrels to be sold in the US. Scotland and Ireland are exempted from that rule so it hasn’t mattered. But now the likes of England, Wales, Sweden, the Netherlands and France are producing single malt for export that picture is changing. It’s a matter of time.”

A matter of time

What the growth of American craft distilling means is that it’s only a matter of time before countries all over the world will be experiencing a wide variety of new flavours from America. Some new American distillers are already looking for partners to pursue new routes and distribution channels across the world. Others are openly stating that they’re trying to create a business that will attract investors and/or purchasers to expand internationally.

Dynamic and innovative American whiskey is coming your way soon. Now who would have thought that even 10 years ago?