Scraping the barrel

That bottle will cost you about $100. Fly it to Europe, wait six months then put it up for sale and chances are you’ll be able to sell that bottle on for £250. That’s crazy economics.

The craft revolution is partly a reaction to this void. At first the big Kentucky distillers ignored the new producers, and then they criticised them for selling poor quality and badly made whiskey, and damaging the overall whiskey category. But some of the new boys are building strong reputations and are growing rapidly, to the point where they are joining the ‘establishment’.

Change of tone

In turn the big producers have changed their tone significantly. They seem to accept the best of the new distillers are here to stay, realise they’re attracting a new generation of whiskey drinkers, and they are warming to them.

“At the World Whiskies Conference last month the attitude towards craft distillers was surprisingly positive,” says Winston Edwards, brand ambassador for Texas distiller Balcones, which has won accolades across the world. 

“It’s interesting because the stance the big players have taken is exactly the opposite of the craft beer industry, which sees a lot of conflict between small and big brands. The large corporations have an edge though – their products are already good. Craft distillers will have to really up their game if they want to compete on a large scale.” 

Edwards expresses the view that the craft distilling sector is breaking into sub-groups, with the leading players just as critical as the established distilleries of the snake oil merchants who have tried to make a fast buck by cutting corners. 

“There’s some serious potential for the sector to get diluted, so to speak,” he says. “We’ve already seen age statements get dropped, proof lowered, rising prices, and the beginning of the flavoured whiskey revolution. Hopefully the innovation that craft brings to the table will raise the bar for everyone, leading to wonderful new whiskeys we’ve never imagined before.”

Lew Bryson goes further: “The whole thing’s being eroded by craft whiskey labelling; the Tax & Trade Bureau is letting them get away with it in the way of age statements, and ‘straight’ seems to mean nothing anymore. The big distillers have realised that it’s very much in their interest to make sure the Standards of Identity remain strongly in place, so they’re starting to make noise about that. 

“The TTB is also starting to make noises about stepping up its game on labelling, so I think that’s going to get better with regards to keeping standards. 

“That said, a lot of the craft guys are experimenting with used barrels and just dropping ‘straight’ from their labels. 

“As I predicted, no one’s really noticing except the 0.01% of whiskey geeks. No one in the general public knows what it means.  

“I’m not happy with some things – non-age statements, the boom in flavours – but the core remains strong. The thing that worries me is what happens when Jim Rutledge of Four Roses and Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey pass from the scene, and no one fights the marketers?”

Barrel concern

“The rest of the world should be particularly concerned about the use of used barrels in American whiskey, because if it takes hold it means America will hold on to millions of barrels and won’t be selling them to the rest of the world, exacerbating the barrel shortage even further.”

Some problems then, but overall American whiskey is in rude health – even if we’ll have to wait longer to share in it.

“The American whiskey scene couldn’t be more exciting than it is at the moment,” says freelance whiskey writer Liza Weisstuch. “There’s a perfect storm of tradition and innovation. Small distilleries are increasing in number exponentially and, while there is some scandal about a lack in transparency around their products, it looks like there will be a Darwinian effect and the fittest – the ones being honest and making authentic products – will survive. Consumers are savvy, they don’t like to be deceived.

“But with the interest growing non-stop – with new consumers and seasoned drinkers alike – producers are prepared for the future and the US industry is in a good place for success.”

Trey Zoeller of Jefferson’s Distillery in Kentucky agrees. “The established Kentucky distilleries are all doing very well right now, increasing market share with their existing offerings as well as introducing new ones,” he says. 

“American whiskeys are in the first quarter of the game in my opinion. Not only is whiskey in a good place, there is a great knowledge from their consumers and they want more. More juice, and more innovation as long as it is still has proper time in the barrel.”