Dave Pickerell, the founding distiller at Whistle Pig Rye has described the sunset over the hills on owner Raj Bhakta’s Vermont farm as a place where, with a glass of the product, the cares of a business day fade away.
That might illustrate a key difference between craft beer and craft whiskey: the larger brands seem to play better with the smaller ones. The “craft vs. crafty” debate that has plagued the high end of the beer industry lately isn’t taking hold because even the largest whiskey companies have been trying to innovate at the high end of the bell curve, as with Brown Forman’s Woodford Reserve brand, which has been turned into a variety of ‘expressions,’ or Beam Brands’ Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s. Large independent distiller Buffalo Trace’s success of late – it’s the oldest continuously operating distillery in the country – has largely been built by issuing new aged and small-batch bourbons under a variety of labels, and Heaven Hill, the largest family-owned distillery in the country, has rolled up several large labels and issued award-winning small batch versions to build interest.
That’s generated an entry point for many new brown liquor consumers, who have been trained by the craft beer movement to seek an even higher-end, independent or local series of brands.
To meet the demand, many of the new companies are taking advantage of new technologies that allow them to age whiskies more quickly, enabling them to mitigate costs while waiting for newer, better batches to emerge. This is a hedge against one of the key assets for older distilleries, which have years’ worth of larger batches maturing in big barrels, gathering flavors and smoothing rough edges.
There’s also plenty of ‘juice’ available for craft distillers to buy up and work with on their own from contract distillers. Take a product like Angel’s Envy, a young company whose chief distiller, Lincoln Henderson, worked for brands like Woodford Reserve and Old Forester for decades. Louisville Distilling, which make’s Angel’s Envy, bought up a batch from a contract distiller and, to impart a note of difference in its product, finished it in port wine casks instead of charred oak barrels. Even a brand like Whistle Pig, which will eventually have production vertically integrated on Bhakta’s farm, had to get started by procuring Canadian rye while it waits for its first homegrown batch to mature.
There are some other major barriers to the creation of a craft whiskey movement that can fully rival that of craft beer. For one, all distillers face the same excise tax, and recent legislative attempts to carve out a lower rate for smaller manufacturers have failed. Also, the well-established “crafty” brands could create a confusing learning curve for consumers.
Beyond that, however, the availability of novelties like “white whiskey” – think Dukes of Hazard and Junior Johnson style moonshine – has helped stoke interest in younger whiskey formats. As long as these craft whiskies are available in the right package and with the right branding elements, they can create the personal expression that can carry a growing distillery into the later rounds of the fight.
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