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Friday, September 3, 2010

Do most craft whiskeys suck?

Great guest post at John Hansell's What Does John Know? blog (John's on vacation, and brought in guest bloggers to fill the gap, and they've been doing a great job!) by Steve Ury of the SKU's Recent Eats blog. Steve contends that most craft whiskeys suck, and -- as you might expect -- the comments go wild. Go read it, comment, and you beer guys, come on back here and let's have a discussion on how the early craft distilling industry is similar and different compared to the early craft brewing industry. I think they're apples and oranges; what do you think?


Alistair Reece said...

I have to admit that I didn't realise there was a "craft distillery" movement over here (though obviously I was aware of the new local distillery here in VA that is blending some stuff while their own whisky ages). The article there dis answer a few questions mind as to what distillers do to keep food ont he table while their whisky is aging. More reading required.

Rick Garvin said...

As a new craft brewer I'll tell you that the economics of a microdistillery are more like a bank than a craft brewery. The amount of capital that you have to tie up in whisky barrels for years at a time is appalling. The short-aged wood flavored spirits that are coming out of places like Catoctin Creek with their Roundstone Rye are interesting and flavorful; we do enjoy them at home. But a four year old version will be something all together different. I'm willing to wait for the dividend.

Bill said...

I think the guest poster on WDJK? also agrees they're apples and oranges, but that those who write about them had been treating them as if they were both apples. Or both oranges.

My reaction to the few craft whiskeys I've tried has been "interesting." I rarely dislike them. I usually see them more as cordials -- they're full of interesting flavor, but don't often come across as bourbon or rye or Scotch. I've had some come across as really malty beer.

I guess the question is, what makes a distillery a craft distillery? I always viewed Anchor's products as coming from a full-fledged "normal" distillery, and they hold their own with their competitors.

Lew Bryson said...

I guess the question is, what makes a distillery a craft distillery?

Writing a piece on that right now, Bill!

Gary Gillman said...

Lew, the business models are different in a number of respects, I agree. However, someone made the point on that blog that in its early years, a lot of the beer coming from craft breweries was not at the quality level it is today. It took time for craft breweries (in many cases, not all) to find their legs.

In the case of the craft distillers focusing on whiskey, they will need more time. This is not so much because they need to learn to distill whiskey better, but because they will need a few more years to have a primo product.

But the inventive among them will bridge the gap, in different ways: by making white spirits, flavored whiskeys, and quick-matured whiskey by using wood chips and similar methods.

The businesses are different too because spirits promotion is more restricted than for beer I believe, at least in many places. And the markets probably are different (less young people) but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Craft brewing and craft distilling are different but share enough similarities in my view that in 5-10 years we will see numerous well-established small distillers selling a range of products including well-matured bourbon and rye.


Chibe said...

Recently at the blog there was a post about legalizing home-distilling. One thing that post got me thinking about is how homebrewing serves as an incubator for the brewing industry both in terms of developing the next generation of brewers and in terms of developing more sophisticated consumers. So long as that's not the case with booze (and given the other difficulties discussed here) it seems natural that established distilleries with their institutionalized knowledge would have a leg up.

bill mc said...

Alright, so I'm going to go against the mainstream of posters here....

No, they don't suck, its a matter of preference, some are smoky, smoe are peaty, etc..

What they are is overpriced. Wait before you trash me. I see craft whiskeys in tiny bottles (Hudson Valley, NY) in my area for the same price (or less) as a decent national brand. So, why should I overspend for a tiny bottle when I can get equal(my opinion)quality for the same money. Craft beer is different, while it is more you do get more for your money.

So it isn't if they suck its that they cost too much comparitively speaking.

JohnM. said...

Commenting strictly as a consumer, my reaction has been similar to the one expressed by Bill Mc. The craft products I've had so far have been interesting, though IMHO, not up to standards of most larger distilleries. That's not such a terrible thing, but what I find annoying is the pricing (to the point where I've given up buying them, except on occasion by the drink in a bar). Perhaps the high prices are justified from the viewpoint of the craft distillery, but if I'm going to pay $20 to $40 for a craft product (and considerably more than that in some instances), I want the sipping experience to be comparable to what I get when I spend that kind of money on a bottle of Knob Creek, Bulleit or Hennessy VSOP.

All things being equal, I'm happy to support a local product made by a small producer. Unfortunately, at least at present, my feeling is that all things are not equal.

In the case of craft beer, I'm happy to pay comparable or higher prices for what I feel is a vastly superior product. The day that I can find a craft whiskey or brandy that delivers the same degree of quality for a comparable price, then I'll start buying it.

As is usually the case, from a consumer standpoint we all want the maximum amount of value for our dollar. At least in my mind, while craft distilleries show some promise, I do not feel they deliver sufficient quality for what they are charging. So for now, I will continue to avoid them.

Lew Bryson said...

See...that's kind of my problem, JohnM. If big-company whiskey was all boring, bland, and one-dimensional like most big-company beer, I'd consider paying more for the microdistilled stuff. But it's not. Most of the whiskeys on the market are actually pretty good, with some obvious exceptions. The exceptions are the ones craft distillers always bring up, but the fact is, you can still get really excellent American whiskey for under $30, easily. Evan Williams Single Barrel comes to mind immediately.

Funny thing, though: most craft distillers have rejected bourbon and gone to either rye or malt whiskey.'s because rye is (currently) in short supply, and Scottish malt whiskies sell for so much more than bourbons? Dunno.

Lew Bryson said...

I wish they would sell more white spirits, and less really young whiskey. And...selling that really young whiskey makes me wonder just how much well-aged whiskey they'll have in five or ten years...

JohnM. said...

Given the topic of this particular blog, you may not want to post this response (as I'm afaid it may go too far off topic). However, your response to my post is an area that I find quite fascinating, as I also have reached the same conclusion regarding the products put out by large distilleries as opposed to large breweries.

I remember quite well when I first started seeing small batch bourbon on the market place some years ago. I really wasn't much of a bourbon drinker back then, and for the most part considered it only fit for highballs and the like. The first time I sampled Booker and Knob Creek I was literally outstounded by what I tasted (in a good way). Not unlike my first reaction to beer that wasn't made by one of the big three, I remember thinking "wow... so this is what good bourbon tastes like. Now I understand the attraction."

Given the initial excitement and increased interest in small batch bourbon at the time, I fully expected the big distilleries to react the same way the big breweries acted with the microbrew revolution. I figured they'd try to undercut it by reducing pricing, ramp up an add campaign advising consumers that small batch bourbon was no good, try to restrict distribution, etc.

Much to my shock, most big distilleries appear to have taken the high road. They acknowledged that small batch bourbon was good, and then quickly went about making a reserve product that was at least as good. At least to my unsophisticated palate, Evans Williams single barrel, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, etc., are every bit as outstanding as the small batch bourbons I initially sampled (arguably they are even better, though in my mind that's simply a matter of taste - in any event, quality is clearly very, very high).

On the other hand, large breweries appear to have been very, very careful not to make anything comparable... on the contrary, while companies like InBev-AB make an ocean of different beers in various styles and packages, my impression is that they go out of their way to make sure they don't make anything too flavorful, rich, or full bodied... even though you have to think they have the capability and skill.

Ah well, just my two cents, but I do find it very interesting how large companies in these two industries have elected to address similar threats (arguably) in such different manners to a small, new, energetic, high quality competitor (I know small batch bourbon isn't/wasn't really new, but its availability on a national level was pretty new. At least that's my understanding).