Fifteen years ago, the number of craft distilleries in the U.S. barely topped 20. By 2010, there were 90, and today that number is edging toward 1,000.1 The craft spirits industry is riding the wave of public enthusiasm for distilled spirits and locally sourced foods and beverages.
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Overall revenue in the distilled spirits market—including the industrial-sized brand-name distilleries—has increased significantly in the past 15 years, reaching an all-time high of $4.2 billion in 2014, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. The craft distillery share of that revenue was $400 to $500 million, representing about 1.7 percent share of the spirits market by volume.1
Nicole Austin, master blender at King’s County Distillery, Brooklyn, N.Y., says there has been a significant shift in market trends since the late 1990s. “In the ’80s and ’90s, during the height of the appletini cosmo drink, people weren’t caring or asking questions about how things were made or where they came from or even distinguished what was good or what was bad. It was just, ‘I want the purple drink or the green one.’”
Now, things are different, agrees Ralph Erenzo, co-founder of Tuthilltown Spirits Farm Distillery, Gardiner, N.Y.
“The general market itself began to be inclined toward handmade goods, to know where they are coming from, to know what they are made of, and to know the people who are making them. And they were insisting on higher quality,” says Erenzo, whose distillery was the first in New York State when it started operation in 2005. “Suddenly, vodka started falling off and there was a new generation of drinkers who were exploring whisky and aged spirits again. We never anticipated the kind of success we have had.”
This change in general tastes has benefitted the distilling industry, which has undergone extraordinary development in a very short period of time, he says.
Pouring Quality into Craft Spirits
Quality in craft spirits is rightly measured by taste. “With every batch, what is most important to us is whether it meets our flavor profile and deciding whether we would want to drink this and whether it is a quality product,” says Andrew Tice, head distiller at House Spirits Distillery, Portland, Ore. “A lot of our best tools for that are our experience and tasting the product every day.”
Maggie Campbell, head distiller and vice president at Privateer Rum, Ipswich, Mass., says that craft distillers have a unique relationship with their customers. “People understand that we are a small handmade product and that, if we want to make it better, we will make it better. But with that comes the commitment that if it is not better, we have to be willing to throw it away.”
Coaxing out the desired flavors requires aging spirits in barrels from different places in the warehouse and then blending spirits from different barrels to get “this large spectrum of character,” Campbell explains.
“When the spirit is fresh off the still, we call that the primary flavor. At that stage it will taste like a fresh cut green apple.” Secondary flavor development happens when both the flavors from the wood and the spirit can be tasted. “And eventually when it has enough age to it, that fresh cut apple will begin to taste like dried apple peel and that oak flavor will begin to taste like caramel and vanilla and lavender. We call that tertiary flavor development. It is like imagining a fresh fruit becoming a dried fruit. That’s how we know that the flavor has actually matured,” Campbell says.