At Tales of the Cocktail — my annual July pilgrimage to New Orleans to learn about trends in spirits — I met a crew of microdistillers; craft distillers who are the new artisans of alcohol, making small-batch liquors in quantities that the big guys wouldn’t bother with. At the seminar I attended on “America’s New Distilleries,” led by Max Watman and Matt Rowley, who wrote a book on “Moonshine,” we tasted intriguing samples from nine of these artisan producers, including a sparkling vodka from Artesian Distillers in Michigan that made the bartenders in the room buzz with anticipation: a delicious smooth, caramel-y chai liqueur from Dancing Pines distillery; and a triple-smoked whiskey from Corsair, with a label that reminded me of Reservoir Dogs.
Later I had a chance to “Meet the Craft Distillers.” Among them were folks from Laird, apple brandy brewers who were delighted to hear about my dad’s basement applejack adventures, and Piedmont Distillers, who make Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine and Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon. I learned why Johnson, a NASCAR driver, is associated with moonshine — apparently the two things have gone together since the days of Prohibition. When backyard distillers had a new batch of white dog to sell, they’d get the county’s best driver with the fastest set of wheels to run it past the government agents on the twisty, mountain roads — hence the race circuit was born. Nowadays, Midnight Moon’s products are as legal as an afternoon at the track, but they are still bottled in Mason jars as a reminder of their origins. From their new line of fruit moonshine, my favorite was cherry — infused with big, red cherries that would make an intoxicating treat even after the booze is gone.
“There's a lot of exciting distilling going on from these small operations, where distillers don't have to tailor their spirits to the demands of a mass market or support big advertising campaigns,” blogger Sam Meyer of cocktailians.com, a Tales of the Cocktail veteran, told me.
“We're seeing some interesting experiments, like Tuthilltown's use of very small barrels to expose whiskey to more wood while aging. And the current trend for white dog helps microdistilleries, as unaged whiskey is inventory that they can move right away and not tie up in a warehouse.”
All of these products are made in quantities that big distillers probably spill without really noticing — fewer than 50,000 proof gallons per year. But Wine Enthusiast magazine says, “Some of the most exciting products (this year) came out of small craft distilleries,” and I’d have to agree.
The queen of Cincinnati’s cocktail scene, Molly Wellman, is a true believer. I think part of the attraction is the passion and the individuality that Molly sees in the microdistillers — much like I see in her.
“You can tell who’s a microdistiller and who’s not, because they do everything themselves — from buying ingredients to running the operations to marketing,” Wellman says.
As she explains this, she’s holding an interview, juicing citrus for a busy night ahead and helping an employee with a stuck cash register drawer. “These are people who are passionate,” she says. “They believe in what they do.”
Wellman’s using products from several microdistilleries at Japp's Since 1848, the cocktail joint she has recently reopened on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine to much acclaim. She mentions Cincinnati brand Woodstone Creek, and Oyo (pronounced “Oh-Why-Oh”) from Middle West, a Columbus, Ohio, distiller.
“Every product is distinctive,” she says. “Oyo vodka is made in a traditional, artisan way, in a copper pot. Watershed, which is also in Columbus, uses very pure water, and that’s what makes it different. I like to use the Woodstone Creek vodka and gin in a Vesper Martini, a drink that calls for both. I like Buckeye Vodka from Dayton for a gimlet — it’s very neutral and lets the lime come through.”
Wellman loved the idea of Artesian’s sparkling vodka, but you won’t be able to try it at Japp’s anytime soon. Why? I learned that there’s still a lot of Prohibition that goes on in spite of the 21st Amendment. Ohio is a control state, so a bar can only stock products that are sold in Ohio’s state-owned liquor stores, and most microdistilleries don’t make it to a state store’s shelves. In Kentucky, that’s not a problem, but you still might not find all the little guys.
Brian Hue, a retailer for Cork ’N Bottle, is skeptical: “Microbrewed beers were successful because they were competing against products that weren’t very good. There was a real need for quality in the beer industry. But is it realistic to think small distilleries are necessary? I’m not sure that it is.
“The existing products are really good," Hue continues. "The bourbons — they’re outstanding. So for the price, are you going to take a chance on something that might not measure up? I can’t see it. Loyalty to something local, that’s not a reason. I already consider the bourbons to be local. You’d have to make a more compelling case than that, especially at the prices they’re charging, and I’m not sure these little distilleries can.”
Nonetheless, I’ll bet they keep trying. They’ve outrun the big guys before, and I bet they’re driven enough to try it again. If you’d like to support them, buy a bottle of Woodstone Creek Vodka, order an Oyo Senate at Japp’s, or write to any member of the House Ways and Means committee and say you support H.R.777, the Small Distillery Excise Tax Act of 2011, a bill designed to reduce the rate of tax on distilled spirits produced by small producers and make them more affordable.
Let’s hear it for the little guys!