Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Great American Distillers Festival; or Why It's Tough Being New

While I wasn't able to attend any of the other events during Portland Cocktail week, I did make it to the second day of the Great American Distillers Festival on Sunday. Held in a small-ish event hall, there was still quite a lot of booze spread before me when I entered.

A slice of the available booths

Unfortunately my stomach was a little too empty to make it to every booth, but I did get to try a number of interesting products. My thoughts were a little sparse and became more so as I was plied with whisk(e)y, but here's what struck me at the time.

12 Bridges Gin keeps getting better. Their latest release has dialed back the cucumber notes that used to dominate the gin and become very pleasantly floral. It was also good to hear that their distribution issues are local, rather than being a supply issue.

Cyrus Noble whiskey is totally decent. This private label bottling of Kentucky bourbon has some corn sweetness and vanilla without any noticeable harshness. Probably worth another try when I can have more than a fraction of an ounce, but it's pretty obvious that this bourbon doesn't have more than five years under its belt. Value will be highly dependent on the price-point.

Dry Fly Washington Wheat Whiskey is also totally decent. I found it to be quite gentle for only two years in the barrel. The flavor was grainy, without bourbon's corn sweetness or vanilla due to the pure wheat mash bill. The fact that it's an agricultural product was still clear given that the barrel hasn't had time to dominate. Again, probably worth another try, but it didn't jump out at me with complexity. However, I also felt the same way about Berheim's wheated whiskey, so it may just be that the category isn't for me.

Chatoe Rogue is a new-ish single malt whiskey from Oregon. If I understood correctly, it's aged briefly for 3 months in used chardonnay barrels. This whiskey tastes very fresh, which is unsurprising given how close it is to being a white dog. While there isn't a whole lot of complexity yet, it's still pretty decent for its age and might work well in a New Orleans sour with some orange liqueur and lime juice to round out the flavors. But at the price point, it's kind of a tough sell.

•I tried a number of Golden Distillery's products. Their single malt whiskey had a surprising dose of vanilla in it, which comes from being aged in white oak 10 gallon, rather than standard 53 gallon, barrels. It was another good, relatively fresh product that should improve nicely with more age. I also tried their Reserve whiskey, which is also aged in red oak barrels. It was hard for me to suss out any extra flavors, but my palette was getting a bit burned out at that point. Their apple brandy unfortunately seemed kind of thin and fient-y without the kind of rich apple flavor that I expect. On that front, I think I'll stick with Clear Creek.

•Just to prove that it wasn't just the little guys, I also tried the 12- and 18-year old bottlings from Jameson. In all honesty, they really did nothing for me. Again, my taste buds may have just been too abused to catch the subtleties, but I didn't even finish the sample of the 18-year that I was offered. C'est la vie, I guess.

•Oregon Spirits' wheated whiskey was also a bit simple for my taste, but it might get more interesting with age.

Angel's Envy whiskey was another private bottling, rather than a local product like so much of what was at the Festival. This is a five to six year old bourbon that is then additionally aged for 3 to six months in port casks. This was the last whiskey I tried while I was there, so it was nearly impossible for me to pick up on much. While I'd need to try it again to be sure, I felt like this was another case where I felt like it needed a lot more age. With some 10+ year old stocks and another 6-12 months in the port casks, this could be really good. But it's hard to justify shelling out $50 for something so young that isn't even coming from a craft distillery, even if it has been reviewed very, very favorably.

•Some of the big boys were there to play as well. Four Roses put out quite a nice spread of spirits. While I had previously tried their Small Batch bottling and found it less than appealing, their Single Barrel (Warehouse 5, Barrel 3-6U) was quite a bit better. It had a fairly light nose with hints of brown sugar, vanilla, yeast and caramel. The taste recapitulated the smells and had only a slight burn. I also got to try some of one of their Limited Edition bottlings (sorry, I forgot to write down the details of what all went into it), which was at least as good if not better than the Single Barrel. They're both on my 'to try again' list and it sounds like the price of the Small Batch and Single Barrel should both be coming down in the near future.

So overall, the unfortunate impression that I came away with is that most craft whiskies are just too young right now. I'm not the first to come to that conclusion. Right now they're in a really tough place. I think a lot of people have gotten into distilling because they want to make whiskey, but unfortunately that's as much or more dependent on time in the barrel than it is on what comes off the still. And that's expensive. Aging ties up both space and capital, neither of which are likely to be plentiful for a company that's just starting out and wants to become profitable sooner rather than later. This can lead to a number of different traps, all of which are tricky to get out of.

To begin with, just about every distillery out there makes vodka and gin. This isn't surprising, because they're comparatively easy to make and require no aging. This can start a decent revenue stream. But if the dream is ultimately to make aged products, it's hard to build enough capacity to both keep up with the demand for your unaged products and to distill the stuff that you want to put down for a while. Sure, you can always buy another still, but that costs money, which usually isn't exactly plentiful for new distilleries.

Another route that many distilleries are taking is to bottle whiskey bought from one of the big distilleries. It's not uncommon that they have barrels sitting around that don't quite fit into their established products but are on their own still worth drinking. This is a totally reasonable idea, but has its own complications. It's early days, so we'll see how and whether people are able to transition over to their own aged whiskies, but it's going to be a tough switch.

Lastly, and most popularly, distilleries release whiskies that haven't had a lot of time in barrels. As I mentioned above, some people try to speed this along by using smaller barrels, but it's debatable how much that helps. Some of the reactions that produce the flavorful compounds in whiskey take time to develop and there's no way to speed up the process. Especially with single malt whiskies, time in the barrel seems to be particularly important as they're starting with a single grain rather than the mixtures used for bourbon. I think there's a good reason why scotch usually starts to get really good around 10-12 years. Again, as I mentioned above, there are a lot of whiskies coming to the market with a few months to a few years under their belts. Sometimes that works. I've tried a few 4-5 year old whiskies from microdistilleries that were quite tasty. Even less can still sometimes produce a great product. But you have to accept them for what they are, rather than expecting the rich, vanilla and sweetness-laden whiskey that most bourbon drinkers know and love. And when you consider the price differential between most craft-distilled whiskies and those made by bigger producers, it can get tough to justify shelling out that much cash. I feel like in a lot of cases people (myself included) are willing to pay a premium for what they see as potential, rather than because what's being current put out is the best thing ever. Craft distilleries have to work with what they have, whereas big distilleries have decades of stock to blend into consistent products. So there are hits and misses. Unfortunately it's going to be tough to bring in a wider audience that is accustomed to consistency.

While I feel like I've been a bit doom and gloom, I don't think that all is lost. It's early days and craft distilleries that have been around for a while are putting out really excellent products. However, there does seem to be no small amount of hype and I'd hate for some good projects to be nipped in the bud because they can't deliver right now. In another 5-10 years, I expect to be drinking a lot more really excellent craft whiskey. But right now I'm hoping that there's a lot of what I drank this last weekend sitting in barrels, waiting to see the light of day some time in the slightly distant future.

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