The American craft liquor movement is producing some truly stellar products. Make no mistake, there are a few dogs in there too, and I’ve tasted my share of local “craft” whiskey which burned my throat and tasted like diesel fuel. That said, small American distilleries are stepping up to the barrel, getting creative, and going against long-standing traditions to produce some truly outstanding liquids.
The best example of going against the grain (pun intended) is American craft gin. Traditionally we think of gin as being heavy on the juniper, with London Dry setting the standard for everyone else to follow. But, smaller distilleries like Distillery 209 in San Francisco ignore all that, and they’re putting out some great gins, with wonderful aromas and a creative mix of botanicals which really bring out the floral and citrus tones.
Here are a few of our favorites:
A grain-to-glass craft distillery in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, Bluebird produces small-batch whiskeys, along with their Juniperus Gin, Vodka, Sugarcane Rum, and Dark Rum. Unlike a lot of local distilleries with limited resources, Bluebird creates everything from scratch using local ingredients whenever possible, distilling everything on-site using a custom hybrid copper still. Master distiller Jared Adkins is no amateur –he worked for some of the biggest beverage companies in the industry, including Nestle and Pepsi, and a large local brewery.
Bluebird’s Four Grain Bourbon departs from the norm, which traditionally uses corn, rye, and barley to produce bourbon. Bluebird uses corn, rye, red winter wheat, and barley, which adds a nice extra sweetness to contrast the spiciness of the rye, giving this award-winning booze a truly incredible taste that’s just perfect for sipping.
San Franciscans insist that people shouldn’t call their town “Frisco,” but you can certainly call this craft brandy Frisco, and it goes down well. An unaged brandy, Frisco uses sweet muscat grapes from nearby California vineyards, and is double-distilled in small batches. We usually think of unaged liquor as a little harsh, but they creatively take the edge off with charcoal mellowing, a technique that is not often used with brandy. The result is delicately smooth, and you can definitely taste those floral notes.
Frisco founder Charlie O’Connell got the idea for Frisco when he was traveling through South America, and discovered Pisco, a colorless brandy made in Peru and Chile, and decided to bring that exotic drink to California using locally-grown grapes.
Of the 1,300 or so craft distilleries in the United States, 450 are commercial, and only about two dozen or so actually craft their own whiskeys – starting with grain, and finishing in the glass. Most local “craft” distilleries simply buy finished whiskey and bottle them with their own label.
I like Cedar Ridge, since they really do everything themselves, including growing their own corn on their family farm. Receiving the American Distilling Institute’s 2017 Distillery of the Year award, Cedar Ridge competes handily against larger brands, and in their native Iowa, it is the number two selling super-premium Bourbon.
A craft “lifestyle” vodka, KEEL is a premium light spirit, with 58 calories. New England Patriot fans will love it – the brand was created by former Patriot Matt Light, along with Rhode Island businessmen Bill Dessel and Tom McGowan.
KEEL is lower on ABV than most other vodkas, which makes this drink especially great for enjoying a few vodka cocktails without having to worry about the calories or the intoxication. It’s currently sold around New England, but their recent multi-million dollar funding round is getting them ready to expand distribution throughout the entire United States.
Nobody can tell me I don’t enjoy my vegetables! Based in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, Boardroom got our attention due to their unique use of vegetables in the distilling process. Their vodka, gin, rum, triple sec and eaux de vie are distilled from vegetables, including a 100 percent beet spirit a 100 percent carrot spirit, and a carrot eau de vie.
Boardroom also has a line of FRESH fruit-infused vodkas, including cranberry, citrus, and ginger, all made using real food – no juice, concentrates, or dyes. This approach is a pleasant departure from the disturbing trend of producing super-sweet fruit flavored vodkas. The FRESH line is mildly flavored just right, not high in calories like those other sugary bottom-shelf products on the market, and because it’s made using all fresh ingredients, the taste is excellent.