American craft whiskey has come a long way in just two decades. The movement started with a handful of distillers who began fermenting in the mid-aughts and has now grown to over 570 small distilleries, according to Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute. Although there were a few small whiskey distilleries around the country that had gotten their starts in the 1990s, outfits like Old Potrero in California and Prichard’s in Tennessee, it’s the distilleries that rose up in that first decade of the new century — the modern pioneers of micro-distilling — that blazed the trail that so many have followed since. Those years saw the birth of a handful of startups in Colorado, New York, and Texas, some of which had to lobby their state governments to amend local law just to allow them to exist.
Yet it wasn’t long after craft whiskey started to gain momentum that some influential cognoscenti began turning their noses up at the spirits made by most small distillers, engendering a dismissive attitude that continues to stick a full decade later among a large slice of enthusiasts. Accompanying all that scoffing are a number of myths about how small distillers make whiskey, notions that were at best only half true in 2010 and are woefully out of date today. These attitudes remain frozen in the craft whiskey 1.0 era, labeling said whiskeys as underaged in small barrels with a flavor profile that is hot, woody, and cloying.
Yet how most small distillers around America make their whiskeys has evolved during the last decade and a half, as lessons were learned and operating scale grew. Early on, small whiskey makers embraced a spirit of innovation, some of them borrowing heavily from craft brewing along the way. Their successes even inspired the big distillers to come around to adopt certain craft-like practices, and now most of the big guys operate a micro-distillery of some description, capable of the small, craft-scale production runs favorable to experimentation (the best example is Buffalo Trace, which runs a separate, small distillery in the same complex as its industrial-scale setup). These trends came full circle when Nicole Austin, who began her distilling career with Kings County in Brooklyn,was named master distiller for George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey in 2018.
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American Whiskey Grows Up
Balcones wasn’t the first distillery project to get started in Texas, but it was among the earliest, and its story is arguably the most iconic. Founders Chip Tate and Jared Himstedt famously did much of the construction and fabrication necessary to get the distillery built themselves, inside an old welding shop in Waco. The brand’s first whiskey, Baby Blue, was released in 2010 and was typical of its time in two ways: It innovated by making the first blue corn whiskey, imparting a richer and oilier flavor to the spirit; and used small barrels to reduce aging time down to several months. Baby Blue, although flavorful and unlike anything on store shelves at the time, illustrated both the pros and cons of craft whiskey 1.0.
Pressed by the need to get a whiskey on the market as soon as possible, many early small distillers like Balcones relied upon small barrels to age their whiskeys. Using these small barrels increased the ratio of wood surface area to liquid contained, thereby accelerating some (but not all) aspects of the maturation process. From the mid-2000s to the early 2010s, the term “small barrel” usually meant a cask holding anywhere from 3 to 10 gallons, as opposed to the familiar 53-gallon American Standard Barrel that is the bedrock of the whiskey industries in Kentucky and Tennessee.
In the years that followed, Balcones grew, gained renown, and sought investors. Those investors clashed with co-founder Tate, who sold his share and started a new distilling project. Balcones went on without him to open a new $14 million production facility using large copper pot stills, increasing production by a factor of 10. Yet even before the new facility came online, the company was already using larger barrels, and moving away from its start with tiny barrel aging.
Balcones isn’t alone among the modern pioneers of micro-distilling in making the switch to bigger barrels. Before there was Baby Blue, Tuthilltown’s Hudson Baby Bourbon was made using 3- and 14-gallon barrels, with aging periods ranging from six to 24 months. Tuthilltown now uses 15- and 26-gallon barrels for at least two years of aging, and 53-gallon barrels for at least four years of aging. Brooklyn’s Breuckelen Distilling relies on 25- and 53-gallon barrels. Also in Brooklyn, Kings County Distilling uses 15- and 53-gallon barrels, as does Philadelphia’s Mountain Laurel Spirits, makers of Dad’s Hat Rye. Nowadays 15- to 30-gallons barrels are the norm with small distillers, while 53-gallon American Standard Barrels and the even larger 59-gallon casks made by wine coopers are in more common usage than the tiny 3-gallon and 5-gallon casks that were prevalent in the early days.
The change in barrel stock underscores how whiskey made by small and medium-sized distillers has been gaining in maturity alongside the companies that make them. The malt whiskey made by Stranahan’s, another one of the earliest craft whiskey entrants, has been getting progressively older over the years. This has culminated most recently in the latest iteration of Stranahan’s Diamond Peak, which pairs four years of normal aging in new oak barrels with further aging in a solera system based on a trio of foeders (a type of large wooden cask).
The category-wide shift was driven by a problem inherent with using those tiny, new oak barrels that held less than 10 gallons. Namely, they came with a time limit for aging. Several months in these smaller vessels is ideal, maximizing extraction of color and flavor from the oak. However, using those barrels past a year risks drawing more flavor and tannin than is desirable. Whiskeys over-aged in new oak tend to become astringent and “woody.” In comparison, it could take 20 years for a whiskey to gain over-aged flavors in a 53-gallon barrel, while over-aging can happen in as little as 15 months in a 5-gallon barrel. By transitioning to a mix of larger barrel sizes, distillers were enabled to produce mature, aged whiskies that still retained an identity distinct from that of the big guys of the upper South, who rely entirely on the 53-gallon barrels and a traditional approach to maturation.
The Era of “Bottled In Bond”
The best statement on how craft whiskey has grown up over the last 15 years or so is found on the labels of a growing number of expressions that read “bottled in bond.” The term has been a statement of quality since the passage of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. Bonded whiskeys are made by a single distiller from stock made in a single distilling season, aged in a bonded warehouse for a minimum of four years, and bottled at 100 proof.
Small distillers value one of those requirements in particular. “Producing a bottled-in-bond whiskey allows us to communicate to customers that Wigle produces whiskey that is older than four years,” says Alex Grelli, co-founder of Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh.
Although the small barrels used by many in the early days of craft whiskey could impart vanilla and tannic flavors, some parts of the maturation process demand time — the kind of time a small barrel doesn’t allow for. Over the years spent in the cask, some of the harsher chemicals in the spirit are extracted from the whiskey and into the wood, while others bond with each other and transform or otherwise break down. Young whiskey can be very flavorful, but a smooth and sophisticated character comes only with maturity.
However, few small or medium-sized distillers are able to lay up whiskey for years just to see how it will turn out, and only then develop special products. That’s a luxury for well-funded, large distilleries that can better afford to tie up capital in aging unproven whiskeys. So the introduction of these craft bonded whiskeys is no happy accident. An additional challenge? Smaller barrels have a greater evaporation rate (a.k.a. “the angel’s share”), so the relative loss from a 30-gallon barrel will be significantly higher than from a 53-gallon barrel. Putting out a craft bonded whiskey is the result of farsighted and deliberate planning, embracing the challenges and expenses, and making the changes necessary to accommodate older whiskeys. Some small distillers had the idea of creating a bonded whiskey from the start.
“We never set out to make a super-young whiskey,” says Al Laws, founder of Laws Whiskey House in Denver. “We wanted to be the first bonded four grain bourbon in the U.S. Our bonded whiskeys are true small batches. Not two barrels, but 10, 20, or 30, so we can reach those interested in the flavor experience.”
To meet that goal, Laws relied on 53-gallon barrels from the beginning, and Laws’ Bonded Four Grain Bourbon followed in due course, once the distillery had aged sufficient amounts of 4-year-old whiskey. Following that milestone, it steadily introduced 4-year-old, bonded versions of its other whiskeys. Then the age of those bonded whiskeys began to increase in 2019, with the release of a 6-year-old version of the Bonded Four Grain Bourbon.
For Wigle Distillery in Pittsburgh, moving toward the production of a bonded rye whiskey was practically an outgrowth of its identity, so it had it in mind early on. “We are named for a man, Philip Wigle, who started the Whiskey Rebellion when he punched a federal tax collector,” said Grelli. “The bottled in bond designation is inextricably linked to federal whiskey taxes, and so we knew we wanted to produce a product to celebrate this class of whiskey.”
The days when a typical craft whiskey came from tiny barrels are far behind us now, and the truth is small whiskey distilling in America transitioned to its 2.0 stage a few years ago. Most craft whiskeys are aged for longer periods, while the use of unorthodox grains has grown from blue corn and brewer’s malts to include red corn and exotics like spelt and millet. Although aging whiskey takes time, changing perceptions sometimes takes longer, but any of the expressions listed below ought to help with any lingering doubts.
6 Top Examples of American Whiskey’s Next Wave
Mountain Laurel Spirits is not just part of the gaining maturity of craft whiskey, but also a leader in the revival of Pennsylvania Rye. Dad’s Hat make a bold, spicy rye based on an 80 percent rye, 20 percent malted barley mash, which is a true throwback to pre-Prohibition whiskey.
Laws Whiskey House followed up raising the age of its bonded four-grain bourbon last year by doing the same with its rye this year. It’s just as novel, too, since extra-aged and bonded rye whiskeys aren’t exactly commonplace on the market.
Old Potrero has remained small and has been around for a quarter-century now, which has given it plenty of time to produce some middle-aged and even truly old whiskeys. Those go into its occasional Hotaling releases, the most recent of which was an 11-year-old version of its 100 percent malted rye whiskey from 2017.
Another example of craft whiskey before there was craft whiskey is California’s St. George’s Spirits, and the distillery has been releasing a new lot of its popular single malt for two decades now. Last year’s Lot 19 was made from stock aged in ex-bourbon barrels and sweet port and dessert wine casks for six to eight years.
Traditional bourbon is made using mostly corn, usually making up about two-thirds to three-quarters of the mash. This Ohio farm distillery makes its bourbon with an exotic mash bill: 54 percent corn, 23 percent rye, and 23 percent malted barley. A recipe like that produces a spirit that draws less flavor from the sweet corn and more from the nutty, fruity barley, while retaining the spicy note found in most of the bourbon made across the Ohio River in Kentucky.
Sometimes an extra-aged or bonded whiskey from a small distillery is a special one-time or periodic release, and not part of the brand’s regular line-up. Washington’s Woodinville Whiskey, however, has based its flagship bourbon and rye squarely on being at least 5 years old.