In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe deliberate on the future of local spirits. Can a distillery operating out of a small city (or state) ever expand to other regions? And for local distillers, is national (or international) distribution even the goal?
For this Friday’s tasting, join our hosts as they try some of their favorite locally made spirits: bourbon from Taconic Distillery in Hudson, N.Y., and whiskey from Westland Distillery in Seattle, Wash.
Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast,” Friday edition. So friends, we have a good conversation this Friday. But before that, any prestige TV, since this is also a prestige TV podcast? Joanna’s watching “Yellowjackets.”
J: I am. By the time you hear this, the show will have ended.
A: Yeah, I’m super pumped. Zach, what about you? Any prestige TV?
Z: Caitlin and I have been watching “The Wheel of Time,” which is an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s comically long series of fantasy novels. We’re enjoying it. We’re most of the way through the first season. The only thing we’re watching that’s actively coming out as you all are listening to this, is “The Book of Boba Fett.”
A: I haven’t started it yet.
J: I’m not sold. It’s not as good as “The Mandalorian,” right?
Z: We’ve just seen the first two episodes. As we’re recording this, the third episode just came out. We haven’t actually seen it yet because, again, children are complicating factors in all this. This is not going to be a big “Star Wars” conversation, because this podcast will be long and maybe unlistenable.
Z: I found the last movie and this most recent trilogy to be basically unwatchable. But I don’t mind all this other weird, ancillary “Star Wars” stuff, because I enjoy the trappings of “Star Wars” a lot. It’s like, there are “Star Wars”-y things, but we’re not really doing the classic “Star Wars” stuff, which is kind of cool with me. I think it helps make the “Star Wars” universe feel a little more lived in when there are these smaller stories in it. But it is a little weird. It definitely does not conform to a lot of my expectations for what a “Star Wars” show would be. But I kind of am enjoying it. It’s good enough for me to keep going with for now..
A: Is this also Jon Favreau?
Z: Yes, it’s very similar to “The Mandalorian.” It’s sort of a spinoff, I guess you could say. Even though “The Mandalorian” is a spinoff of “Star Wars,” and “Boba Fett” is actually in the original movies. It’s a smaller-stakes show, at least at this point. “The Mandalorian” at least had this element of connection to the bigger galactic intrigue. So far, we have not gotten there. There are some weird aliens, and you learn an alarming amount about the nature of night entertainment on Tatooine.
A: Interesting. There’s one other show that I’m watching, well there are two, but only one that’s the best thing in the world, and that’s “The Righteous Gemstones.”
Z: I thought about that. That’s Danny McBride, right?
A: It’s just amazing. But he’s the third or fourth funniest person on the show. It’s just so good. I was telling Joanna earlier, at least 50 percent of the show has to be improved. It’s just so funny. The dialog is just hilarious. And then, I don’t know if you guys have seen “Reservation Dogs.” I’ve watched it off and on for the past few months, but it’s the first-ever Indigenous comedy. It’s a comedy in the way “Atlanta” is a comedy.
J: It’s a dramedy.
A: Yes. But it’s very, very good and very well done. So I would recommend those. Aside from that, let’s talk about our Friday topic, which is something that I’ve noticed recently. Zach, you’ve noticed it as well, and Joanna, too. I really noticed when I was most recently in Portland, Maine. I feel like the only people that give a sh*t about local distilleries are the local bars and restaurants that support them. What I mean by that is it feels like, as Zach put eloquently in our Slack when we were talking at the topic, are local craft distilleries doomed to always be local? Is there truly any opportunity to ever become a national brand? Or are we seeing what has already happened to beer happen much faster for distilleries? You had Hudson Baby Bourbon, which became a national brand and got purchased. You’ve seen a few others like High West, which was purchased by Constellation.
J: Where is High West from?
Z: Park City, Utah.
A: They built a brand because it was in Park City, and all these people were flying into Park City to ski, and they were drinking it while they were skiing, and they were flying back to wherever they live. It was in this destination that helped make it national. But with a local distillery in Philly, is it ever going to be national? I was at the hotel bar in Portland and the bartender was like, “I got to make your cocktail with the local gin.” Like, OK, man. First of all, it’s $4 or $5 more than if I had just gotten Tanqueray or Hendrick’s. It was fine. Then, I saw it everywhere in Portland specifically, and it was just fine. But everyone wanted to recommend it, because it was the Portland gin. I happened to walk by the distillery, and nobody was there. Whereas all the craft breweries in Portland were really crowded. I don’t think anyone really does craft distillery tourism. Do you spend the afternoon in a distillery? I don’t know.
J: In Louisville you do.
A: But those are real distilleries. I didn’t mean that. I mean, they are real. They’re big brands that people go and chase bottles from.
Z: There’s a whole tour for that. “Pick your Famous Bourbon Distillery” is a whole event; it’s an hour- long tour. It’s analogous to going on a tour of Budweiser or something in that sense. They have a whole thing set up for that. If you go to a craft brewery and say, “Hey, I’d like to take your tour,” they’d be like, “great, there are the taps.”
A: When you go to craft breweries, you ask to take the tour and they just walk behind the bar and into the room: “That’s where we ferment.” And then they hand you hops to smell. That’s the tour, here’s another beer. That’s usually the tour at the craft brewery. So you’re totally right. At these big distilleries, what they’re really well known for is releases that are only there that people now collect. Even with Heaven Hill, there are certain versions of Old Fitzgerald that you can only get at the distillery. Obviously, Buffalo Trace has lots of stuff that you can only get at a distillery, and special days when they’re releasing a special release that’s hard for people to get. So I think it’s just different. What do you both think? Do you think that distilleries are doomed to be just local things?
J: I don’t know. I was thinking about this before our conversation. I get the allure of it to be in Portland and you’re going to the bar and they’re like, “We can give you this local gin.” That is appealing to me. Of course, I’m here, why wouldn’t I want to try the local spirit? But why would I care about that spirit outside of Portland, necessarily? It makes sense for craft spirits to be local. I don’t get it outside of its own state, how it could make that jump, or why it would.
Z: There’s a lot of complicating factors here. Adam’s already revealed what I put in our Slack channel. I think that this general concept is very spot-on. With few exceptions, it is really hard for small distilleries to escape a couple of challenges. One of them is that it’s harder and harder to get your product out of the state legally when you’re a distilled spirit. Working with a very small number of licensed and bonded spirits distributors in other parts of the country can be really tricky. You have to figure out a hook. And again, you think about a lot of the ways that these craft distilleries were launched. When craft distilling laws were liberalized in most parts of the U.S. in the last couple of decades, there was a rush to be like, “Hey, we recognize that there’s an opportunity here to fit in and among a burgeoning craft movement.” Not just in beverage alcohol, but in many, many things. We can make vodka, gin, whiskey, etc., in any corner of the country. A lot of places really put a lot of their focus and attention on capturing some of that home market. Some distilleries have been really successful doing exactly that; they haven’t necessarily looked to go beyond. The ones that have succeeded in going beyond have almost, without fail, done so in the way you described. Either by being completely and wholly purchased by a much larger entity, or at a minimum, selling some significant stake of their interest to a big company that just has the wherewithal not just to inject capital to grow production, but the more difficult thing for a lot of these distilleries is get their product in front of people not just around the country, but in some cases around the world. We’ve talked a lot about Aviation Gin on this podcast in other elements. We talk about it as this model of a celebrity-backed spirit that has some real cachet because Ryan Reynolds seems to be really involved. But Ryan Reynolds didn’t launch Aviation, he didn’t invent it. It was a Portland, Ore., company that he got interested in because he tried it and really liked it. Their whole way of getting outside of the Pacific Northwest was like, “Holy sh*t, there’s a movie star who wants to put money in and has connections and can get this into distribution channels around the country.” And now you can get Aviation Gin anywhere.
A: They were early, right? They were another one of these Hudson Baby-type companies. Before they got Ryan Reynolds involved, I think Davos Brands had already purchased them. The other thing is I think it happened so much faster for spirits than it did for beer. For a very long time in beer, there were continual acquisitions where people kept thinking, I could be the local brewery that is also bought by ABI or Kirin or whoever else was making purchases. In spirits, it’s just not happening as much anymore on this tiny local level. As you’re saying, you have to have some other way where you get national. It’s not just that you make a really good local product. Who knows, maybe this bill that just passed in California that’s going to allow direct-to-consumer spirits sales from distilleries could create a flood where other states make that legal. Then we will have what you’re talking about. But I just don’t see that happening anytime soon, because the three-tier system and those lobbies are so powerful.
Z: I want to make a more controversial statement here, too. The other big problem is, most of these spirits are pretty unremarkable. Unremarkable is maybe the wrong way to put it. But they don’t stand, in any meaningful way, head and shoulders above other local craft spirits in other parts of the country. So the craft gin you had in Portland, Maine, might be quite fine. But it might be analogous to the craft gins that I could buy here in Seattle, that someone could buy in Chicago or Austin or Phoenix or wherever. If you’re not in Portland, Maine, and you don’t have any connection to Portland, Maine, why do you want a gin from Portland, Maine that’s comparable to the local gin in your neck of the woods? If you’re going to eschew the big brands — Bombay, Tanqueray, Beefeater — then you’re going to opt for something local to you. Not local to some other place that has no history. And frankly, price-wise, it’s not competitive with the local stuff in your neighborhood and certainly not competitive with the big brands. It’s such a hard value proposition to people. Caitlin and I have purchased some local craft spirits in our travels over the years, and we bring them home. That’s a memento of the trip. But with the exception of maybe one or two that we’ve really liked, we have never ever sought them out again. They’re just a cool memento and they’re fun, and they have a sense of this place that they came from. I’ve got a memory of this trip, but they’re not like something that we would ever get excited about reordering, even if we legally could.
A: A good example of this, you take a brand like Kings County. Diageo had two choices, right? It could buy Kings County, or it could just hire their distiller. They just hired their distiller and moved her down to Tennessee. She’s now in charge of the entire Dickel program and gets to play with super-old whiskeys and bring all the expertise that she had in creating some of Kings County. Because the Kings County stuff was fine, but it’s very specific to a specific area of Brooklyn. So a lot of what you’re saying, Zach, is true. It takes a very long time for a lot of these brands to become really good. In the next 10 or 15 years, maybe we will hear of some sort of brown spirit like a whiskey or something that is a local whiskey in a part of the country that now has enough stock that they’re releasing really old stuff that people are saying is really incredible. That might make them grow. But I do think it’s also interesting. Some of the buzziest craft brands or independent brands in this space will get acquired and that people are really interested in are brands that are just finishing liquid. They like playing with other people’s stock, like Barrell and Pinhook. That’s all MGP juice. When you think about it, that is how WhistlePig started, using other company’s liquids. They’re all using other people’s liquid, because of what you’re saying. So much of what’s distilled in these craft distilleries just isn’t that amazing. The gins are just fine. There’s nothing super special about them. When they’re not tied to anyone else, they become the local product, which is cool. If you live in that city, I think it’s awesome that you would support the local product.
Z: We are seeing an increased emphasis at these places on using local botanicals and other things to flavor gins or local grains for your spirits. But again, that kind of naturally pigeonholes you into your geographic region. Maybe someone is really curious about what a gin from the Mountain West tastes like or New England or the Southeast tastes like. Maybe they go and seek those things out, but you’re fighting for a small audience.
A: You totally are.
J: I think about Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire, which is a place that we’ve covered before. They use hyper-local botanicals and things like that, and they only sell them at the distillery. So you have to go. But I’m also wondering, do you think that this is the goal? Is the goal for these distilleries to go national or global? Or are they fine to be local?
A: No, I don’t think so. I think some would like to; others wouldn’t. I’m sure we’re going to get some people who message and say, “I own a distillery, and I never want it to be national.” I respect that. I think that it’s an interesting study that that is what I think the business is at this point. If you are trying to launch a distillery — especially if your aim is to launch a distillery in which you want to tie the distillery to the local community — you will be a local distillery. Then, it’s all about the super-hyper-local botanicals and things like that. There are always going to be upstart alcohol brands that will pop. There’s going to continue to be new brands that come into the market and that grow and then get bought. I’m just not sure those brands will come from the movement that we’re seeing now. Which is, this is Portland’s gin, or this is the gin made in Asheville, N.C., from all of the botanicals that we’ve picked in the Smoky Mountains. I don’t think those are the brands that will ever be anything more than representatives of the place in which they’re made.
Z: The last piece of this is kind of coming back to what you said about High West. If you are one of these brands that’s looking to launch somewhere in a slightly smaller community, or at least you’re not aiming for national but you want to get there eventually, you need to have some kind of nexus to the broader beverage alcohol industry. Whether that means you’re locating yourself somewhere that has its own kind of gravity or you’re at a place where some of the big festivals are, you need to be somewhere where people are going to get a chance to try what you have. And if enough people get excited about it, you can get in front of the right couple of people. There’s no law that said that the whiskey distillery that had to catch on was High West. As you said at the beginning, Adam, they were well positioned and well branded and did a good job finishing the liquid. But some of it is also that they got in front of the right people at the right time. Maybe the right time has passed a little bit, because there’s so much more saturation. I’m not sure. But I think at the same time, it is not inconceivable to me that in a few years we could be looking at another — not a dominant brand — but a brand that’s meaningful and has launched relatively recently. That can come from who knows where. Somewhere that people congregate from outside of that specific locale, and they get excited about that drink or that spirit and bring it home.
A: Yeah, I agree. Well, let’s drink something.
Z: Yes. My half-ounce treat every week.
A: Your Friday damp day. It’s a Damp January.
Z: These podcasts are all labeled explicit anyhow, but this one is extra explicit.
J: I have a question. In terms of what we consider local craft, I’m thinking of Frey Ranch out in Fallon, Nev. Do we consider that a local craft brand? They’re huge, we love them. We’ve included them on our Best Whiskeys list.
A: I think they’re different. They’ve got a lot of money behind them, and they’re trying very hard to be national. But I would still say that they are a craft local brand. You’d be hard pressed to have anyone be able to know who they are.
Z: I’ll cop to not knowing who they were.
A: Yeah. What do you guys have?
Z: Go ahead, Joanna.
J: I have a brand that’s kind of sentimental because of the first time I had it, which is Taconic Distillery Bourbon.
A: No, you don’t have that.
J: Yes, I do. Why?
A: That’s what I have.
J: That’s so funny. The first time I ever had it was during my first trip with Evan ever, and we went to Hudson and we had a bar there in Hudson, N.Y.. Local bar, peddling their local bourbon. We’ve sought it out ever since because we liked it so much. And my local liquor store actually happens to carry it, so every time I see a bottle and we’re out, I grab it.
A: So I have the same thing. I actually came in contact with Taconic in a little bit of a different way. I have never been to the distillery. I went to Stern, and I was very lucky to speak on a panel in the middle of the pandemic in November 2020. I don’t even know where we were, but we spoke about entrepreneurship. There were a few other entrepreneurs. One of the women in the audience was Carol Anne Coughlin, who is also a Stern alum. She is one of the owners of Taconic. And so she reached out to me and sent me a bottle, and I was like, “Wow, this is really good bourbon.” I think it’s really tasty. It’s her and her husband who own the distillery. I wanted to bring something that is a really good representation of local distilleries. Not just something that I was going to say, “Yeah, I have it, but I don’t like it.” Zach, what about you?
Z: I have a whiskey here from Westland, which is a distillery here in Seattle that I think is actually another example of one of these. Joanna’s familiar, for sure.
A: I know it, too.
Z: They were acquired by Rémy Cointreau a number of years ago, so they definitely started out super local and have gone somewhat national/international. But what I love about what they do is, their whole brand identity is around the Pacific Northwest. And they’re doing a lot of interesting things. I actually interviewed Matt Hoffman, who’s their master distiller, for the podcast about a year ago now. You can go back and listen to that. He talks a lot about how important it is that they use local inputs wherever they can. Not just grain, although the barley is local, but using local oak in some cases. I won’t summarize too much, but I have their sherry wood cask finish. They’re in the process of phasing it out, because obviously there’s no sherry bodegas here in the Pacific Northwest. But I still have some of it because I really like it — even if it’s maybe not the most hyper-local of their products. And they’re all single malt. I may or may not have mentioned that. So it’s a little different from bourbon, for sure, but a really beautiful whiskey that I enjoy a lot.
A: They’re really great; the liquid is great. I’m enjoying my nice little dram right now. I do have a hypothesis of how local brands can pop. I’m not talking about the brands we might be aware of that are — they are craft, but they’re doing what we already said: the barrels and things like that; the Ten to One rums, using other people’s stock. The places where they’re distilling it themselves and are connected to an actual distillery, they have to fully represent an image of an entire place. The Pacific Northwest is a perfect example. Or a gin from Greece is called Stray Dog. It’s named for the fact that Greece is full of dogs everywhere. The images of the brand are all about Greece. The color of the label is Aegean blue. All of the botanicals in it are the really quintessential Greek herbs that we think of, like mastiha, dill, and oregano that can transport you to Greece, to vacation, to a place, to a thing. It’s not just an Athens-based distillery, it represents Greece. Those are the kind of brands that still have a huge opportunity to pop, because everyone in the United States can connect with what Greece is, even if you’ve never been there before. You’ve probably been to a Greek restaurant; you understand what the allure of Greece is, why everyone wants a honeymoon there, etc. I have been to the Pacific Northwest a few times, but it’s been a while, but I can totally connect with that as a place. The outdoorsy vibe of the rainforest and Patagonia. Do you know what I mean?
Z: The whiskey may or may not have notes of flannel. I’m not exactly sure.
A: Well, you can really connect to it.
J: That’s the appeal.
A: That’s the brand. When you think about what a brand is, and we talked about this a few episodes ago, it’s the whole idea of brand strength. That’s why I think High West works. It’s on the edge, it’s the Wild West, it’s Utah. So you connect with it; it’s a more enduring brand. It’s not, “This is such and such brand, made in this place, with these botanicals.” That’s a local brand. I can’t even remember the name of the Portland distillery.
J: I know, you keep saying Portland Gin.
A: They’re going to email me. I’m sorry, guys. I don’t mean to use you as an example. Zach, enjoy your half-dram.
Z: It’s already almost gone, sadly.
A: Joanna, have a great weekend.
J: Thank you.
A: Zach, you’re not drinking; it’s Dry January. So, have an OK weekend. I’ll talk to you on Monday.
J: See you next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.