If you’re a whiskey drinker who likes variety and isn’t hidebound to a single notion of what “bourbon should taste like,” then I’d love to pour you some whiskeys you probably haven’t had. Ryes and bourbons from distilleries making a 2,000 to 3,000 barrels a year—or less. Whiskeys well worth your attention.
And whiskeys I don’t even think of as “craft” because they’re so good and so on par with the quality of anything from a major distillery. Those bottles come from distilleries that don’t need the “craft” badge because they deserve all the respect given mega-producers. Yes, even if they lack barrels laid down when George W. Bush was President.
Does that mean the term “craft” denotes bad whiskey? Technically and practically, no. But in some circles, yes, because craft, unfairly nor not, is used to describe whiskey that’s A. not fully matured, B. tannic from small barrel aging, C. rushed into bottles and, D. priced expensively “because we have to make money somehow!”
And suffer me this sideline for a second: No one returns to a new restaurant that charges high prices for low-quality food, drink and service, right? And no good restaurateur will tell dissatisfied customers, “Oh, please don’t be hard on us. We’re new; we’re just learning the trade.”
Or, imagine me, a freelance writer, telling a client that I deserve veteran-writer pay despite only learning now how to report, write and edit well. That doesn’t fly in my trade, yet somehow the notion of “support us now when our products aren’t great” is OK for some small start-up distilleries.
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Back to delicious lesser-known whiskeys: I’ve not employed any scientific method in my “research,” and my sample group is maybe 30 people. But 100 percent of my “subjects” (whiskey-experienced friends who drink thoughtfully) have had their tastebuds rocked when I’ve poured them whiskeys from Hard Truth Distilling Co. (Nashville, Ind.), Laws Whiskey House (Denver), and Spirits of French Lick (French Lick, Ind.)
Generous whiskey sharers know the look: eyes suddenly widening with surprise before the person asks, “Who did you say made this?” followed by, “Can I have some more?” One friend even left the room and returned with a small sample bottle to fill for himself. Clearly, he got it! And he didn’t care that it came from a “craft” distillery.
So why don’t we just call all distilleries what they are: distilleries large or small that are turning grain into spirits, aging, bottling and selling it. Sure, specific grains and water and distilling and aging and bottling techniques are at work within each. I get that in my head and on my palate. But does that really matter to the consumer as much as it matters to marketers?
Most whiskey consumers have two questions in mind when they choose a product: Does this taste good and am I willing to pay what they’re asking for it? That applies to buyers of $20 handles as much as hunters of $200 limited releases. (Well, unless you’re a flipper or a flex-collector showing off.)
“Craft” in the whiskey-drinking circles I move through is losing its meaning because knowledgeable drinkers don’t care if a distillery makes one, 100 or 1,000 barrels a day. They just want the whiskey to be delicious. If it’s unique—and here’s where grain selection, distillation technique and aging come in—that’s not only great, it’s, “Can you pour me another while filing me a sample bottle” outstanding.
Time and again, that’s happened to me with the three aforementioned distilleries. So, here are my favorite bottles from each.
- Hard Truth Distillery: Sweet Mash Rye (HTD’s first release of its own whiskey)
- Laws Whiskey House: Four Grain Bourbon, Bottled-In-Bond; San Luis Valley Rye Whiskey, Bottled-In-Bond; San Luis Valley Rye Whiskey, 6-year Bottled-In-Bond (had it on a recent press trip there, and it’s scheduled for release this year); San Luis Valley Rye Whiskey Cask Strength; Centennial Wheat Whiskey, Bottled-In-Bond
- Spirits of French Lick: Maddie Gladden Bourbon, Bottled-In-Bond; Lee Sinclair Four-Grain Bourbon; Bottled-In-Bond; Solomon Scott Rye Whiskey, Bottled-In-Bond; William Dalton Wheated Bourbon
All of these are available outside the states where they’re made, but they’re limited in number, of course. All of them, at least to me, are worth the hunt, and worthy of shedding the “craft” label.
Steve Coomes is editor of BourbonBanter.com. A Louisville restaurant industry veteran turned award-winning food writer, he has edited and written for dozens of national trade and consumer publications including Pizza Today, Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living over his 31-year journalism career. As a spirits writer, Steve's work can be found in Bourbon Plus, Bourbon Review, Bourbon & Banter, WhiskeyWash.com and other publications. In 2014, he authored the book, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and has authored other titles as a private ghostwriter.
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