NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- If you’ve gone into a liquor store recently, you may have noticed the arrival of a “moonshine” brand made down the street in what used to be a vacant warehouse. Craft distilleries aim to take a big drink out of the entrenched global brands that dominate the hard liquor market. And so far, they've been pretty good at recruiting some of the biggest talent from the most-famed U.S. liquor brands.
According to the American Distilling Institute, craft distilleries are growing at a very fast pace. U.S.-based craft distillers rose from 24 in 2000 to 52 in 2005 and now stand -- or still -- at 234, as of the end of 2011. The institute estimates there are at least 50 new craft distilleries currently in planning or under construction. The craft distillery movement seems a logical next trend after the microbrewery craze.
According to Mark Spivak, author of the upcoming book, “Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History,” craft distilleries are defined as those producing less than 40,000 cases per year. The concept of micro-distilleries, he says, “is really in the imagination.”
Here are 10 of the most imaginative craft distillers in the U.S., according to liquor and travel experts:
This artisan distillery makes moonshine, grappa, apple brandy and rhubarb liqueur in a renovated warehouse in the small town of Cashmere in North Central Washington. The distillery makes all of its products by hand with fruits and grains grown in Washington state. “Their true claim to fame is a gin like no other. Normally the only botanical in gin is juniper berries, but at It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere a host of botanicals including hibiscus, coriander, citrus peel, cardamom, and star anise are incorporated to make a full flavored gin you’ll not find anywhere else,” says Washington State travel expert, Heather Larson, who runs the site, Discover Washington State.
“Lincoln Henderson retired after 40 years as a master distiller with Brown-Forman, during which time he developed Early Times, Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel and Woodford Reserve,” says Spivak. Of course, Henderson’s idea of retirement was to make his own bourbon. Lousiville Distilling produces Angel’s Envy Bourbon, the real Kentucky deal. “Angel’s Envy is a stunning small-batch bourbon finished in port barrels---unctuous, sweet and satisfying,” says Spivak.
WhistlePig: Distiller Raj Peter Bhakta purchased a 400-acre farm in Vermont, one of the oldest in the state, according to WhistlePig’s website, and set about making WhistlePig Rye. Dave Pickerell, who served as master distiller for Maker’s Mark for 14 years, makes the 100 proof whiskey. Spivak calls this rye “full-bodied, aggressive, forceful and dramatic.”
Death’s Door Spirits: Founded by Brian Ellison to help the Washington Island, Wisconsin farmers sell their wheat, everyone seems to be willing to walk through death's door to get a tatse of these spirits. Ellison's background in economicsy has helped him growing the business producing vodka, gin and white whiskey. Production is ramping up, as Ellison has recently expanded his facility to allow for national distribution.
Located in Traverse City, Michigan, this distiller lays claims to Michigan’s oldest micro distillery, meaning it's had some time to claim a number of awards and distinctions. The company’s True North Vodka was named in 2009 as one of the Top 6 Vodkas in the World by Wine Enthusiast and one of the Top 50 Spirits. “This micro-distillery is known for using Michigan-grown ingredients like rye, wheat and, of course, cherries,” says Traverse City based movie critic, Jane Boursaw. Traverse City is a well-known wine producing region (Michiganite Madonna even bought her dad a winery here). “They also hand-craft their spirits in small batches, focusing on quality, not quantity,” Boursaw says.
Talk to anyone who has roots in the south and you will find most of them have a family moonshine story. These days, moonshine is being made legally and can be found in many liquor stores. One of the best, according to Spivak, is Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon. The moonshine is from the recipe books of NASCAR driver and bootlegger Junior Johnson. The moonshine uses the original Johnson family recipe, but is triple-distilled and is sold in Mason jars.
Located in Little Rock, Arkansas, Rock Town has the distinction of being the state’s first legal distillery since prohibition. Rock Town produces Arkansas Lighting, gin, bourbon and hickory smoked whiskey, but it is the bourbon that Fred Minnick, an expert on whiskey who writes about the spirit, thinks makes it one of the best in the country.
Locally sourced, organic products are all the rage for some people these days (especially in the Pacific Northwest where this whiskey is made), but these drinks still should be measured by their flavor. No problem there: “In my opinion, it is the best organic wheat whiskey I’ve had,” says Minnick of the Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based distiller.
Tag Galyean and John Little founded Maxwelton, W.Va-based Smooth Ambler in 2009. The company’s website says it combines “patient Appalachian know-how with the finest American ingredients.” The distillery produces the brands Old Scout Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Yearling Bourbon Whiskey, Exceptional White Whiskey and Whitewater Vodka, but Minnick says it is the Greenbrier Gin that makes it earn the "smooth" moniker.
New Yorkers, especially Brooklynites know of this craft distillery, which produces the gin brands Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin and Dorothy Parker American Gin. “You can pick them up at liquor stores throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I like to drink mine at the distillery's next door bar, The Shanty,” says food writer Casey Barber. “Nothing like getting them straight from the source.”
More on the finer side of drinking:
Best craft beer cans for the summer cooler
10 American brew pubs every beer fan should visit
10 fruity beers for late summer sipping
--By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell