Sunday's New York Times tells of how small distilleries - once an anomaly in an era dominated by global brands and arcane liquor laws - are now cropping up across the country at the rate of 10 to 20 a year. And while the laws - not to mention culinary culture - in states such as California and Oregon have encouraged the growth of small-scale distilling, regulators in Midwestern states are increasingly seeing the appeal of licensing local distilleries, which can add considerable value to all those acres of grain.
Early craft distillers such as Fritz Maytag of Anchor Distilling in San Francisco and Steve McCarthy of Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, have garnered international praise for the quality of their gins and rye whiskies (for Anchor) and fruit eaux de vie and single-malt whiskey (for Clear Creek).
But both of these pioneers had strong epicurean backgrounds in regions known for vibrant culinary scenes: McCarthy's family owns extensive fruit orchards in the Willamette Valley, and Maytag - whose family created the blue cheese that bears their name - had already earned the reputation as godfather of the microbrew revolution thanks to his creation of Anchor Steam beer.
As the Times article points out, some of today's microdistillers are more motivated by the potential for quick profit than any long-term commitment to quality. And while excellent whiskies and other time- and labor-intensive spirits are being made by small-scale producers such as Templeton Rye Spirits, in Iowa, and Tuthilltown Spirits, in New York's Hudson Valley, some distillers are looking for a quick fix: distilling grain into high-proof ethyl alcohol, redistilling several times to remove impurities, adding water to reduce the proof, and bottling and selling it as a boutique vodka. While cautious distillers explore methods to create vodkas with a unique quality and style, others are satisfied to bottle a lackluster product and sell it for a premium price.
It's good to get excited by the growth of small-scale distilleries, but as more people enter the industry, products of questionable quality will inevitably show up on shelves, bearing the boutique label and a hefty price tag. To better establish a standard of quality for this rapidly growing industry, it's a good idea to keep talking up the distilleries that are doing it right.
So let's hear it for the little guys: What small-scale distilleries or small-batch spirits do you like?
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.