Craft-Distilled Whiskies Start to Catch On

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

"It's an exciting time for American whiskey."

Five years ago, if a curious drinker were to walk into a liquor store and purchase an American whiskey, the choices were almost exclusively bourbon, rye or Tennessee whiskey, almost all of which were produced in a more-or-less identical manner in either Kentucky or Tennessee. Today, as the craft distillery movement hits its stride, the choices are opening up, and the profile of American whiskey is starting to look much different from what it was just a few years ago.

A sign of the growing prominence of craft-distilled whiskies became clear last week, when British liquor giant William Grant & Sons announced a partnership with Tuthilltown Spirits, a small distiller based in the Hudson River town of Gardiner, New York. The arrangement gives William Grant the opportunity to add Tuthilltown's line of Hudson Whiskeys—which includes a bourbon, a rye, a corn whiskey, a single malt, and other styles of the spirit—to a distribution portfolio that includes Glenfiddich, Hendrick's Gin and Milagro Tequila.

With such a major figure in the liquor industry working in their corner, Tuthilltown's whiskies will likely soon be found in a number of new markets, giving thousands of whiskey drinkers a chance to taste a spirit that's slightly different from the average Kentucky bourbon or rye.

The timing couldn't be better.

Just over a month ago, American craft whiskey distillers gathered in Louisville to discuss the state of their industry, and as Jason Wilson wrote last month in the Washington Post, the situation is generally positive. While distillers continue to face the very real challenges of getting their whiskies into a crowded market dominated by massive brands and global liquor conglomerates, they have enthusiasm—and, increasingly, numbers—on their side. Recently, these craft distillers received a vote of confidence from the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., a trade group that began offering affiliate memberships to small-scale distillers.

Of course, enthusiasm on the part of distillers, and from their local customers, doesn't count for everything; the whiskies also have to taste good. There are some extraordinary spirits now being sold by small-scale distillers, from the Iowa-based Templeton Rye to Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, and including the unaged wheat whiskey from Wisconsin-based Death's Door as well as the Rendezvous Rye from High West Distillery in Utah.

There are also some whiskies coming out that, frankly, won't last long, and not because of high demand; crafting good whiskey requires time, patience and no small amount of talent and training, and as we've seen from boutique gins and vodkas, some startup distillers just don't have it.

It's an exciting time for American whiskey, and there are some very good spirits being made by small-scale distillers. What are some of your favorites?