Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Know Your Local Booze

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

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


Maine Distilleries in Freeport, Maine. [Photograph: Andrew Strenio]

With more people adopting the locavore lifestyle, it was only a matter of time before people would start drinking locally too. As Toby Cecchini writes in today's New York Times, the goal to eat-local (or more accurately, drink-local) is becoming increasingly easy to reach in the Northeast, as the number of small-scale distillers booms.

Just a few years ago, such a change didn't seem likely. When Prohibition ended more than 75 years ago, states established a confusing array of regulations that limited, among other things, they way alcohol could be produced. Rules restricting home and small-scale brewing and winemaking gradually eroded, but it's only been in recent years that small-scale distilling has become even a possibility in most states.

This has certainly been the case in the Northeast. Cecchini writes:

"Stills once thrived in the Northeast, with rum in colonial Massachusetts, applejack that made Jersey Lightning an everyday term and Monongahela ryes from Pennsylvania and Delaware that were a staple before bourbon existed. Now distilling is proliferating again, not just with farmers like [New York apple grower] Mr. Grout adding value to their crops, but with disgruntled professionals abandoning desk duty to make gin and whiskey, craft brewers and small winemakers branching out into spirits, and young urbanites setting up stills the way their peers have set up apiaries and charcuteries."

New York and New England startup distillers are joining a rapidly growing group across the country. Oregon has long been home to a micro-distilling movement, and this fall Portland-area distillers took the "rising tide lifts all boats" approach and announced a joint effort to support and promote each other.

It's now possible to visit better-stocked liquor stores and online retailers and purchase gin from Pennsylvania, vodka from Idaho, brandy from California and whiskey from New York, much of it made by distilleries that didn't exist five years ago, prepared in facilities not much larger than a suburban ranch house's garage.

20101222-applejack.jpgAnd while small distilleries such as Derek Grout's Harvest Spirits Distillery in Columbia County, or the apple-brandy still at Uncle John's Fruit House Winery in Michigan, are opening in rural farm areas, much as they did during the country's formative years, small-scale distilling is also going urban, with distillers such as Seattle's Sound Spirits opening within walking distance of big-city amenities.

Cecchini reports that the number of American distillers has increased by almost a magnitude of ten since 2001, when there were 24 in operation. And as he notes in the article, most of these distillers are using small-scale pot stills, which are more labor intensive but produce a spirit with a closer connection with the liquor's base ingredient, in terms of flavor and aroma, than do industrial-scale column stills.

As a result, many distillers are trying their hand at full-flavored spirits such as brandy and whiskey, where a distiller can demonstrate their skill and establish a unique identity, rather than (or in addition to) competing in an over-crowded vodka market where new brands are frequently lost in the shuffle.

Of course, not all spirits made by these small distilleries are good; to be honest -- and I say this as someone who tastes more than my fair share of new spirits and who has populist inclinations that lead me to root for the little guy - some of the spirits made by today's small distilleries kinda suck.

Hey, that's normal. Just because a restaurant buys extraordinary local, organic produce doesn't mean the chef knows how to prepare or serve it, and just because a distiller is putting gorgeous peaches or apples into a new brandy doesn't mean the stuff that comes out the business end of the still is going to be worth putting in a glass. But with more distillers trying their hand at the game, and as they continue to share information and tips among themselves, I think we're going to start seeing more truly phenomenal spirits showing up on liquor store shelves in the years to come. Soon? Don't hold your breath. But eventually? No doubt.

Are there gins, brandies or other spirits from small distillers that have really captured your attention? And are there brands nobody outside your tri-state area has heard of, that we all should get to know?