Old-school Distilleries Take a Page from the Microdistiller Playbook

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

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


[Photo: Heaven Hill Distillery]

I've previously mentioned how distillers of bourbon and rye, those iconic American whiskies, have for many years had mostly a grudging relationship with change and innovation. I've also noted how this is starting to change, with the growing practice of cask-finishing bourbons and the creation of experimental whiskies using different recipes and techniques. Now, as more small-scale craft distillers are starting to get into the whiskey business, the American whiskey part of the liquor store is becoming a much more dynamic place. As Malt Advocate publisher John Hansell noted last week on his blog, the boundaries between old-school, large-scale distillers and brand-new, small-scale startups are becoming increasingly blurred.

The latest example? The TryBox Series of New Make whiskies from Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Heaven Hill is one of the giants in American whiskey, a family-owned operation founded just after the repeal of Prohibition, that produces major brands including Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbons, and Rittenhouse rye whiskey (the company also produces a bunch of other non-whiskey booze, including Christian Brothers Brandy and the value-label Burnett's gin, vodka and rum). With the popularity of their bourbons and rye, it's a safe guess that Heaven Hill isn't hurting for whiskey business; nevertheless, the debut of the TryBox Series is a case of a big-name distillery taking a page from the microdistiller playbook, and introducing unaged "white dog" whiskey to a market of largely younger consumers that's showing a great deal of curiosity about every aspect of their whiskey.

"White dog"—the name for whiskey fresh off the still, before it's gained color and a depth and roundness of flavor from aging in charred-oak casks—has been enjoying more than its fair share of the spotlight in recent years. Part of this is due to the practice of large distillers such as Buffalo Trace, which sold its unaged whiskey in its gift shop as an example to visitors of what its eponymous bourbon tastes like before it goes into the barrel for aging. Demand for the white whiskey grew so large that last year Buffalo Trace made it available on a wider basis.

2011330whitedeathsdoor.jpgBut while Buffalo Trace began selling its white dog largely as a curiosity and an educational tool, other, much smaller and newer distillers have seen dollar signs in this raw spirit. Whiskies such as bourbon and rye take years of barrel aging to gain their characteristic flavor; while it's legal to sell younger whiskey with provisions on how it may be labeled, most straight bourbons and ryes are four years old or older.

For startup distillers, that's a long time to wait for the sales receipts to start coming in, so producers such as Woodinville Whiskey in Washington, Copper Fox in Virginia and Death's Door in Wisconsin have been selling their unaged whiskey in an effort to not only bring in a little cash while the rest of the whiskey ages, but to build a word-of-mouth (or mouth-of-bottle) reputation so the aged product will have a ready audience upon its release (Copper Fox already sells aged whiskey along with its younger relative).

Elijah Craig bourbon and Rittenhouse rye already have prestigious reputations, but Heaven Hill's TryBox Series presents unaged, cask-strength versions of these whiskies for bartenders and drinkers who want to compare the fresh-off-the-still spirit with the more familiar aged whiskies.

As John Hansell writes in his blog post, major distillers such as Heaven Hill don't have anything to fear from startup distillers just yet. But as these new whiskies begin to reach maturity and become increasingly common in liquor stores and bars, large distillers of American whiskey may find themselves in a somewhat unfamiliar arena, contending with a growing number of new competitors in an increasingly crowded market. As Hansell notes, some major players may let their wallets help sort out the situation, as liquor giant William Grant did last year with the purchase of New York-based Hudson whiskies from Tuthilltown Distillery; other small-distillery pioneers such as Colorado-based Stranahan's and San Francisco's Anchor Distilling have likewise been purchased by bigger companies. Still others will follow the model of distillers like Buffalo Trace, perhaps the most experimental and innovative of bourbon distilleries, or like Heaven Hill, which is showing some wisdom in getting out in front with the white-dog ball and keeping its whiskies relevant for a growing customer base that's fickle in its brand loyalty.

Long averse to change, American whiskey has become one of the more innovative and intriguing classes of spirits in recent years, and with more distillers coming online, that level of change is bound to continue. If you're a whiskey drinker, where do you see these changes going? Are these shifts and experiments good for whiskey consumers, or do you see any drawbacks along the way?