From Behind the Bar: On Craft Distilleries

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.


[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm Drinking: Delaware Phoenix Corn Whiskey (rocks) Sixpoint Brownstone Ale (Half-pint)

I've been thinking a lot about distilleries lately, which means I've been thinking a lot about yeast. These single-celled microorganisms are gracious enough to eat carbohydrates we lay out for the purpose, converting them to carbon dioxide (which makes our sourdough rise) and alcohol (which deflates our grades in college).

When we talk about fermentation, we're talking about a process that involves millions of these tiny creatures chowing down on sugar and emitting a substance that makes us dance at our weddings, frequent our bars, black out on our benders, and fuels an entire industry that generates over one hundred billion dollars every year in the United States alone. It continually amazes me that my entire career behind the bar is predicated on the fact that some yeast were hungry, and noticed that some guy put out a batch of malted barley mash for them to eat.

I won't regale you with the process of how this happens, as Michael Dietsch wrote it so well in his fabulous post on Scotch whisky in this space. What matters most to me is that yeast makes beer, beer makes whiskey, and whiskey is experiencing a renaissance in this country. People are drinking scotch, and the scotch whisky makers are responding with ever more creative (and delicious) offerings. People are drinking bourbon, when ten years ago it was bleeding market share. That same ten years ago, one would have been hard pressed to find any rye whiskey in a bar. Now, I can offer multiple ryes from multiple distilleries, and that barely scratches the surface of what's available.

A lot of credit for this newly-discovered popularity belongs to the pioneers in my business, the bartenders who reminded people that cocktails are the patrimony of the United States. Equal credit is given to our big distilleries, like Jim Beam and Wild Turkey, who responded to the call for more and better products from which we could make our libations. They gave us rye whiskey when none could be found, because we wanted to make a proper Manhattan. They gave us bourbon, which could rival the best of what was being offered by whisky producers across the ocean.

This increased demand has sparked an offshoot—the American craft distillery. Small distillers with frontier mindsets who are not limited by the definitions that constrain bourbon or rye whiskey are pushing the boundaries of what can be done with American whiskey. According to the American Distilling Institute, North America will have over 400 small distilleries by the end of 2015. Ten years ago, there were less than sixty. From my perspective on the ground, I could not have named one back then. Times have indeed changed.

As a nation, the United States has finally gotten over our collective hangover caused by Prohibition. While the 21st Amendment allowed us to sell booze again, the State laws regulating the manufacture of those spirits often remained onerous to anyone without the funding to struggle through the regulatory hurdles. Only recently have States reevaluated these laws (thanks in my State of New York to the men behind Tuthilltown distillery), and spirits can now be produced legally and logically in Utah, Oregon, California, and many other states. We now have a growing number of fantastic spirits in this country, and that is causing an ironic problem.

As both a maker of cocktails, and a buyer and seller of spirits, I am now faced with a conundrum. I believe in this movement, and want to support it in any way that I can. My mind is blown on a regular basis when I taste what comes out of these distilleries, and the first thing I do when trying a new whiskey is try to turn it in to a cocktail. The problem lies in the growth of the industry itself. A few years ago, I could clear space on my back bar for the few bottles of small, hand-crafted spirits that were out there. Now there are so many that they are competing with each other for the same space, and it's hard to decide who to support.

Perhaps there is a middle ground between direct competition and economic Darwinism. Maybe we should look to Scotland as a model. Single malt distilleries sell up to 90% of their output to blenders, who take it and make fine blended whiskies. The single malt producers still get to do what they do best, but have the revenue stream to keep the lights on while they are doing it.

Maybe it's time for a new American blend that takes the best of what's coming out of these distilleries and creating a new category. Maybe the big distilleries could support this movement, fostering the growth of whiskey in America while helping this nascent industry grow. It makes sense to me, but I am a blender by nature. I make cocktails, after all.