When Old is New: Craft Distilling Comes Full Circle

Drinking in History

The stories and history surrounding what we sip.


'Wallachians distilling Slievovitz' from H.W. Bates Illustrated Travels, 1860. [Image: Wikimedia]

The first thing I thought when I saw Corsair Distillery's Quinoa Whiskey was how great it is that hippie health food nuts now have their own spirit. The second was that it's refreshing to see that kind of experimentation emerging from today's craft distilling scene. American whiskey has been devoted to the holy trinity of corn/rye/malted barley for years, and vanguard efforts by many new craft distilleries to incorporate alternative grains and ingredients like hops have created a kind of American whiskey Jazz Age, full of improvisation and new thinking.

But as it turns out, these efforts are an echo of the past as much as they're a bold new sound, and have deep roots in the very earliest years of America's distilling landscape. If there's one longstanding tradition of America's food scene, it's to break with longstanding tradition, which ironically is something that today's craft upstarts have more in common with their distilling forefathers than many might assume. Just like that kid we all knew in high school who would smoke anything on a dare, America's early nineteenth century distillers were up for distilling pretty much anything. Turnips? Yep. Carrots? Sure. Fermented maple sap? Done. Whortleberries? Check.

I can only imagine how some of these concoctions would have tasted—turnip spirits sound like a hobo's idea of a salad, while distilled carrots make me think of Bugs Bunny passed out in a gutter. Nevertheless, distilling manuals from the early nineteenth century offer a surprising amount of advice for long-forgotten ingredients currently being reintroduced by today's craft distilleries, including hops, buckwheat, and oats.

The yellowed pages of manuals written by Harrison Hall, Michael Krafft, and Samuel M'Harry—all published before 1820—regularly feature advice and recipes for a variety of concoctions lost during centuries of industry conglomeration. Flipping through them recently, I realized that I had forgotten that it's 2013, and everything has been done before, for better or worse.

One of my favorite new craft gins of recent years is New Columbia's Green Hat, which emphasizes cardamom in its mix of botanicals. It's a flavor I have always loved, and wondered why it wasn't featured more prominently in gin. Enter Krafft, who in 1804 beat us all to the punch, featuring a cardamom-heavy gin recipe. What were some other featured gin flavors? Saffron, cinnamon, sage, and bergamot.

Krafft and the others also offer advice on hopped whiskey, which occupies one of the more interesting corners of today's craft distilling scene. Most whiskey is distilled from a beer-like mixture absent of hops, but Corsair , New Holland Brewing , and Charbay have all recently offered whiskies reintroducing the ingredient. Of the three, Corsair's Citra Double IPA has the most obvious hop flavor, and is the most likely to appeal to drinkers looking for a bolder taste. Charbay is the best and most nuanced of the three. The whiskey on the palate is a bit young, but the finish is excellent—long and lilting with a subtle hop flavor that finally peeks out and then gets stronger. New Holland's Hopquila is an entirely different beast—it has a more floral hop flavor than the others and reminded me of a muscatel wine more than a hopped beer.

All are worth trying, and the distilleries making them have skillfully addressed working with a difficult ingredient with a flavor that can easily deteriorate into something bitter and astringent if handled improperly. Hall devoted an entire chapter—titled Of Hops—to the same set of problems in his manual from 1818. M'Harry counsels distillers to buy the "bright green" hops that have a "gummy or clammy effect" when rubbed between your fingers. His advice sounds eerily similar to something I would have heard my old college roommate say.20130809oathighwestuse.jpg

What we today might consider "alternative" grains also featured prominently in the old manuals, although many early creations didn't become standards for a variety of reasons. While taste was certainly a factor, other logistical problems and cost issues were usually the main deterrents. Today we know how nice wheated bourbon and wheat whiskies can taste. Hall agreed that wheat was flavorful, but it was expensive, and he advised distillers to steer clear for that reason alone.

The same was true for oats, which today are making a comeback with unaged spirits offered by High West and Koval. Hall was also a fan of oats, finding that, when mixed with corn, they imparted a "peculiar flavor, which I think preferable to that given by rye." However, they were dangerous to work with if not fermented fully, and could easily choke up a still and cause it to explode. It's no wonder they fell by the wayside.

But if oats were difficult, working with buckwheat was a nightmare. Ancient distillers write about it the way ancient mariners write of sea monsters. Buckwheat apparently yielded good flavor, but was difficult to ferment and offered slim profit margins. Monte Sachs of Catskill Distilling Company is one of the few craft distillers using it today to produce a spirit called The One and Only Buckwheat. Sachs confirms his forebears' opinion about Buckwheat. "It has a mind of its own," he told me. "Every phase is difficult," from early fermentation to distilling. It took him six months to fully clean the black husks out of his still after his initial attempts to use buckwheat.

The resurrection of dead spirits is one of the most exciting aspects of modern craft distilling, and the old manuals offer plenty of ideas yet to be reinvestigated. It's almost like a challenge whispered from the grave: "Hey guys, throw a mixture of fermented cowslip flowers and pawpaw into your still. See what happens."

Fortunately, many are accepting that challenge. Stepping into the abyss of the unknown is probably the best chance at survival for most of today's emerging craft outfits. Many are at a disadvantage matching the efforts of larger brands making traditional expressions of spirits. The many rules surrounding bourbon, for example, and the economies of scale enjoyed by the big brands mean big hurdles for newbies entering the ring. It's hard for them to match the quality and value of products that already exist, so why not experiment with things the established brands aren't touching?

This is the opinion of industry legend Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker's Mark, who now advises numerous new craft operations. He once told me that going different is the best way to stand out in an increasingly crowded environment where established brands are already making very good products. Sure, there will be plenty of failures, but the successes will be worth it. He calls it the "spaghetti against the wall approach," meaning "throw it against the wall and see what sticks."

It seems that that approach was also the path to success for many distillers 200 years ago. Odd as it may seem today, corn scored surprisingly high on the "crazy test" of stuff people were throwing into stills. Europeans were sometimes critical of corn, some even calling it a grain fit only for beasts. Many Americans on the East Coast, already comfortable distilling rye and barley, were also skeptical. By the early 1800s, the bias needed to be addressed, and the early manuals defend the innovative combination of corn, rye, and barley that would eventually morph into bourbon. Hall wrote that the "Kentucky whiskey" appearing in the east "is a powerful argument against the common prejudice against using corn, as the western whiskey is chiefly made of that grain."

M'Harry agreed, writing that, although some preferred the Old World's way of doing things, "Genius has already figured in our hemisphere."

It's difficult today to think of ordinary corn constituting some radical move, but it did. Even after distillers accepted corn, it still took over a century of evolution, innovation, lobbying, and marketing for bourbon to elbow aside other popular whiskies and lodge itself in the nation's collective conscience as a unique American icon. It's exciting to think of some future classic following a similar path. Today that spirit is just a glimmer in the eye of a budding craft distiller, perhaps drawing his or her inspiration from the past.

About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He is currently writing a book about bourbon for Viking/Penguin. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire and on Twitter @ReidMitenbuler.