Changing state laws around the country have fueled a rise in craft distilleries in the past decade or so, and their artisan experiments are fueling the latest whiskey trends. The number of craft distilleries in the state of New York alone has grown to 50 since the state began cutting licensing fees in 2002, and there are 12 in the borough of Brooklyn alone, said Colin Spoelman, co-founder and master distiller at King’s County Distillery.
Spoelman grew up in Kentucky, the state that produces 95% of the world’s bourbon supply. He learned early on to make moonshine, which is basically bourbon before it’s aged, he said. When he moved north to Brooklyn, Spoelman set up a still in his apartment and started making the kind of moonshine whiskey he grew up with.
“Then I started getting very popular,” he said with a laugh. “So I looked into getting a license. I figured if I was going to be pursuing this moonshine habit, I should be doing it in such a way that it wouldn’t get me into trouble.”
He teamed up with partner David Haskell to start brewing in 2010, and the timing couldn’t have been better. In 2002, the state cut annual licensing fees from about $13,000 to $1,500, and in 2009 fees fell further to $128 per year, he said. Other would-be artisan distillers were also taking note — King’s County one of the first in the borough when it launched, and now there are a dozen.
Whiskey artisans had to wait longer to launch than craft beer brewers, gourmet coffee roasters and other small specialty food and beverage categories, which have been growing and thriving for decades. “There were laws preventing small distillers from getting started that went back to the Prohibition era. They were setting fees very high to keep out an unscrupulous element, to make sure the companies were well-funded and legitimate,” he said.
Some 88% of consumers see premium spirits as an “affordable luxury,” according to a 2013 Ipsos report, with “premium” defined as a spirit that sells for $20 or more.
That growth coincides with the rise in craft distilleries, whose products typically fit into one of the top price categories. King’s County’s bourbon retails for about $40 for a 375 milliliter bottle, Spoelman said, and the moonshine is $35.
King’s County Distillery is a small business, with a largely part-time work force that swells to 13 on busy Saturday’s when the distillery is open for tours and tastings. The company’s 2,000-barrel-a-year capacity is miniscule compared to commercial distilleries, but the company sells all it makes, he said, and the next challenge will be figuring out how to increase capacity to meet demand.
The company makes both products with locally grown corn and malted barley from Scotland. Moonshine takes about a week to make, while the bourbon ages in American oak charred barrels for about two years. Other U.S. craft distillers are experimenting with new flavors and ingredients to set their products apart. Rye whiskey’s popularity is rebounding, Tennessee’s Corsair Distillery makes quinoa whiskey and Chicago-based Koval Distillery makes whiskey from different grains including spelt.
The rise of craft whiskey is giving U.S. consumers more taste options beyond the familiar malt whiskey that’s popular in Europe and the Kentucky bourbon and Tennesee whiskey that comes out of a few major commercial distilleries, Spoelman said.
“Only a handful of distilleries are making 90% of all those different brands,” he said. “People didn’t know that. Now they do and there are legitimate alternatives. People are becoming obsessive over the taste distinctions.”
That said, the burgeoning tide of artisan distillers is lifting all boats — demand for all U.S. whiskey is up both at home and abroad.
“Kentucky producers have been around forever, they age whiskey very well,” Spoelman said. “They have their virtues and we have our virtues, and nobody’s losing business. In fact, by introducing people to whiskey and distillation, we have been promoting whiskey and spirits generally.”
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