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The microdistilling myth---- comments?


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#1 Denver Distiller

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 12:49 PM

Thought this may elicit some comments:

Article in the Atlantic

#2 GaDistCo

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 01:02 PM

Thought this may elicit some comments:

Article in the Atlantic


Without going into much detail, half of which would have to be censored, let's just say that I DISAGREE with virtually every word of this article...

#3 FarCry

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 01:14 PM

Thought this may elicit some comments:

Article in the Atlantic


If Beam White and Four Roses are the benchmark for this guy, he has a long road ahead of him before he is qualified to judge whiskey.

#4 Don Poffenroth

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 01:45 PM

"Better" is such a subjective word. We like to use the word "different." Are our products "better" than any of the larger producers? I don't think so, and I'm not sure anyone is qualified to use that word anyway. I do know they are different. And I also know that our approach to almost every aspect of the process is "different." We rest well using that word.

I think we all have to be really careful in the phrasing and such we use. Saying that 3 days aging in a 12 ounce barrel is equal to a 25 year old barrel aging is plain stupid. It's different, I'll give you that. Better or equal, I don't think so.

We like being different, and love it when our customers and fans recognize that fact!

DGP

#5 absaroka

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 01:49 PM

How does the is old saying go? "Bad press is better than no press". I think in this day and age that phrase is better suited to the writer rather than the topic of concern. Bad press gets them noticed/hits/posts/etc. It's not hard to find these topics about craft distilling, especially in the last 6 months, on a variety of sites/blogs/media. But for every seemingly negative article, there are 10 positive ones.

I'm surprised by the missing initial knee-jerk reaction of barrel aging wasn't mentioned in there.

#6 cowdery

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 05:37 PM

Risenís article is intelligent and well-informed, and makes a worthwhile contribution to discussion about the relationship between micro- and macro-distillers and their respective products. He made the choice to take a provocative tack. I suggest the reader look past that and consider his actual points. Don't let the blanket pans already posted here discourage you from reading the piece. It's short.

He goes off the track with his proposition that while 'small is better' was automatically true with beer, it's not true with distilled spirits. It wasn't and isn't true with beer either. What is true with beer is that a skillful brewer can make and bring to market, in a relatively short amount of time, a product that to the average, experienced beer drinker will be recognizable as beer and better in identifiable ways than a product such as Bud Light.

Since that is not true with craft whiskey yet his main proposition is correct. There are some micro-distiller products on the market that are admirable for what they are, but they can't stand toe-to-toe even with Jim Beam white label let alone with Four Roses Mariage, which is in fact one of the best bourbons on the market.

I know all distillers have to believe in their products but if any of you thinks you have made and brought to market a finished whiskey that is clearly superior to Four Roses Mariage you are plain and simply delusional.

As for Jim Beam white label, surpassing it is certainly an easier goal, but head-to-head as a straight bourbon? Sorry, no. Not yet. The problem isn't anyoneís skill with a still, it's time in the barrel. There are few micro-distiller whiskeys with at least four years in wood and even fewer, if any, bourbons.

The best micro-distillers whiskeys are, at best, excellent works-in-progress.

Jim Beam white isn't just a four-year-old whiskey, that's the minimum age. The profile includes whiskey that is older, whiskey that has been "pushed" through aging in the most intense warehouse locations. It takes an operation like Jim Beam to make a product like Jim Beam white. You may think itís too young. You may think itís too bland. You may not like the foxy yeast signature. But you canít argue with the quality.

There certainly are whiskeys on the market that are superior to Jim Beam white label, including most of the other bourbons Beam Global makes, but in a head-to-head comparison there is no micro-distillery bourbon that is broadly superior to Jim Beam white.

The contrary argument is not that there are such whiskeys, but that it is the wrong standard, especially at this stage in the micro-distillery industryís development. Making a Jim Beam-like whiskey in a micro-distillery makes about as little sense as craft vodka, but thatís a different argument.

Unlike with beer, where beer drinkers always had the opportunity to taste "other" beers, even after that opportunity became extremely limited, the American whiskey industry was so devastated by Prohibition, then WWII, then by the market's collapse in the 1970s and the intense consolidation that followed, and there was such a high barrier to entry, that there was very little incentive for anyone to serve the demand for idiosyncratic and original American-made whiskey products.

So much more so than micro-brewers, micro-distillers are starting from scratch. Small isnít necessarily better but small has the opportunity to be more interesting, more creative, and more fun. And some micro-distilleries are taking that opportunity. Thatís the rebuttal.

#7 porter

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 07:11 PM

There's a few large differences in producing spirits versus beer. Most of the micro-brewers out there LEGALLY practiced their art at home and were able to perfect some of their ideas before going to market. You can do a small batch and sample out the items shortly after production. They don't have to set on investments for 5+ years while aging. And so forth.

Personally, I think the article was very narrowly slanted toward the bourbon market for some underlying monetary reason. Let's run some toe to toe, side by side, or whatever tastings with micro rums, rye whiskey, absinthe, or some of the other true artisan products against their mega competitors.

And yes, the guy in a rented locker space will usually produce a better cut of meat than Oscar Meyer. If he cares about the company he's going to watch the source of the raw product closer, and charge a higher price. Does that mean all micros are better quality? No. There's some real junk in a bottle out there, but they will hopefully fall off the market without impact to the good ones. That's just business.

How about some stories in different thread about holding public blind tastings against the mega products? Get local serving permits and hold tasting events in conjuction with winerys. That brings in the ladys with their mates, promoting our product to an entirely new group of folks.

Be a little 'outside the box'.

#8 WI Distiller

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 07:42 PM

The comparison to beer is a really poor one. As someone who has been a commercial brewer, this line is frankly insulting: "There's also the issue of skill. Brewing is a young man's game: It's relatively easy to master the basic techniques involved." Anyone who went into brewing on a commercial level with that attitude fell on their butt very quickly. If anything, in areas like fermentation, sanitation and packaging, brewing is far more difficult. I know of several quite good craft distillers who ferment in plastic, open top fermenters, and bottle with little more than a bucket and a funnel. For reasons that should be obvious to anyone who is familiar with brewing, these practices could not create a quality beer.
Again I'll agree with other commenters that the comparison with Jim Beam or Four Roses is quite ridiculous; no small distillery is making products that resemble whiskeys made from blending warehouses full of bourbon to make consistent products. Anyone who is trying to replicate these products on a small scale is taking, in my view, the wrong approach. I do think some of the small guys are certainly putting out stuff of comparable quality, but the characteristics will obviously be very different, which is what we should want.
I think the article from the NY Time that he is commenting on has a great take on the issue:
"'These smaller products are necessarily more expensive, and they may lack some refinement,' said Chris Gerling, an associate of enology at the Cornell Extension in Geneva, N.Y., who runs its increasingly popular introductory seminars on distilling. 'But people get that they’re all handmade, local, often organic. That’s the tradeoff. They can show some rough edges and be more appealing for it.'"

#9 MB Roland

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 08:16 PM

Hello everyone,

I personally have never posted, but my better (and more well known) half, Paul Tomaszewski, has made a few comments. I'm the namesake of our distillery, which doesn't make a whit of difference other than I like to joke that most women drive their husbands to drinking, I went a bit farther and drove mine to making it. I simply felt compelled to respond to this thread.

I've been reading a lot of articles like this lately, and my own take on it is...so what? I really could care less what someone that has a blog or a write-up in a newspaper says [unless it's something that praises our distillery, of course :)] . What our customers say means a heck of a lot more. Is our product being bought, do we get e-mails thanking us for a great product, do we get reorders from distributors; that is what means something to us. Of course we would love being recognized on a larger level or national scale, but the bottom line is what does the individual think that is buying our product?

Gold/Silver/Bronze medals are great. They're spectacular bragging rights. But if the person(s) giving out the awards is the only one that thinks it's a gold medal, well, that doesn't pay our bills.

So, fine, a few bloggers & newspaper reporters prefer big brand name commercial distilleries. It's understandable, the market has been driven for the past few decades by these folks, micro-distillieries are new and what they're putting out is different and unique, and quite possibly scary for those less adventurous. But we (as a whole) do have a following that is excited for our product(s) and looks forward to see what crafty, artisan, and totally one-of-a-kind things we might produce next. That is our target; those folks are the ones that will continue this new and exciting world that we live in.

Bottom line; don't compare us to Maker's Mark or Jim Beam or Jack Daniels. We're not them, nor do we want to be. We enjoy our own brand of distilling, and it's all unique to each micro-distillery.

#10 Melkon Khosrovian

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 09:46 PM

While micro liquor may have a long way to go to reach its quality potential, I think that this article obscures most of its reality by looking at the industry through bourbon-colored lenses.

Sure, whiskeys aged 6 months won't taste the same as ones aged for 4 years. In 4-5 years, we'll get there. In the mean time, we could help create a new style of whiskey, one which seeks to express the flavor of its mash bill in harmony with the flavor of wood, versus have the wood totally overwhelm all but the most basic sweetness of corn and spices of rye.

By ignoring "problematic quaffs" like light and spiced rum, gin, vodka (especially infused), fruit spirits, liqueurs, bitters, absinthe, et al -- basically the bulk of the spirits world -- this article misrepresents reality and at the very least shouldn't be titled "The Microdistilling Myth."

I'd be willing to bet money that most micro spirits in the above categories can win the "Pepsi challenge" against the best international big brands for the same reasons that the public likes micro brews -- because they taste better. Smaller producers almost universally use better quality ingredients, more hands-on techniques and take more changes in creating flavor profiles.

The writer took a complete dive in focusing on one category!

#11 Dado

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Posted 27 December 2010 - 10:19 PM

As for Jim Beam white label, surpassing it is certainly an easier goal, but head-to-head as a straight bourbon? Sorry, no. Not yet. The problem isn't anyoneís skill with a still, it's time in the barrel. There are few micro-distiller whiskeys with at least four years in wood and even fewer, if any, bourbons.


IMO this relates directly back to the discussion started in the "barrel sizing" thread.

Bourbon (as an ex.) is a well-defined product, whose very definition flows from the way it is made, even if it is in (relatively) large quantities. It is perfectly reasonable to look at 4R Mariage as an exemplary example of Bourbon. If aging and time - IE, leaving the stuff alone and not mucking with it - is so important and such a differentiator, then for the standard whiskey types it implies that skill & scale of the actual distilling process may not be so vitally important as we would like to think.

*For the standard whiskey types!*

So why don't we spend more effort making non-standard expressions that broaden the horizon of potential and compete on fertile ground? Instead of fighting a fight that can't be won, it seems to me small scale producers should concentrate on making anything but "by the book" bourbons or vodkas or gins or etc.

IMO this shouldn't be surprising or viewed as antagonistic - the canonical whiskeys evolved along with their process - they are an expression of the way they are made.

The contrary argument is not that there are such whiskeys, but that it is the wrong standard, especially at this stage in the micro-distillery industryís development. Making a Jim Beam-like whiskey in a micro-distillery makes about as little sense as craft vodka, but thatís a different argument.


I think you and I are essentially in agreement, except that I don't think it's a different argument. I think it's a crucial issue that lies (or should lie) at the very heart of what the collective-we is trying to accomplish.

So much more so than micro-brewers, micro-distillers are starting from scratch. Small isnít necessarily better but small has the opportunity to be more interesting, more creative, and more fun. And some micro-distilleries are taking that opportunity. Thatís the rebuttal.


<insert applause icon>

I sure hope I don't step on any toes here, because I'm not trying to. To me this is a bit like the Kobayashi Maru problem - some fights you can't win -- so don't try -- change the rules of the game instead.

Would like to add a recommendation for a documentary called "Mondovino". It's about the wine world, but many of the observations carry over to other beverage & food endeavours.

#12 wadewood

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 07:27 AM

As a consumer, I am a huge fan of the craft distilling movement. Example, I drove 500 miles in a day to obtain bottles of Garrison Brothers Straight Bourbon the day it was released. I also have bought or tried at friend's or bars about every craft distilled whiskey out there.

Clay's article is mostly right on target. I would point out he is really only comparing craft distilled aged whiskey. If you are making craft distilled Vodka, ignore this article; I'm sure your product is equal to anything the big producers put out. The big guys do make good bourbon and some of what they make is exceptional whiskey.

To those that believe along the lines don't compare us to the Jim Beam's, that's not what we want to be, to an extent you are correct. As a local craft distiller, you will sell product to your local market to a certain audience that wants to support local almost regardless of quality. I will buy or try your product once as well. But if you want me or those like me as a repeat customer, you better strive to put out products that are superior in taste to what the big guys are making. Frankly speaking, you are not there yet.

#13 mitchabate

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 09:02 AM

Please ignore most of Cowery's comments. He has never been a fan of micro-distilleries or their products. Anyone who thinks that any of Jim Beam's products are good is lacking in good sense. They age their whiskey in barrels standing up.

Has anyone noticed that Maker's Mark has declined in flavor since they have changed distillers a number of times.
Two of Makers Mark's former distillers are making whiskey - at a micro-ditillery - Whisle Pig (Rye Whiskey) - which is a GREAT whiskey and Wyoming Whiskey - which will be ready in a year or so. Both of these whiskies will be much better than most of the standard products.

Our firm, Downslope Distlling is currently making whiskies which are not designed to taste like the big boys..They are designed for a specific purpose such as mixing in a cocktail. We have other whiskies which are aging and will be released when ready - we do not believe that all whiskies have to be 4 years of age to be considered viable.

I have had single malt whiskies from India that were aged for only 2 years that were amazing.

I suggest that all of us should taste more of the micro-distillery whiskies and ignore Mr. Cowery's comments (who always supports the big boys).

#14 Guppy

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 09:23 AM

Though the author raised some good points, he also makes a number of statements as if they were well known facts that are just false. Starting with "Big Beer makes bad beer", there are a number of "big breweries" turning out excellent beer, Bass, Guinness, Becks, Molson to name a few. You may not like all of these beers or perhaps none of them but they are excellent beers in their classes. If you want a traditional IPA, Bass is the standard, a small brewery in MA called Harpoon has come very close to replicating this. However, some have come to prefer what I call the West Coast style IPA with a bitter finish that comes from the liberal use of local hops. Too bitter for my taste but this doesn't mean one is better than the other.

It's not that the big U.S. beer companies don't know how to make unique, full-flavored beers, it just doesn't make financial sense. If you take all 1600 craft breweries and add their sales together they make up 7% of the U.S. beer market. Another 13% is premium imports which means 80% of the beer consumed in America is bland, domestic, mass-produced lagers and pilners. The craft brewing industry celebrates annual growth every year between 5-10%, at this pace they will grow to 10% about 5 years. Even then, how exactly does Coors or Budweiser attack a market share that is broken down into 5000 different variets of beer?

The big distillers got big because they eventually produced spirits that appealled to the masses. This usually means products with less distinction that go down easy. If you want to make a whiskey that will sell millions, make wheat vodka, age it in oak, and market it as the smoothest whiskey on the planet, Quadruple Distilled!

Taste is subjective, the gift the craft brewing movement gave us is variety. The growth in craft brewing shows that more and more people are seeking out new tastes. Craft distillers can take advantage of this by introducing spirits that are different and stop worrying about what is "better". Full-flavored beers and spirits will rarely win blind taste tests among uneducated palates, does that make a near tasteless vodka better than one with distinctive character?

#15 wadewood

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 10:29 AM

Please ignore most of Cowery's comments. He has never been a fan of micro-distilleries or their products....

I suggest that all of us should taste more of the micro-distillery whiskies and ignore Mr. Cowery's comments (who always supports the big boys).


http://chuckcowdery....te-little.html. In his recent blog post, Chuck Cowdery speaks very positive about Garrison Brothers and Koval Loin's Pride Whiskeys. And here http://chuckcowdery....distillery.html about another small craft distllery - Tom's Foolery. And here http://chuckcowdery....nother-one.html - good things about Finger Lakes.

Those were just in past couple of months.

Edited by wadewood, 29 December 2010 - 11:58 AM.


#16 Paul Tomaszewski

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 11:40 AM

Here's the deal folks. When it comes to American whiskies, for the past 50+ years you've had a pick of 16 flavors of vanilla. For the most part there's been bourbon, tennessee whiskey (almost bourbon), and rye. The vast majority of those are corn-based (or rye) and aged in new, charred oak. However, there are literally hundreds of possibilities for products when you take into account grain bill, distillation proof, and the barrel itself. Up until microdistilleries, you had less than a dozen large-scale whiskey distilleries, all mass producing the same type of whiskey. Whether you think these products are good or bad, they are still all the exact same type of product, for the most part. Now take Scotland, you've got hundreds of distilleries, producing a much more varied array of products. Although (for those distilleries that do) we're in the business of making whiskey, and that typically takes some time, I believe that the average consumer would prefer to have some chocolate, strawberry, and banana, vs. just 16 different types of vanilla. YOU may not LOVE every whiskey produced, but adding some variety and spice to the scene is going to push the envelope and may even spur a new interest in a few new types of American whiskey. We do a bourbon, but we also make a malt whiskey, as well as a dark fired corn-based whiskey that's aged in used barrels (my personal favorite). We've experimented with toasted oak and in my fermenter right now is our first wheat mash that will be aged in used, charred oak barrels. Eventually I plan to do some experimenting with wine barrels, the sky's the limit. And, as my wife says, if someone out there does appreciate our product(s) and buys them so we can pay the bills, that is our first priority. If someone out there makes the craziest mashbill possible, then ages it in a barrel for 3 months, I don't care if I like it or not. However, if it's going into less charted territory for an American distillery, I say go for it at least for the sake of experimenting.

#17 cowdery

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 06:36 PM

If you make a non-mainstream whiskey style, then it's fair to say, "don't compare it to somethig else, judge it on its own merits." But if you choose to use terms about which consumers have expectations -- such as "bourbon" or "rye" or "single malt" -- shouldn't you aim to give the consumer something that is at least recognizable as that style? There is a TTB rule -- and I don't say this to be legalistic, but to show that I'm not alone in thinking this -- that says, in effect, bourbon should look and taste like bourbon. If you make something that is bourbon on paper but tastes nothing like bourbon or, worse, like an unrefined and immature bourbon, then wouldn't it be better for everyone if you called it something else?

You can't, on the one hand, call something "bourbon" for the purpose of enticing bourbon drinkers to buy it, then say "but don't judge it against other bourbons." You can't have it both ways.

#18 WI Distiller

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Posted 28 December 2010 - 06:55 PM

If you make a non-mainstream whiskey style, then it's fair to say, "don't compare it to somethig else, judge it on its own merits." But if you choose to use terms about which consumers have expectations -- such as "bourbon" or "rye" or "single malt" -- shouldn't you aim to give the consumer something that is at least recognizable as that style? There is a TTB rule -- and I don't say this to be legalistic, but to show that I'm not alone in thinking this -- that says, in effect, bourbon should look and taste like bourbon. If you make something that is bourbon on paper but tastes nothing like bourbon or, worse, like an unrefined and immature bourbon, then wouldn't it be better for everyone if you called it something else?

You can't, on the one hand, call something "bourbon" for the purpose of enticing bourbon drinkers to buy it, then say "but don't judge it against other bourbons." You can't have it both ways.


This is a fair point, but I think there is more wiggle room here than you allow for. For example, if a whiskey is labeled, "American Malt Whiskey," what exactly does that mean? It means it's an American whiskey made with American malt, and that's about it. There should be no expectation that it will resemble Scotch whisky, and there has really been no malt whiskeys made by the big American boys, so there's tons of room for exploration and self definition in that term. I also think that if a product is labeled Bourbon, "aged under four years in oak" as the TTB requires for such products, the consumer should realize that while the whiskey will have the major flavor attributes of bourbon (namely corn and heavy char oak), the producer is deliberately putting a product on the market that is younger than most industrial whiskey and it will taste differently as a result. Some might call these whiskeys "immature," while others, especially those who enjoy a well made white whiskey, might say there is more of a balance between grain and oak flavors, rather than an oak dominant flavor.

That being said, if both products have "bourbon" on the label, comparing them is totally valid. And as connoisseurs such as yourself have come to expect the aged flavors, younger products will seem deficient in comparison. This is part of the reason I do not plan to make a bourbon at my distillery, and will age my rye and malt whiskeys at least 5 years. But I have complete confidence that my mixed grain, 1 year old whiskey will be a great product.

#19 delaware_phoenix

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Posted 29 December 2010 - 07:15 AM

The range of whiskies made under Scottish law is pretty diverse. I'm not very knowledgeable in that area, but even a casual look shows the diversity.

Doesn't seem to be the case here in the US. As Mr Cowdery well knows, it's only since March 1, 1938 that bourbon has included a definition that it be stored in new charred oak containers (barrels). So for the first hundred plus years of bourbons' existence there probably were very interesting bourbons, and because of the loss of our history of this industry we'll never know about any of them.

The large patent still producers are able to produce an excellent product, efficiently, and in mass quantities. But it's only one basic expression with a narrow variation. But I'm not inclined to agree that that is the only way bourbon, or rye whiskey, or wheat whiskey, etc should be made or taste.

#20 mitchabate

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Posted 29 December 2010 - 10:46 AM

Just to prove you dead wrong: http://chuckcowdery....te-little.html. In his recent blog post, Chuck Cowdery speaks very positive about Garrison Brothers and Koval Loin's Pride Whiskeys. And here http://chuckcowdery....distillery.html about another small craft distllery - Tom's Foolery. And here http://chuckcowdery....nother-one.html - good things about Finger Lakes.

Those were just in past couple of months. If you are going to disparage somebody, get your facts straight first.


Just because he has mentioned a few micro-whiskies does not take away from my main point. He has NOT supported the small guys.
Read his blog - 90% plus about the big guys - get your facts straight -




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