Dominated since Prohibition by a handful of increasingly growing and consolidating distillery giants, the American spirits industry has for the past few years been undergoing a transformation similar to that experienced by the wine industry in the 70s and the beer business in the 90s.
Although still a hairline sliver on the market share pie chart, craft spirits are steadily making their presence felt at the better bars and retailers around the country, sparking a renewed interest in great grandpa’s cocktails and setting new standards for quality and integrity.
Although smaller is not necessarily always better (and there are some pretty unpleasant craft spirits on the market) the finest examples of artisan distillates combine premium, often locally sourced, base materials with meticulous attention to detail. Widely available in Indiana, Death’s Door’s exceptional gin and vodka are produced from grain grown on Wisconsin’s Washington Island.
North Shore Distillery also makes award-winning white spirits with its custom still in Lake Bluff, Illinois, but it’s the absinthe that’s the real
scene-stealer, fashioned in tiny quantities, and arguably one of the best to be found anywhere in the country. The product of months of research and experimentation, it’s the kind of product that simply could not have been made on an industrial scale by a global conglomerate.
Slightly closer to home, if exotic libations are your thing, Chicago’s four year-old Koval Distillery is rapidly carving out a niche with a range of
organic and kosher products created from scratch without the addition of neutral grain spirits, a common practice amongst the larger manufactures and rectifiers. Particularly intriguing are the whiskies, made from a variety of grains (including spelt and oats) grown by Midwestern farmers, and a handful of pure and expressive fruit eaux-de-vie, quite the rarity in these parts.
Perhaps better known for his award-winning wines, Ted Huber produced his first brandy at the Starlight Distillery in southern Indiana in 2004. One of only two craft distilleries currently operating in Indiana, Starlight Distillery turns out a small range of carefully-nurtured fruit-based distillates. Although still not widely available outside his winery, Huber’s Peach Nectar, an infusion of fruit in peach brandy from the family orchards, makes a splendid dessert wine with a distinctly local flavor. Huber’s strikingly packaged Apple Brandy, an authentic take on Normandy’s Calvados, captures the essence of the orchard aged in French oak. It’s well worth the search.
Although not certified organic, Colglazier-Hobson’s Sorgrhum (it takes its name from a Caribbean spelling of rum) could hardly be more natural
and un-tampered with. Made entirely from sorghum grown and processed by an Amish family in Bromer, IN, the drought-resistant grass is hand-cut and crushed in an ancient horse-driven mill. The ensuing juice is cooked down to make syrup, then hauled up to Indiana’s only other craft distillery, Heartland, where it is brewed into a beer-like “wash,” then distilled into a unique and captivating rum-style spirit. There are no additions or manipulations at any stage of production, making this as pure a spirituous expression of a raw product as you’re likely to find anywhere.
A joint project between Heartland’s Stuart Hobson and retailer and spirits expert Matthew Colglazier, Sorgrhum perfectly expresses the essence of traditional agriculture and Indiana’s new-found love of all things food-related. Available in two versions, white and dark, Sorgrhum is a versatile spirit which happens to lend itself well to a number of classic and modern cocktails. Both are exceptionally clean spirits, with a purity and depth of flavor which only comes from expert distillation and premium raw materials. The white, at 43 percent alcohol, has a delightfully sweet and earthy nose leading to a full, spicy palate which gives the impression of sweetness while remaining dry. It’s perfect as a substitute for rum in mojitos or caparenas, or any other white rum-based drink, for that matter.
The dark, which is aged for six months in new American oak barrels, is more complex, with creamy vanilla aromas and flavors, a hint of dark spice and a long, well-rounded finish. It’s a great sipper, reminiscent of a fine Martinique rum, and it also lends itself well to mixing.
In October of this year, Colglazier-Hobson will release the first craft-distilled, double-barreled Indiana Bourbon. It too, will be produced at
Hobson’s Heartland Distillery, which has built a reputation for its small-batch vodkas and gins produced from locally-grown corn and maize.
Packaged in a German stone bottle, under the name Spring Mill, the bourbon will weigh in at 90 proof and retail for around $30.
Welcome as this new generation of craft spirits may be, it pays to exercise some caution when purchasing an unfamiliar product. Much of what is
bottled these days as artisan or small batch is in fact merely re-packaged mass-produced distillate from a larger manufacturer. Although the quality may be absolutely fine, the ingredients and processes are in all likelihood far from artisanal.
Stores that stock some or all of these items include: