Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: Most Craft Whiskeys Suck!

I'm sorry, but someone had to say it. This particular emperor has been wearing new clothes for too long.

The Phenomenon

Like every whiskey writer/blogger in the universe, I've written a fair amount about American microdistilleries; I even put together one of the first complete lists of American whiskey microdistilleries on the web (which I continue to keep up to date). It's a fascinating and exciting phenomenon. Suddenly, after years of having only a dozen whiskey distilleries, the nation is awash in microdistilleries cropping up in every unlikely nook and cranny. The proprietors of these micros are, almost to a person, lovely folks. They are the type of creative artisans who bring a real love to their craft and have invested countless hours of sweat-equity. They pursue innovative new recipes and techniques; they epitomize the "little guy." Who could not like them? The only problem is that many of their products suck.

I'm sorry, but I am tired of hearing raves about this great new, innovative distillery in Idaho with their first whiskey on sale for $85 plus shipping, only to find out that it's been aged for 18 days and tastes like turpentine. I have had this experience multiple times. Despite their lovable heritage, craft whiskeys are mostly too young, too expensive and too crappy.

Don't believe me? Last May, the American Distilling Institute (ADI), an association for craft distillers, had a craft whiskey tasting competition. A panel of experts blind tasted 65 craft whiskeys. The winner of the best in show award (Best Craft American Whiskey) was High West's Bourye. But the whiskey in Bourye was not made by a craft distillery. It was made by a macrodistillery and purchased by High West, which blended it for Bourye. It turns out that the best craft whiskey in American isn't a craft whiskey at all. (You can read more about this controversy on Chuck Cowdery's blog).

The Press

It's time to admit that many of us in the blogging/journalistic community, out of a desire to encourage and nurture this young industry, have given these craft whiskeys a pass. If you read reviews of craft whiskeys you will continually see words like "interesting," "innovative" and "experimental." Reviewers seem afraid to come down too hard on these lovely folks, so we get a lot of euphemisms. Meanwhile, we continually see romantic puff pieces about one man's brave quest to make quinoa whiskey in a remote Nebraska town. The big exception to this trend has been the aforementioned Chuck Cowdery who has not held back about craft distilleries, particularly those that aren't really distilling.

These Ain't Microbrews

There are constant comparisons between the microdistillery movement and the microbrewery movement, but while there are certain similarities, the two are really apples and oranges. Back in the '80s, before the first big wave of microbrews, the vast majority of Americans were drinking crap beer. It was Bud, Miller, Coors, Schlitz - looks like piss, tastes like water. There was barely any alternative. The microbrewery revolution wasn't just about smaller producers, it was about bringing flavor back to beer. Suddenly, you could get beer that tasted like something. The microbreweries continue to lead the way on flavor and the big guys, for the most part, continue to put out crap.

The story with whiskey is nearly the opposite. The big macrodistilleries put out some amazing quality whiskeys. I'm talking Parker's Heritage, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Four Roses Single Barrel and Wild Turkey Rare Breed. They also put out innovative new whiskeys like the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection and the Woodford Reserve Master's Collection. Sure there is bottom shelf stuff out there, but the macrodistilleries give the whiskey lover plenty to choose from. In contrast, the micros are giving us less flavor and less age, and in the end, that means less care is going into the product. Unlike microbrews, they aren't filling an important gap because there is no gap to fill.

I Said "Most"

Now bear in mind that I say "most" craft whiskeys suck, and by most I do mean the vast majority. However, Anchor's Old Potrero and Charbay's hopped whiskeys are excellent. I consider those two distilleries to be the only two I have tried that compete with the majors on quality. Everyone else is batting for the minor leagues at best.

I do love High West's Rendezvous Rye, but as with their Bourye, it is not craft distilled. It's a macrodistillery whiskey that High West has done a great job sourcing and blending. Sourcing and blending are real skills and High West deserves credit for blending and bottling a great whiskey, but it doesn't count as something made by a microdistillery.

And I have nothing against craft distilling generally. I've written multiple posts on the fabulous craft distilled brandies from Germain-Robin and also enjoyed St. George Absinthe. I'm sure there are other good craft distilled spirits out there, but the whiskey sucks.

Now, I'm perfectly aware that mine isn't the only opinion on the block, so I'd love to hear from anyone who thinks that these whiskeys really do measure up. Let me know which ones you love.

What Do You Think?

To the whiskey writing community I have to ask, are we doing any favors by coddling distillers who are putting out substandard products at inflated prices? Are we being honest with our readers about the line between "interesting" and "worth your hard earned cash"? Is our emotional investment in the innovation and enthusiasm of craft whiskeys clouding our collective judgment? Isn't it time someone said it: Most Craft Whiskeys Suck! Maybe someday it won't be the case, but today it is.


Anonymous said...

Points well taken! Distillation is far more complex, as far as I can tell, than beer making. So newly-minted "master distillers" are usually equipped with much more copper than expertise. Note that Paul Pacult (like Chuck Cowdery) has not pulled any punches on the micro distillers. He rightfully ripped into Rick Wasmund's atrocious two month old swill. Finally, your distillery list omits the Koval Distillery in Chicago. They produce some very fragrant unaged whiskies.

sku said...

Thanks for your comments Anon. I have Koval on my list under the "Microdistilleries to Watch" section. As far as I know, they aren't calling any of their product that is actually on sale whiskey, just unaged "spirit." If you know otherwise, please do let me know and I'll move them up to the whiskey distillers category. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I'm a big proponent of microdistillers, but like you, I agree that most of them are unappealing. I came away from WhiskeyFest Chicago 2010 disappointed in whole category.

My favorite on the market today (and I only have one bottle, so I can't vouch for other bottles) is Isaiah Morgan Rye. I really enjoy it.

I have a few ideas about how the microdistillers are doing their fermentations which might explain their results, but I think the biggest problem is that the barriers to starting a micro mean that only certain types people get to play the game.

I've had some homedistilled tsipouro that was a work of art. The possibility is definitely there for unaged spirits.

I think that if microdistillers are filling any holes in the market, it's the unaged category... but unlike microbrewers who had years of free R&D from the homebrew community, microdistillers are inventing things from scratch.

p.s. Fritz Maytag's gin is crap, too.

-Tim Dellinger

Unknown said...

Absolutely agree. I've said as much as well - I don't give a crap if you source it all and shove it in a bottle, wood finish it and shove it in a bottle, or craft distill it and shove it in a bottle. It better be good.

Much of the craft products I've tried have been one dimensional and flat and that's disappointing. SOme are excellent mind you but most are not.

Great post.

Robert B said...

Hey Sku,

I just came across your post.
At Koval, we actually have five (white) Whiskies that are labeled and classified as "Whiskey". We used to call them "Grain Spirits" but due to TTB regulations we had to change that. Also, we are going to have a line of aged Whiskies to be released under the label "Lion's Pride".

All the best,


Sam Komlenic said...

Man, I still have a bottle of Isaiah Morgan from five years ago that I can't finish. Has it really improved that much? No rye spice AT ALL,and way too much corn-like sweetness.

I know that taste is a subjective thing, but Old Potrero's all-malted rye mashbill sets me off, too. No fan here. I agree with sku for the most part, and admire the cojones it takes to call out the wannabees.

I kind of like what I've had from Finger Lakes Distilling (rye and bourbon), though they're out of the box regarding expected flavor profiles, and go for much more reasonable prices than some.

There is hope out there, and some will rise to the surface as superior spirits eventually.

Matt Colglazier said...

I think you're right Steve to some extent, I just hope people are willing to try things and accept or reject them on their own merits, regardless of press or process. I think most people do, as witnessed here. Of course, as you are aware, many craft spirits producers start mostly in unaged categories like gin or vodka, with the idea of selling whiskey in the future. This is a good thing, becasue many can and do produce very good gins and vodkas as I have reviewed several here:

Anyway, I think passion on both the producer's side and consumer's side is a good thing. If something sucks, let's say it, and if something's great, let's celebrate that too!


Matt Colglazier
American Craft Spirits

sku said...

Robert B., thanks for your info. I've updated my distillery list to reflect your whiskeys. FYI, I've never tried any of your spirits.


Anonymous said...

There's certainly quite a lot of craft stuff out there that still "needs work." Try Balcones whisky sometime. I hope you'll like it and we are distributed in California.


Balcones Distilling