Local craft distilleries are all the rage in the modern era of designer food and drink. Foodies and―if we might coin the phrase ourselves―”drinkies” from sea to shining sea pride themselves on the most unique local and regional products they can find. But when it comes to liquor, can you taste the difference with local craft distilleries?
Undoubtedly, there are those among us who couldn’t taste the difference between day-old moonshine and a good rum aged at least a year. For those types of drinkers, any old swill in a bottle will do. Just make sure it has a catchy name and a decent-looking label and you’re set to go. For the rest of us, we can taste the difference in most cases.
How do the economics of small distilleries affect the end product?
Prior to Prohibition, everyone and his grandmother were operating a still out in the backyard. These small-time distilleries were providing all sorts of liquor for customers in their general areas. They would create whiskey, bourbon, rum, and any other number of locally appreciated concoctions.
With Prohibition came an end to many of these are small distilleries; a shuttering of the doors that would not change even when Prohibition itself ended. After Prohibition, only companies with the money to keep up with federal regulations were able to get back into the business.
So what do distillery economics have to do with taste? It is easy to understand as the difference between a fast food hamburger and a finely prepared five-course gourmet meal. This past January, The Atlantic published an article profiling an Ohio distillery that illustrates the point perfectly, bringing us to the next issue: Cost.
Does cost have anything to do with taste?
Saying it’s expensive to run a distillery is like saying American Idol should have ended three seasons ago. In other words, no kidding Captain Obvious! But just for the record, the distillery profiled by The Atlantic pays all sorts of fees and must, for all intents and purposes, purchase its own liquor from the state in order to resell it to customers.
That’s right boys and girls, the federal and state governments tightly control all liquor production as a means of making sure that they get their fair share of revenues. They exercise that authority through a patchwork of regulations and paperwork that make both the Lohans and Kardashians comparatively easy to understand.
Because it’s so expensive, local craft distilleries don’t have time to let their liquors sit around and age properly. Aging booze doesn’t bring in any cash. The best they can do is let them sit for a month or so before shipping them off to be sold. Some don’t even wait that long.
By the same token, bigger outfits with a stronger cash flow can let their distilled spirits age for as long as it takes. And when you let liquor age, it takes on a full, rich flavor that makes drinking it enjoyable.
Are ingredients important to the equation?
Another inherent weakness of the local craft distillery is the ingredients used. For example, the finest rums in the world are made with locally acquired molasses or sugarcane juice. Smaller distilleries that don’t have access to local products have to import them. And who knows how long those ingredients have been sitting on a shelf somewhere.
The difference in taste is as plain as the difference between a fresh New York strawberry during the summer harvest season and one that’s been imported from California in January. If you can’t taste the difference, you’re probably the type of drinker unable to tell the difference between a fine bourbon and something your cousin Billy put together in his basement.
Is it true that bigger is better?
Finally, there’s the issue of size. Yes, guys, it does matter, according to Forbes contributor Larry Olmsted. Mr. Olmsted considers local craft distilleries to be among the eight worst food trends in America.
Olmsted says that one of the keys to good distilled spirits is the size of the batch being run. In other words, the larger the run the better the finished product. He doesn’t give any explanation, but we assume it has something to do with blending, the distilling process, and aging.
By default, the local distillery has neither the space nor the means for large runs. Some even produce different types of spirits using all the same equipment. Such practices are apparently looked down upon by aficionados of finer distilled spirits.
Do local craft distilleries have anything to offer?
After reading all of this you might think we’re not in favor of local craft distilleries. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re in favor of anyone able to create an alcoholic beverage suitable for human consumption. It’s just that local distilleries have their place in the food chain, just like everything else.
If you’re into trying new spirits that may, or may not, have names you can pronounce, the local craft distillery is a good option. Such distilleries are also a great choice on a night out when you’re trying desperately to be chic and cosmopolitan despite your obvious fascination with toe shoes. But if you’re planning to sit at home and enjoy a glass of bourbon along with your favorite smoking jacket and a roaring fire, you might want to stick with a more reputable distillery.