The craft distillery and spirits movement wasn’t born yesterday but it sure feels like it. In 2011 there were a mere 200 “craft” distilleries running spirit off their stills. By 2014 that number had literally tripled to over 600 and now there are estimated to be over 1200. That’s a massive jump in in 5 years. That’s a shift from about 700,000 cases a year to over 3.5 million.
I hate to throw around rather abstract numbers, but I feel that in this case we have to because that change is simply staggering. There is literally too many craft spirits being made to even support the great ones let alone the good ones. I know I personally came of age as a bartender during this boom. I’ve watched brands I’ve discovered and lovingly hand sold instead of the Big Labels come of age and actually stand on their own merits on shelves across the country. No longer needing to be propped up by some random bartender over eager to share.
And then I’ve watched those brands be bought up by the Big Labels, seen the love fade and then there’s yet another new kid in town knocking on your door and the cycle starts all over again.
The cycle has ramped up into hyperspeed now and there’s a new kid knocking on the door before it’s fully swung shut from the last one.
Or maybe that’s just because I’m more involved in the process these days.
Alley 6 distillery was founded in Sonoma County in 2012 by Jason and Krystle Jorgensen and it sounds like the quintessential definition of a “craft” distillery. A venture by a loving couple that does everything – milling the grain, mashing, fermenting distilling, barreling and bottling – on site. The have a 500l Alembic Pot Still nick named “Horton” and they have a unique mashbill drawing influence and flavor from aromatic barley. Aromatic Barley is actually the name of the type of berley and is very predominent in France and Belgium. With a mashbill of 78% rye and 22% aromatic malted barley they were aiming for a big malty back bone and rye spice.
The first, incredibly small, batch hit the shelves in late 2015 and a rep who was very excited to have a new whiskey to sell to me brought around a sample immediately. I remember thinking it was well made rye, not overwhelmingly exciting and with a rather hefty price point it got lost in the crowd.
A few months later a regular at the bar brought me in a bottle of whiskey to taste from a new distillery his friends were running up in Sonoma County. This whiskey tasted so drastically different that it took me a few minutes to realize that it was the same Alley 6 that I had had months before. It struck me enough that I filled it away as something to examine down the line.
Well here we are at the end of 2016 and we’re looking at batch no 6 of Alley 6. The whiskey is certainly more complex than batch 1 with a hefty dose of dry rye spice, a hefty bready back bone and a dark cocao and coffee. Again, interesting but not amazingly mind blowing. But what is interesting is watching the growth of this distiller.
Because that’s what we’re experiencing right now with these craft distillers: their growing pains. The Big Labels went through their’s years ago and their brands are the result of decades of experience. Over a 1000 of these new kids have less than four years under their belts. If history is any indication there are a lot of them that won’t survive the growth spurt, but I for one intend to enjoy the journey.