The Age of Craft Spirits

The Next Craft Boom

This month, we want to talk about some of the tectonic shifts that are changing the cocktail world, particularly over the last few years. Some of these are obvious: gone are the days of incandescent sour mix and syrupy blue Flirtinis. Gone, too, are the days of high food and low drinks: here in 2016, a restaurant can't open in a major American city without a solid bar program. Some of this is a passing trend (speakeasies and twirled mustaches are on their way out, and bringing their pretension with them, we hope), but most is here to stay. And we're never going back. No one wants a candy sweet Slippery-Nipple-a-Rita once they've tasted something balanced. The war is over, and we have won.

But it's not just the bartenders, seasonal produce and fresh citrus. A new movement is sweeping into our cities and our bars, quietly, but determinedly making its presence felt. Even more exciting, over the last couple years craft micro-distilleries have made large strides in quality and taste.

Just as the 2000s belonged to mico-breweries, the 2010s have seen an explosion of craft micro-distilleries, as local spirits fight to assert themselves in their markets.

Even three years ago, you could walk into a bar in Chicago, Cleveland, or Chattanooga, and see a beer list of cool, local brews you've never heard of, a wine list of foreign or domestic bottles you've never heard of, but a spirit list of all the same old names. Maker's Mark, Tanqueray, Absolut, etc. And it's not that those products aren't great, because they are, but it was always all the same. Not anymore.

When the craft spirit market first got going, it was largely disappointing. Not just because it was too expensive and lacked quality, but it also seemed like they were trying to imitate the big guys. A local bourbon made from roughly the same stuff and in roughly the same fashion as Woodford Reserve, for example, is going to be similar, but almost certainly inferior to Woodford Reserve. You can't beat the big guys at their own game. They're too good at it. You can't make Buffalo Trace bourbon better than Buffalo Trace does, and if you somehow managed to pull it off, it would be 3x the cost. So in recent years, craft distilleries have changed gears and diversified with new products. They're using their lack of tradition as an asset instead of a weakness, and straying from the beaten path. In doing so, they have created the most exciting time to be a spirits enthusiast since the 1910s.