Summer 2019|volume 12|Issue 4

    Raise Your Spirits

    Spirits – noun. An alcoholic beverage that is distilled rather than fermented; the liquid containing ethanol and water that is distilled from an alcoholic liquid or mash—often used in plural.

    Max Miller

    Max Miller

    This is fourth part of a four-part series on the personalities and skills that are a part of the Spirits Industry Ecosystem.

    Back in late March of 2019, I had the honor of being asked to be a part of the tasting panel for the first collaboration among seven Pennsylvania rye whiskey craft distilleries to create a blend of their respective whiskies that will be a one-of-a-kind expression to commemorate the Whiskey Rebellion and support the Bradford House in Washington, Pennsylvania. The participating distilleries included Bristol’s Dad’s Hat, State College’s Barrel 21, Lancaster’s Thistle Finch Distillery, Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey, Philadelphia’s New Liberty Distillery, and Washington’s Liberty Pole Spirits and Red Pump Spirits.

    While tasting each of the whiskies’ distinctive flavor profiles was pure bliss, the more striking element of the experience was the camaraderie that existed among the participating distillers as well as their passion for the craft of distilling. The distinct sense of community, belonging, and a willingness to help others permeated the entire experience. The passion of the industry rests in the hands of those who have committed themselves to delivering authenticity, education, and experience as the catalyst for today’s craft spirits revolution. The revolution has not been televised, but rather has been poured into glasses around the country and tasted in countless distilleries in cities across the nation and the world. These craft distillers are looking to express their local heritage in unique ways. They overwhelmingly skew towards whiskey; but gin, vodka, liqueurs, rums, and brandies are all a part of the new expressions of the distillation evolution to craft.

    So what exactly makes a distillery a “craft” distillery? The industry has not settled on an exact definition. According to the American Distilling Institute, a “craft” distiller is: (a) an independently owned distiller; (b) with maximum annual sales of 100,000 proof gallons; (c) where the product is physically distilled and bottled on-site; and (d) less than 25 percent ownership by other alcoholic beverage industry members. The American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA) defines active craft distillers as licensed U.S. distilled spirits producers that removed 750,000 proof gallons or less from bond, market themselves as craft, and are not openly controlled by a large supplier. To put this in perspective, the new Bardstown Bourbon Company, distillery in Kentucky, expanded its production capacity to six million proof gallons in 2017.

    Clearly, the craft distillery is a smaller operation than the behemoth suppliers covered in last quarter’s article. The more important perspective, though, is that being small is really a proxy for a much more essential element: identity. Every city has its own identity and these craft distillers are a part of the fabric of the communities in which they operate. Just take a casual stroll down Smallman Street and you will be able to visit three different distilleries in three blocks (Wigle Whiskey, Kingfly Spirits, and Maggie’s Farm Rum). Visit downtown Washington, PA, and you will encounter two craft distilleries within a three-block radius (Liberty Pole Spirits and Red Pump Spirits). This same experience can be found in cities across America.

    So why is this happening? My hypothesis is that the convergence of local identity/storytelling and the changing desires of consumers to be educated has given birth to a craft-distiller industry that has become an essential part of the revitalization of many cities. (There are 1,835 active craft distilleries in the U.S. as of August 2018 according to the ACDA.) As you look across Pennsylvania and across the country, these craft distillers are converting and preserving historic buildings, they are using local grains and service providers, and they are celebrating and telling the stories of their local heritage. Residents view these distillers as being entertaining and educational. Governments view these distilleries as a key part of the economic development engine. The distillers see themselves as passionate innovators and artisans that engage with community. Last, but certainly not least, every craft distiller pays homage to our agrarian roots as a country and creates a connectivity to our U.S. heritage.

    I have had some time now to further reflect of my tasting-panel experience for the Whiskey Rebellion Special Reserve Rye. The collaboration among the seven Pennsylvania distilleries is really a living metaphor for how connected all craft distillers are and how important their connectivity is to our local, regional, and national identities. The next time you visit a craft distillery, embrace this connectivity, learn something new, and, of course, enjoy the taste.

    Max Miller is the president and chief tasting officer of Raise Your Spirits (raiseyourspirits.net). A former corporate attorney turned entrepreneur and college professor, Max has a hearty thirst for knowledge and for fine spirits. He is well versed in the differentiation of the complex flavors found in craft and luxury spirits and he enjoys reading about the history of the brands, the science behind production, and the often whimsical anecdotes that are unique to each spirit. His vision is simple: Make every experience memorable, exceptional, and uniquely yours.

    On a separate note, Max has launched a new company called TheStillLife (stilllifetaste.com), which hosted its first tasting at the end of January. Please come out for future tastings and also spread the word to those who may want to join; memberships available via the website.

    Signup for updates and event alerts