USA TODAY - May 4, 2001
"Distillers lift spirits to new levels:
Microbrewed brandies, whiskeys intrigue the American
By Jerry Shriver
SAN FRANCISCO - In a gleaming room inside the venerable Anchor Brewing Co., owner
Fritz Maytag oversees two squat copper-pot stills that slowly pour out small
batches of rye whiskey similar to the kind made in George Washington's day. Maytag
sells all he can make - $90 a bottle.
Across the bay in a cluttered Alameda warehouse, Jeorg Rupf and Lance Winters
of St. George Spirits distill the juices of pears, raspberries and other fruits
into brandies that critics say rival the world's finest. They also make a one-of-a-kind
And at Local Color, a micro-brewery and pub in Novi, Mich., Peter Paisley converts
Michigan grape juice into vodka, flavors it with Michigan blueberries and sells
it at the bar for $3.50 a shot.
Tipplers take note: These are just a few of the players in a burgeoning, loose-knit
movement called microdistilling who are taking your granddaddy's liquor
cabinet to a whole new level. So far, connoisseurs are toasting the new artisanal
spirits - and singing praises to good old American ingenuity.
It's an approach that worked for beer; During the last two decades, a legion
of microbrewers have thrilled suds buffs with handmade pale ales and stouts that
are remarkably more flavorful than mass-produced varieties. Now, grassroots craftsmen
like these are applying modern methods and an artistic sensibility to making
whiskeys, gins, vodkas, cognac-style brandies, eaux de vie (fruit brandies),
grappas and other high-powered potables.
"We are on the verge of this really cool exploration," says John Hansell, editor
of Malt Advocate, a hobbyist magazine.
Microdistilleries get creative
In the grandes sense, artisanal distilling is another phase of the ongoing gastronomy
revolution that ignited in this country in the 1970's. That movement has renewed
diners' interest in handcrafted or locally grown products of all kinds, from
heirloom tomatoes to goat's-milk cheeses.
"People didn't used to expect much from a spirit," Vinters says. But in the past
decade, single-malt whiskeys from Scotland and boutique bourbons from large American
producers awakened consumers to a far wider flavor spectrum. And the microbrewers
are building on that base. "Now they know they can find balance, elegance and
subtlety," Winters says.
Microdistilling also is thematically connected to this country's thriving wine
industry: Grappas and many brandies are grape-based beverages with European pedigrees
and artistic overtones. Another contributing element is the surprisingly long-lasting
revival of the cocktail culture, which has helped revive spirits sales after
a 15-year decline. These days there are plenty of takers for another boutique
gin or flavored vodka, particularly if it has the whiff of rarity.
But the closest antecedent is the wide-sweeping microbrewing trend, which emerged
as a reaction to boring, mass-produced products. Whiskey, in a very basic sense,
is distilled beer, which explains why a good number of the new artisan distillers
are current or former beer-makers. A prime example is May tag, a shrewd and revered
microbrewing pioneer who enjoys enormous success with his Anchor Steam beers,
but who sought new challenges. He started distilling in 1993, sold his first
whiskey in 1996 and now offers two versions, along with a gin. Though made in
small amounts, all three have been a hit with retailers, restaurateurs and the
"When the brewing business became a little less fun, when it became hard to think
up anything new, distilling became really tempting," Maytag says. "I thought
it was a brilliant idea to go back and celebrate rye whiskey as the original
Maytag's retro-whiskeys refelct the wildly creative, almost mad-scientist nature
of the movement at this stage. Among other envelope-pushers:
· Hubert Germain-Robin of Germain-Robin makes brandies
in a shed on a mountaintop ranch in California that many critics think outstrip
the finest cognacs of France. He uses non-traditional, higher-quality grapes
and modern distilling, techniques, which partly explain the $350 a bottle price
tag of his Anno Domini brandy.
· Rupf and Winters of St. George make a single-malt
whiskey in a delicate, floral style that is almost (except maybe in boot-legging
circles) without precedent. "We're not creating a cheap knockoff of Scotch whiskey,
nor is this a bourbon - we're creating a new American style out of whole cloth," Winters
· Peter Paisley of Local Color is one of several
brewpub owners across the country who make spirits in small stills on site and
sell them right at the bar, without bottling. Among his offerings: spiced rum
and peach schnapps.
· Margaret Chatey of Westford Hill Distillers in
Ashford, Conn., embraces a backyard aesthetic with a brandy made from Connecticut
Sharing the adventure
All of this may sound intriguing to connoisseurs, but is there a market to sustain
the creativity? "The potential for failure does exist," Hansell says. "There
will have to be a lot of consumer education."
Everyone acknowledges the numerous barriers to growth. For one thing, the spirits
audience is far smaller than the beer audience that fueled microbrewing's runaway
growth. In addition, crafting a drinkable whiskey or brandy requires more expertise,
time and money than brewing a good, strong ale. Two examples: It takes 15 pounds
of high-quality pears to make one half-bottle of Rupf's eau de vie, and even
Maytag's briefly aged whiskeys must spend at least two or three years in expensive
Most important, small distillers face daunting bureaucratic barriers, from distributors
reluctant to take on new, esoteric products, to state and federal regulators
who find that these new products and marketing techniques don't always jibe with
laws written in the post-Prohibition days nearly 70 years ago.
"You feel kind of naughty making whiskey," Maytag says.
Market will grow
Nevertheless, the best of the new products are finding an audience, and it's
often an exclusive one. The Tony Bellagio resort in Las Vegas stocks Germain-Robin
brandies. Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago carries Clear Creek eaux de
vie, while the Mayflower Inn in Connecticut carries eaux de vie from Westford
"In the '80s, spirits were out. It was all about wine and cheese," says Rupf,
who initially struggled with slow domestic sales after he made his first eaux
de vie in 1982. "Now, we're selling to a new type of restaurants, with tapas-like
menus, and to people who want a better-quality drink."
Further signs of potential growth: A recent major conference for microbrewers
added a seminar on microdistilling, and a Louisville company that makes large
industrial stills has just begun making smaller versions and marketing them to
"It will be interesting to see how this plays out," Hansell says. "There will
be ups and downs and fumblings before we decide on what direction we're going
- if any. But personally, I'm thrilled about it."
Another subtitle to the same article from USA TODAY:
Where to go for a sip of homemade spirits
Looking for a nip of distinctive, small-batch spirits made in the USA? These
producers are among those at the forefront of the microdistilling movement:
Anchor Distilling Co., San Francisco; 415-863-8350.
Microbrewing pioneer Fritz Maytag produces Junipero gin and two styles of Old
Protrero whiskey in small pot stills at his Anchor Steam brewery. Available in
13 states. Signature product: Old Protrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey,
Bardenay Restaurant and Distillery, Boise;
208-426-0538; www.bardenay.com. This restaurant/pub features a copper still that
produces rum, gin and vodka from fermented sugar-cane juice. Available in Boise.
Signature product: London-Style Dry Gin, $18.
Clear Creek Distillery, Portland Ore.; 503-248-9470;
www.clearcreekdistillery.com. Steve McCarthy has been making critically acclaimed
brandies since 1985, often using fruit from his own orchards. He also produces
grappas and the Scotch-style McCarthy's Oregon Single-Malt Whiskey. Available
in 34 states. Signature product: Eau-de-Vie de Pomme Apple Brandy, $32.
Domaine Charbay Winery & Distillery, Ukiah,
Calif.: 800-634-7845; www.domainecharbay.com. The Karakasevic family porduces
fruit-flavored vodkas, grappas and liqueurs (including the unusual Nostalgie,
from black walnuts). Later this year they plan to release aged pear and apple
brandies and a whiskey. Available in 18 states. Signature product: Blood-Orange
flavored Vodka, $39.
Germain-Robin, Ukiah, Calif.; 800-782-8145;
www.germain-robin.com. Hubert Germain-Robin has been making award-winning cognac-style
brandies and grappas in a shed on a mountainside farm since 1987. Available in
38 states. Signature products: Anno Domini brandy, $350; Select Barrel XO brandy,
Local Color Restaurant, Brewing and Distilling, Novi,
Mich.; 888-867-2739. This brewpub in a Detroit suburb added a distilling opetation
18 months ago and makes flavored vodkas, rums, gin, tequila-style brandy, whiskey
and liqueurs. Sold by the drink only at the restaurant. Later this year they
plan to bottle two styles of vodka under the Barcevac label. Signature product:
Blueberry Vodka, $3.50 in a mixed drink.
McMenamins Edgefield Distillery, Troutdale,
Ore.; 800-669-8610; www.mcmenamins.com. The distilling branch of the Mc Menamins
pub/brewery/winery/hotel/theater mini-empire makes brandy, gin and eaux de vie.
The company is aging a whiskey and a cognac-style brandy to be released in 2003.
Available in Oregon and Washington. Signature product: Vintners American Distilled
St. George Spirits, Alameda, Calif.; 510-769-1601;
www.stgeorgespirits.com. Alsace native Jorg Rupf distills eaux de vie, grappas
and St. George Single Malt Pure Barley Spirit whiskey in a warehouse near the
San Francisco Bay. Signature product: Williams Pear Eau-de-Vie, $20 (375 milliliter).
Westford Hill Distillers, Ashford, Conn.; 860-429-0464.
Margaret Chatey distills eaux de vie from fruit grown in Connecticut, New York
and Oregon, and is aging a brandy made from Connecticut apples, to be released
in a few years. Available in Connecticut. Signature product: Kirsch Eau-de-Vie,
$17 (200 milliliter).