Virginia Craft Spirits and Bourbon Heritage Month
September is both Bourbon heritage month and, here in Virginia, Virginia Spirits month. Last year we talked about our favorite places to go here in VA for bourbon heritage month. Seeing that Virginia is in some ways the birthplace of bourbon and given the way that the industry is booming here, with more than 40 distilleries in the state at this point. Even if Richmond can’t seem to decide if they want to make it easier to sell spirits or harder (just my own little aside) regardless when you pair that with the history of distilling here in the state you have to think that the two things (Bourbon Heritage Month and the Virginia Spirits Month) dovetail nicely together.
With that in mind the third weekend in September I headed to Roanoke for the Virginia Craft Spirits Showcase to see what was new in the industry and as importantly what was new locally. There are a few themes I've been thinking through for a while related to bourbon that come particularly to light when you talk about the craft spirits industry as a subset and those themes kept coming up while I was there. The first, is about variety both as a good and a bad element. The second is about how bourbon and craft spirits especially are all about experimentation. I'd like to explore these in a little more detail here.
Bourbon, Scotch, Tradition and Experimentation
Whiskey is whisky but there’s no doubt about the distinct differences between each kind of whiskey. When visiting the UK we stopped into a whisky shop and talked to one of their salesman. Just out of general curiosity I asked about what kinds of bourbon they had on hand. The brands didn’t present any major surprises. Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Jack Daniel's (I know not Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey we know the difference.That’s not the point. Don’t get distracted). The salesman seemed both a bit embarrassed and perplexed about their bourbon collection. He knew they didn’t have much and even was a little apologetic about it. However, he also said that the bourbon industry was impossible for them to keep up with as every time he turned around there was some new brand he’s never heard of. I can sympathize for sure. There are more than 2400 distilleries in the United States. And the industry is growing at an increasing rate. This is true in every state but even here in Virginia it seems like every city from Roanoke to Richmond has something whiskey related (whiskey bars, distilleries, tasting rooms you name it) popping up.
Now, this is not quite like the craft beer or wine industries. Craft beer and also, again, wine were earlier to the craft food and drink party. Craft beer now represents about 12% of the overall beer market, for instance, which when you consider the size of that market is considerable. But The craft spirits industry in the United States which has for a long time been beholding to the Scotch industry for it’s reliance on older brand images (even when they weren’t really that old) to imply that they are following some old tradition of distilling has finally followed the breweries in jumping on board. When it comes to distillation you get the impression that craft is becoming the name of the game and if I go to a liquor store near me they’re going to be talking to me about something new that wasn’t there the last time but is made right around the corner. Now I know not all of those distilleries are whiskey distilleries and even not all of those are bourbon but you can understand how from outside the US it can be overwhelming to keep up with it all considering that the craft spirits industry is growing at a rate of about 27.4% annually.
In particular you can understand the confusion from someone for whom Scotch is their main in to the whisky industry. The things that make Scotch great tradition, regional differences and what goes with those two which is a certain reliability seems to fly in the face of what the craft spirits industry is all about. Maybe. Not that there’s not variability and variety with Scotch too but it seems like that variance resides between certain well specified boundaries. It’s an industry that feels it has reached a certain mastery and in some cases it’s hard to argue with. This of course is the irony of the craft term as that kind of idea of working out your craft to where it is almost a level of perfection gets dismissed because craft has become identified with small and bigger is not really always worse. In fact when it comes to whiskey, or whisky in this case, sometimes the big guys might know a thing or two. Of course this is the complaint that can get leveled at the craft industry. That it's just about local and small and not necessarily about handiwork and craftsmanship. But maybe this complaint is not really fair to the craft industry. While being small doesn't make you an expert it doesn't mean you're not either.
US Craft Spirits Industry
Perhaps craft, as it's come to be defined, and bourbon or at the very least American whiskey makes sense together. Bourbon has always been, in some way, an experimental whiskey. Having cut off the rum supply whiskey took over but finding rye and corn to be better crops to grow here the type of whiskey that was made changed. Bourbon itself was a bit of an experiment. In the end this is why while the craft liquor industry, maybe is not unique to the US, it makes sense that it has taken off in such a way here. It’s always been ground ripe for experimentation.
While I was at the Virginia Craft Spirits Showcase in Roanoke around mid September this more than any other was the theme that kept coming to my mind. The theme of experimentation. Every distiller in every seminar I went to seemed to be taking some form of the old formula for whatever they were making and trying to subvert it in some way. For some that works, for some that doesn’t but they’re all trying and if you think about it you understand why it makes sense for smaller distillers. From the very first distiller, Ian Glomski from Vitae Spirits in Charlottesville Virginia, who pointed out that a craft distiller is forced to experiment as that distinctiveness is the only way to distinguish themselves from the larger more established manufacturers. To the very last seminar with Rick Wasmund from Copper Fox Distillery. Rick, having apprenticed at Bowmore and using some techniques that are very traditional is also kind of the rock star of the whole event and is doing some really interesting things with the way they are smoking and aging their product. I have their peachwood smoked single malt at the house right now and I really can’t complain
A short word on Copper Fox. This is far from our first exposure to them as on a visit to Mount Vernon last year the bartender was, in addition to their own rye, really promoting one of Rick's bottles and in July I paid a visit to their distillery in Sperryville VA as well (something you'll definitely see more about coming up on the site). Perhaps they constitute what the craft industry, at it's best, is about. Hand crafted food, drinks, by an artisan whose name you can identify. When it works what you get is something new and truly unique that nobody has done before and they have truly pulled that off.
So what are we getting at here
I guess what I’m getting at with all of this is maybe right now we live in a time where we have the best of both worlds. Big doesn’t mean you can’t innovate. Certainly the big guys do. Look at Buffalo Trace’s experimental collection for example. They are doing some really interesting things with distillation too. It’s nice to know that there are certain standbys that are being preserved but at the same time chances are you have a distiller living just up the road from you or in your distillery district, if you have one of those, who is trying something new and exciting in an effort distinguish themselves from those bigger distillers (or just because they have a love for their craft). On any given day you can go and try either one and enjoy both for what they are and how both are pushing each other in different directions. So, our biggest conclusion from this is that we should all be enjoying it. Get out there, take a distillery tour, go to a trade show or just ask your bartender to pour you something new you haven’t been able to try before and regardless enjoy the experience.