Spirits: Of microdistillers and moonshine

White Manhattan
White Manhattan (James M. Thresher - For The Washington Post)
By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Booze is, by and large, peddled by a handful of gigantic multinational companies. The names are familiar even to casual drinkers: Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, Beam, Brown-Forman, Moët Hennessy, among others. To flex their lobbying and marketing muscles, 13 of the world's liquor behemoths band together in a powerful trade group named the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, or DISCUS.

So it was surprising and noteworthy last week when DISCUS announced it will allow small, independent craft distillers under its umbrella. These new "affiliate" members will represent a small fraction of the big guys' sales: DISCUS's definition of a craft distiller is one that produces fewer than 40,000 cases per year. But the move represents a significant industry shift, and it should be applauded. Above all, it recognizes the significance of the microdistilling trend, which in many ways mirrors the microbrewing explosion of the 1990s that changed the beer industry forever.

Over the past decade, the number of American craft distillers has grown from a few dozen to more than 200, including some of my favorites, such as the Charbay distillery in St. Helena, Calif. (which makes vodka, tequila, whiskey and rum); Philadelphia Distilling (makers of Bluecoat Gin and Vieux Carre Absinthe Superieure); House Spirits in Portland, Ore. (makers of Aviation gin and Krogstad aquavit) and, locally, Sperryville's Copper Fox Distillery, with its excellent Wasmund's single-malt and rye whiskeys.

Consumers are embracing these smaller, high-quality brands, and it's an exciting time to be a microdistiller. Frankly, if you're a retailer and you're not stocking independent brands, you're not running a serious liquor store. And in the District of Columbia, there's no excuse: Stores can order directly from the distillery in most cases.

"America was historically a land of small distillers," says Max Watman, author of the wildly entertaining new book "Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine" (Simon & Schuster).

In 1800, there were more than 14,000 distillers in America, some of them producing only a barrel a year. By 1909, their numbers had been reduced to about 600. Then Prohibition hit in 1920. After its end in 1933, a dozen or fewer distilleries were left standing. Of course, those were the official statistics, which don't include the citizenry's rich and colorful history of making moonshine.

In his new book, Watman chronicles that American tradition, including his own attempts to make homemade 'shine. "White dog," slang for un-aged whiskey, is a term still used in the bourbon business. Watman also profiles excellent craft distillers such as those at Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, which recently was named Malt Advocate magazine's artisan whiskey of the year.

I asked Watman whether any of the new generation of craft distilleries had begun in, shall we say, a less-than-legal way. He responded with a laugh, "All of them!" By that, of course, Watman meant that many microdistillers, like most microbrewers, begin as hobbyists. During craft beer's ascent, a lot of would-be brewers made beer in their basements. A lot of microdistilling began as "nanodistilling," even though home distilling is illegal just about everywhere except New Zealand. As Watman writes in his book, it is a hobby of "incredible expense, hours of time, all toward an obsession about which we can only whisper, using pseudonyms."

Watman points to HomeDistiller.org, which he says has 5,000 members/scofflaws. "To be fair," he says, "many these people are in, uh, New Zealand." Right.

Watman, who grew up in Strasburg, Va., has a long personal history with moonshine (the local mechanic in his home town sold it). When he's on book tours, the author says, one question lots of people ask is, "How do I make moonshine?"

"I tell them not to ask me. Wink, wink," he says.

With the rise of commercial microdistilling, the image of the overalls-wearing moonshiner might finally become a thing of the past. In fact, white un-aged whiskeys are experiencing a blip in popularity in fashionable cocktail bars.

I first had legal white dog at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Franklin County Ky., where some of it is bottled as a novelty item to illustrate that bourbon starts as a clear substance. Its years spent in a barrel are responsible for the spirit's more familiar brown color. "Our reasoning behind the bottling was mainly for educational purposes," wrote Buffalo Trace's Angela Traver in an e-mail. "But you have to start out with good juice to get a good end product."

White whiskey is high-proof and not for everyone. But when you add a little water to the glass, you can taste the sweet and vegetal elements of bourbon that eventually become rounded and muted in the barrel. It actually works pretty well in cocktails such as the White Manhattan. Makers such as Copper Fox, Death's Door Spirits in Wisconsin and Tuthilltown Spirits in Hudson Valley, N.Y., have nice white whiskeys on the market. All of them, according to Watman, taste really close to authentic 'shine.

Wow. I never thought I'd live to see the day: white dog microdistillers sharing a seat at the bar with the big guys.


White Manhattan

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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