Top 10 most pioneering US craft distilleries
The craft distilling movement is bigger and better than ever before, but these are 10 of the most pioneering distilleries identified by the American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA).
A wave of craft distillers are shaping the global spirits scene, reigniting consumer interest in all that is small batch, homespun, authentic and independent.
As the big drinks industry players battle to tap into the booming craft trend by acquiring independent distilleries, and some of these vicinities aim to expand their own global reach, others stand true to the ethos upon which they were founded.
The US in particular has one of the most exciting and innovative craft spirits scenes in the world, endeavouring to test industry boundaries and promote the work of independent distillers across the country, from Colorado to New York.
This list of the top 10 most pioneering US craft distilleries is based on recommendations from the ACDA.
The association claims that although some of these distilleries have sold to the industry big guns and have produced beyond the volume of what it classes as “craft”, they no-less pioneered the movement for future producers.
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St. George Spirits
With a portfolio of artisan whiskey, Bourbon, agricole rum, absinthe, gin, brandy, and liqueurs, the distillery, based in Alameda, California, has long been seen as a pioneer in the craft distilling movement since its inception in 1982.
St George Spirits was founded by “maverick” distiller and former judge Jörg Rupf (left) who, inspired by the array of fruit growing in California orchards, began making eau de vie from pears, raspberries, cherries, and even kiwi fruit on a single, 65-gallon Holstein pot still.
According to the distillery: “Rupf also trained, mentored, and inspired many other distillers who went on to establish thriving distilleries of their own, creating a ripple effect that continues to spread throughout the craft distilling community to this day.”
Since Rupf retired, the distillery is now in the capable hands of master distiller Lance Winters (middle), who is said to have a “penchant for gleefully shunning the spirits world’s conventions”. He is assisted by distiller Dave Smith (right).
Coming from a long-line cognac producers, Hubert Germain-Robin endeavoured to revive ancient hand-methods of distillation, which he believed were becoming extinct due to the high-volume methods of big corporations, by setting up his own brandy distillery in 1981.
Shortly after receiving a ride from Ansley Coale while hitch hiking, Germain-Robin discovered an antique still in an abandoned distillery near Cognac and shipped it to Coale’s ranch in Mendocino County, California, where it still operates to this day.
After reviving the still by hand, he then began to experiment with local premium wine varietals and first brandy distilled from Pinot Noir flowed.
Germain-Robin said he purposefully sought an antique still, as stills invented after 1950 are usually automatic, while he wanted to distill entirely by hand.
The brand has now exploded from humble beginnings in 1997 when it was first distilled by founder Bert “Tito” Beveridge in a 16-gallon pot still in Texas’ first and oldest legal distillery – a 26-acre site that produced 80,000 cases last year, up 46% from 2011.
Micro-distilled in an old-fashioned pot still, Tito’s production method mirrors those of of single malt Scotch whiskies and Cognac.
Since John McDonnell, former COO of Patrón Spirits, joined the group last year, many have asked the question whether Tito’s can retain its cult craft status if it reaches its ambitions and becomes a global brand.
However, McDonnell told The Spirits Business: “We’re not going to advertise in a mass way; it’s about targeted distribution in both the on- and off-premise so we’ll still be selling Tito’s original craft American vodka.”
Anchor Distilling Company
Although now part of the newly formed umbrella company, Anchor Brewers & Distillers, an amalgamation of Anchor Brewing Company, Anchor Distilling Company, Berry Bros. & Rudd and Preiss Imports, San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling Company still produces a number of craft spirits and paved the way for other smaller producers.
The original Anchor Distilling Co. was established in 1993 by Fritz Maytag, who had pioneered the craft brewing movement with his acquisition of Anchor Brewing in 1965.
When Anchor Distilling began production, it was the only distillery producing pot-distilled American whiskey. The company desired to produce a whiskey which “pushed boundaries” and was more inspired by colonial methods. Maytag also produced an American single malt whiskey by using 100% malted rye and used unique toasted handmade barrels over the charred barrels that were the status quo for whiskey.
With a desire to “commercially unite craft distillers from around the world”, Anchor Brewers & Distillers was founded when Tony Foglio and Keith Greggor acquired Preiss Imports in 2008.
The distillery’s spirits are handmade from ingredients sourced form its own farm growing fruit and grain.
The distillery’s products include: Manhattan Rye, Single Malt, and New York Corn Whiskey, Fresh Pressed Apple Vodka, produced from 100% locally pressed fresh apple cider; Roggen’s Rum, an aged rum made from blackstrap molasses; Half Moon Orchard Gin, with a unique spirit base of 20% apples and 80% wheat, Tuthilltown Cassis Liqueur, and Basement Bitters.
It’s portfolio also includes Hudson Whiskey, which is now owned by UK drinks company William Grant & Sons.
Stranahan’s is said to live by a dedication to “making the smoothest, most distinctly-flavoured whiskey on the market using hand-crafted distilling techniques and Colorado’s finest natural ingredients”.
The family-owned, Colorado-based company was founded in 2004 when volunteer firefighter Jess Graber tried to save the burning barn of George Stranahan, a long-time liquor connoisseur. The two discovered a shared love of whiskey and Stranahan’s was born.
Made in the typical small batch way, Stranahan’s Colorado whiskey is created through a combination of 10 to 20 of the distillery’s choicest barrels.
Using techniques learned in Alsace and Switzerland and traditional European pot stills, the distillery’s products are said to reflect the best of the natural and agricultural resources in the region.
The distillery prides itself on using traditional European brandy-making methods married with Oregon fruit, devoid of additional colours or flavours.
The distillery’s portfolio includes pear, apple, Kirschwasser, blue plum, Mirabelle plum, Framboise and Douglas Fir eau de vix, as well as grappas, liqueurs and whiskeys.
However after changing tack to work on producing whiskey instead, the team moved premises to downtown Bowling Green to produce a variety of “hand-crafted and small-batch, ultra premium booze for badasses”.
Its experimental portfolio consists of a Artisan Gin, Vanilla Bean Vodka, Red Absinthe, Spiced Rum, Triple Smoke Whiskey, Pumpkin Spice Moonshine, Quinoa Whiskey, and Ryemageddon.
The distillery’s even more creative and seasonal spirits include a Bourbon pot distilled with Amarillo hops, a whiskey infused with elderflower and hops, and Triticale Whiskey – a new grain variety created by crossing species of wheat and rye to create a grain with the “hardiness of rye and the yields of wheat”.
Using its own hand-built machinery, the distillery, lead by president and head distiller Chip Tate, claims to “lovingly make handcrafted, small-batch spirits”.
According to the distillery: “By building our own condensers, wash stills, heat exchangers, hot liquor tank, etc. we were able to build exactly the equipment we wanted to use to make spirits. We became extremely familiar with the tools of our trade. The equipment itself is one more level of the distilling process that we get to craft with our own hands.”
In September 2013, the distillery released what it claimed to be the first ever batch of single barrel Texan Bourbon – a “true artisan Bourbon” – to mark its fifth anniversary.
The distillery has recently finished installation of another still, effectively doubling its capacity. Tate is also working on the construction of a new 65,000sqft distillery to further increase capacity. “For the first time ever, we will be able to dictate our production levels based on what we want to make rather than how much we can make,” he said.
The small batch creation of these spirits – including fermentation, distilling, ageing, blending and bottling – are all completed under the direct supervision of one master distiller.
“Our rums are made from sweet American molasses from the plantations of Louisiana and our whiskeys are not unlike those produced by Benjamin Prichard in Davidson County, Tennessee way back in the early 1800’s,” said the distillery.
Prichard’s portfolio includes a Double Barrel Bourbon, Double Chocolate Bourbon and Lincoln County Lightning, Peach Mango Rum, Cranberry Rum and Sweet Lucy Bourbon Liqueur.
It also produces the only Tennessee whiskey exempt from the year-old state law requiring the spirit to be charcoal mellowed.