Craft spirits make way for single estate category
The much-paraded wine terms of “provenance” and “terroir” have seeped into the world of spirits with the rise of single estate expressions – but is the category here to stay?
*This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of The Spirits Business magazine
Buying local is a trend that has been gaining traction in the spirits industry for some time, giving rise to the pervasive craft movement. But as consumer interest in the specific origin of their products grows, the sector is seeing the emergence of a niche new sub-category: farm-to-bottle distilleries.
Producing so-called single estate spirits, these businesses satiate a widespread desire for brands with heritage, a specific locality and independence. While there is no unifying, official definition of single estate spirits, it is generally understood that producers source the vast majority, if not all, ingredients for their products from one area of land. This land is owned by the company and is also where the product is then distilled without the use of neutral grain spirit (NGS).
There are, however, vast differences in the way single estate distilleries operate. Some may have their own malting and bottling facilities, while others do not; some are based on large historic estates, whereas others reside on small working family farms; some produce internationally-known brands, while others do not extend much beyond their local farmers’ market. Nevertheless, all such distilleries claim they can offer consumers something which no other can – a unique taste of the land on which they were made.
Point of difference
Touted as the UK’s first single estate distillery, Chase Distillery is based on a vast family-run farm in Hertfordshire and creates a range of vodkas, gins and liqueurs. The Chase family grows, harvests, ferments and then distils King Edward and Lady Claire potatoes, as well as cider apples, for their products. Water used to temper the spirit is taken from underneath the apple trees in the farm, and the final liquid is bottled on-site. For founder William Chase, the authentic and holistic creation of his products sets them apart from the “cheap marketing stories” of large distillers. “Members of the trade, and now more often consumers, are increasingly interested in where spirits come from,” he claims. “You would never dream of buying a bottle of wine for more than £30 without knowing the vineyard. But spirits, particularly gin, are tied up in marketing riddles and twee stories dreamed up by London marketing houses.
“We have found true success with people who don’t buy into these cheap stories. Our best fans are probably from more of a wine background who understand the hard work we put into production.”
Since Chase Distillery launched in 2008, there have been a number of new players entering the category. Toward the end of last year, Arbikie Distillery – said to be Scotland’s first single estate distillery to produce white and (eventually) brown
spirits – launched its inaugural product, Arbikie Vodka.
David Stirling, founder of the distillery and part of the family that owns Arbikie Highland Estate, said a single estate process to spirits creation allows greater quality control throughout. “We grow and distil all of our own ingredients as we want to make sure we have complete control over every single process,” he says. “Growing the base ingredients is almost as important as distilling in making spirits. It’s very much a labour of love – we treat our potatoes like winemakers treat grapes.”
Single estate Scotch
While very few Scotch whisky producers have attempted to enter the single estate category, Arbikie also began distilling its own whisky in January this year. Meanwhile Ballindalloch Distillery, based in a historic estate of the same name in Moray, also expanded the category when it fired up its stills in September 2014.
As with many single estate distilleries, Ballindalloch outsources its yeast, and also uses an external malting house, giving assurances that the same base product is returned for distillation untainted. “In its essence, Ballindalloch is much more akin to how distilleries operated 100 years ago, using the agriculture on its doorstep which is then fed back into the environment,” says Brian Robinson, distillery host for Ballindalloch.
In spirit categories such as Scotch and Cognac, where innovation is limited by official regulations, single estate production offers a point of difference. “We are in an environment that is very static from a legal point of view and change is very difficult for Cognac,” says Francois Le Grelle, CEO of Hine. “There’s not a lot of innovation here in the same way as vodka or gin. These doors are closed for Cognac today.”
To counter such stagnation in the category, Hine launched Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2005 – an expression that is both single harvest and single vineyard. It is the first in a succession of planned bottlings that will only be launched if cellar master Eric Forget believes the vintage is good enough. Sourced from the house’s vineyards in the prime Grande Champagne enclave of Bonneuil, Bonneuil 2005 is also bottled without caramel colouring.
Of the series, Le Grelle says: “It’s a time capsule of what happened on that particular year in that particular vineyard. It also offers exclusivity for consumers because single vineyard isn’t the norm; around 99% of Cognac producers blend.”
Such benefits of entering the category are widely extolled, and have been acknowledged by heavyweight distillers such as Buffalo Trace. The American whiskey maker recently revealed it had bought 233 acres of land adjacent to its Kentucky distillery with the intention to plant corn, rye and barley for its own Bourbon and rye.
Danger of appropriation
Such plans have prompted concerns among independent producers, who claim the single estate category could be tainted by the involvement of multinational firms. “The danger with single estate, craft and handmade products is when the big four distillers start to use this language; it dilutes the true meaning of these words,” believes Will Borrell, founder of Vestal Vodka, a Polish potato vodka bottled by vintage which is described as “single village” due to the close proximity of its production stages.
The lack of any official single estate spirits definition means involvement in the category is fair game, as long as advertising laws are not breached. In Scotch whisky single estate production is not defined, and so not regulated by the SWA, while its meaning is similarly vague in other categories. Despite this, in the minds of many producers, single estate spirits have a sentimental connotation, representing a way of life that corporations can’t emulate.
In addition, the category faces more concrete challenges that may restrict its growth, predominantly centring on cost and capacity. “The liquid in our bottles costs us £4 to make, when we could buy NGS for 40p a litre and redistil it in a tiny shed,” states Chase. “We will never be able to produce for the mass-market, and that will ultimately keep us limited; hence why we sell our cider and wine to aid distribution.”
Single estate may be a new and exciting category for 21st century spirits consumers, but it faces an uphill battle against similar problems that have blighted the recent history of its craft cousins.