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Drinks: Boutique spirits

Revolution in the still.

George Washington is leading the charge in another revolution: the first president’s 200-year-old distillery at Mt. Vernon is once again in action. All across America, in fact, over 160 micro-distillers are firing up their stills to hand-craft boutique spirits. And bartenders are making space on their top shelves for these unique liquors.

“Craft-made spirits are the ones with the most complex flavors, with the most assertive qualities,” says Kelley Swenson, bartender and spirits director at Ten-01 restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Of the 200 or so bottles on his list, the majority are craft spirits.

The number of American craft distillers operating has nearly tripled over the last six years, says Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute. They range over some 30 states, but are concentrated in California, Oregon, Michigan and New York. Vodkas, gins and rums dominate, but more adventuresome folks are distilling whiskies, brandies, aquavits, eaus de vie, grappas and liqueurs.

These smaller batch spirits fit right into the growing locavore trend. “Portland has a big artisan food movement,” notes Swenson, “and that’s impacting restaurants. Customers are looking for that local experience, not just with food but with distilled spirits.” They pair well with Ten-01’s focus on farm-to-table cuisine. “Not only are craft spirits produced locally,” notes Owens, “but they are usually made from locally sourced ingredients.”

Although there is no widely accepted definition of what constitutes “craft,” “artisan” or “boutique” spirits, they are usually handmade in small batches, often from organic and/or sustainably grown ingredients. That description not only fits American micro-distillers, but also encompasses small distillers in other countries as well as some high-end products from big producers, like Stoli Gold Vodka and Tanqueray Rangpur.

On Washington Island, Wisconsin, Death’s Door Spirits uses locally grown hard red wheat for its triple-distilled vodka and gin; the latter is flavored with wild, hand-harvested juniper berries and other Wisconsin-grown botanicals. In the Hudson Valley, Tuthilltown Spirits makes a triple-distilled vodka from New York apples. Cold River Vodka is crafted from Maine-grown potatoes by Maine Distilleries.

Not all the American micro-distilleries are new; in California, St. George Spirits, Germain-Robin and Domaine Charbay and in Oregon, Clear Creek Distillery, have been around for decades. And a few vineyards have been turning wine into brandy. And a number of craft brewers have moved into craft distilling—among them Anchor, Rogue and McMenamins.

From Mexico comes Siembra Azul, an artisanally crafted small-batch tequila that takes its name (“blue harvest”) from the blue agave from which it’s made; the double-distilled tequila comes in blanco, reposado and anejo. In a region of France better known for Cognac, EuroWineGate is producing a gin called G’Vine from grapes. And from Scotland comes the single malt Edradour; only 12 casks a week are made.

Sourcing these boutique spirits, concedes Swenson, takes a little more effort. “You have to work a little harder finding and tasting them, because there’s not a lot of marketing behind these small labels. But the effort has paid off for us.”

Another challenge with many craft spirits, explains Swenson, is inconsistencies of flavors, from batch to batch. Bartenders might have to adjust their recipes when they crack open a new bottle, similar to a chef dealing with different batches of heirloom tomatoes. “It makes the job interesting,” he adds.

Boutique shop

The top-priced spirits category, which includes artisan bottles, grew by double digits compared to well brands, which were flat.

Spirits volume growth by price category, 2007

Super-premium    11.3 percent
High-end    4.5 percent
Premium    2.2 percent
Value    0.3 percent

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