North America: Prohibition and craft distilling
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What can we say about the current state of the drinks industry in America? Well, quite a lot as it might happen.
For a country that gave the world prohibition, a period that forced many distilleries in the UK, France, Ireland and Canada to close, the US has seen a huge renaissance in the 21st century, with the true trai-blazers coming from the world of beer.
Craft brewing has become somewhat of a phenomenon Stateside. Strict rules apply to what can, or cannot be called a “craft beer”. For example, only a minority share of the company making the beer is allowed to be owned by a major company and output is limited.
This ideal has seen each US state develop various brands over the past two decades, and taking a tour of American craft beers is now almost better than, say, taking the same tour of Belgium or Holland. Probably.
But what the craft ideal has done is fuel a massive trend in America towards craft distilling. Let’s face it, if you’re brewing, you’re half way there to distilling. But the actual art of distillation is just that: an art. More so, it is also a science and an exact one at that; if you don’t get it right, you’ll not so much as annoy someone with badly made, terribly flavoured spirit, but you might actually injure someone, turning them blind. Or worse still: kill them.
This hasn’t deterred a number of new craft distillers from having a go, turning the American dream into the American dram.
It’s a little like London in 1975, where four scruffy lads from Shepherd’s Bush came together with one only one thing on their minds: to make music. Angry and frustrated at the political situation of the time, with the three-day working week barely a year old, inflation soaring and the unions holding business to ransom, their only outlet was to write songs and play gigs.
Their main motivation was to redress the balance, as what was happening on the streets was not being reflected in the arts, especially in music where the charts were full of overblown prog rock played by wealthy public-school boys such as Pink Floyd.
Dissatisfied with this lack of representation in the music scene, John Lydon, Glen Matlock, Paul Cook and Steve Jones formed the Sex Pistols, which would define a new era of music, clothing and art, creating a whole new cultural movement: punk rock.
Punk rock was an ideal. No technical knowledge was needed, no classical musical training required. Just set up and go. And it revolutionized not just music, but also fashion, politics and the general zeitgeist of a generation.
The current revolution that is happening in craft distilling in America is to alcoholic drinks what punk rock was to music. And as with the punk revolution, inspiration for the craft movement has come mainly from America. But this time it isn’t the Ramones or the New York Dolls that are providing the provocation to the establishment, but distilleries such as FEW Spirits, Corsair and Balcones.
Each producing a number of different products, from single malt whisky (note the lack of an ‘e’ in their branding) to gins, vodkas and even the odd infusion; here and there, the idea of what a spirit should be, how it should taste, where and by what means it is being produced are being challenged by the young punks of this distilling age across America.
It is distilleries like these, which find their marketing stories rooted in innovation, but not the type of technical-we’ve- got-the-knowledge-innovation that new economies such as the one in India are famed for, but proper, rip-up-the- rulebook stuff; almost mirroring the Pistols and their DIY attitude to music, these new distillers have their own set of instruments, often using self-built stills with, in some cases, little or no training—just getting on with it.
In January 1977, a punk rock fanzine called Sideburns published a cartoon that simply read “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now start a band.” The modern-day equivalent of this is a book published by Darek Bell, the man behind Corsair distillery, called Alt Whiskeys: Alternative Whiskey Recipes and Distilling Techniques for the Adventurous Craft Distiller, which contains an astonishing list of different recipes on how to make whiskey, gin and other interesting spirits. All with no training at all!
Unshackled creativity is not bad thing, and in the spirits industry there is always a balance between art and science, as can be seen in our brand focus on the Tuthilltown distillery in New York State. So this is very much a case of “viva la revolución” but “long live the king” at the same time, an ideal alive and kicking in America.