There has been an explosion of interest in small and local sources of food and drink over the past several years as "foodie" culture continues to grow in the United States. From craft breweries to local farmers markets to boutique wineries, the trend has become more prevalent across the country. Craft whiskey, though, still has a ways to go before it can really beat the taste of America's well-established brands of whiskey.
As the American alcohol industry continues to recover from the long wake of Prohibition, a vile pox that obliterated most of the country's breweries, wineries, and distilleries, small companies have started to pop up offering "craft" whiskey in competition with long-established brands like Wild Turkey, Makers Mark, and Jim Beam. However, in terms of taste, quality, and affordability, most of these craft whiskeys do not measure up to the major American brands. Given time and money, though, they eventually can find a niche.
The word "whiskey" comes from the Irish Gaelic phrase uisce beatha, which translates to "water of life" in English. It has long played an influential role in American life. George Washington operated the largest American whiskey distillery in the 18th century. The first significant test to the power of the fledgling federal government was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which came about in opposition to a new tax on whiskey proposed by Alexander Hamilton and contributed to the formation of political parties in the United States.
Whiskey was the drink of choice in the United States from the American Revolution to the Civil War. At its peak in 1830, there were over seven gallons of whiskey consumed for every person older than fifteen, roughly triple today's average. The Civil War led to new taxes on whiskey, and German immigrants at the time helped shift Americans towards cheaper beer. The Temperance Movement helped to make it more difficult for distilleries to operate, and then Prohibition robbed American distilleries of life. Once Prohibition ended, distilleries had to then struggle against state laws targeting the creation and consumption of alcohol. It has been an uphill battle.
Because of this battle over the past century, the vast majority of American whiskey is still made by a dozen or so distilleries and a handful of companies, mostly centered around the South. Many of the "craft" whiskey companies now popping up get the good stuff from these distilleries and then add their own flavoring and aging techniques (plus their own labels). This is one of the hazards with craft whiskeys — a New York "craft" whiskey may market itself as being distilled right there in Brooklyn, when in reality the whiskey was distilled in Kentucky and then rebranded.
Of the many small distilleries popping up from coast to coast, some are making some good whiskey. More often than not, though, these whiskeys are hit-and-miss and not as consistently reliable as America's established distilleries. Why? Whiskey is very much about aging, and when it comes to whiskey, that aging process cannot be sped up. It takes time — it takes years. These new companies often don't have the time and money to wait for years, so they age their whiskey a bit in oak and whatever else they want to add some flavor with and then throw it onto the market. While it might work occasionally, it does not yet establish a superior brand.
Craft whiskey is still growing in the United States. The existing distilleries still have the advantage as far as taste and price are concerned, mostly because they have perfected their distilling processes, have the resources to appropriately age and tinker with their whiskey, and have a current geographic advantage (there's a reason why Kentucky and Tennessee whiskeys in particular are so sought after). Given time, though, these small distilleries will be able to perfect their craft, carve out their niche, and get the time to make a good product. A century after Prohibition, it is good to see a new and exciting breath of life in America's whiskey culture.
The author admits a usual preference for Irish whiskey over American whiskey, but attended an American craft whiskey tasting to prepare for this piece and then cast aside the Jameson for Jack Daniels while writing this. Let him know your whiskey preferences below or on Twitter @RobinsonOB.