In a recent profile of New York-area micro-distillers, The New York Times praised the way that, like craft charcuteries and urban apiaries, these small-bore labors of love churned out a better product than their larger, more established cousins. "Virtually all craft distillers use small pot stills rather than the huge column stills used by the industry giants," wrote author Toby Cecchini. "Though more labor-intensive, these more faithfully capture the essence of fruit and grain, and let a distiller precisely select what part of the distilling run to use to create the most nuanced styles and flavors."
First things first: I work for the Times, though I've never met Mr. Cecchini. And I've written admiringly of some of the distillers he mentions in his piece, including Tuthilltown, Breuckelen, and Kings County, in this space over the past year. It's hard not to love people who spend their free time making alcoholic beverages. But there's a difference between praising their efforts and lauding the outcomes.
I have yet to sample a craft whiskey that comes close even to Jim Beam's most basic offering, the four-year-old White Label, let alone its small-batch bourbons like Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, or Booker's.
When it comes to the craft food movement, one of the operating assumptions is that smaller is better. Corporate ownership and large-scale production are not only karmically bad, but they guarantee an inferior product. Two guys carving up meat in a rented kitchen, we're told, will always do better than Oscar Mayer.
This is, of course, ridiculous. Large-scale production is about finding a happy, replicable medium and sticking with it; craft-scale production is about entrepreneurship, experimentation, and variety. As in any endeavor, some entrants will be better than others, and some will fail miserably. When it comes to buying software, we'd hesitate before picking up a CD-ROM packaged in a box with a hand-written logo; why do we do the opposite when it comes to food?
This faith in the little guy is particularly pervasive in micro-distilling; you hear it all the time. Perhaps it is because craft distilling is such a clear outgrowth of craft brewing—where, with a few exceptions, mass-produced beer really is garbage. Indeed, many craft distillers were once brewers: Tom Potter, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery, is about to open a gin distillery.
Unfortunately, just because Big Beer makes bad beer doesn't mean the same goes for distilling (particularly when it comes to whiskey; I'll set aside problematic quaffs like rum). Jim Beam is owned by Fortune Brands, a $7.5 billion megacorporation based in suburban Chicago that also makes golf gear. But I have yet to sample a craft whiskey that comes close even to Jim Beam's most basic offering, the four-year-old White Label, let alone its small-batch bourbons like Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, or Booker's. Four Roses is owned by Japan's enormous Kirin Brewing, but its Mariage is possibly the best bourbon sold in America.
The reason the big guys keep turning out great products is that most of them began as craft products, long before "craft" was popular. Eventually the industry merged, and outside corporations took over. But these new owners recognized the importance of quality in a way that never occurred in brewing or meat processing; Fortune, for example, wisely let the Beam family and its allies retain creative control over the distilling process. Kirin resurrected Four Roses as a premium brand after it had languished for decades under domestic ownership.
There's also the issue of skill. Brewing is a young man's game: It's relatively easy to master the basic techniques involved. The key is to be industrious (you've got to make a lot of beer) and exceedingly, constantly creative. Distilling and aging whiskey, on the other hand, takes decades to master—which is why Four Roses's Jim Rutledge and Heaven Hill's Parker Beam, two of the greatest whiskey distillers alive, are both quite long in the tooth.
That's not to say that, decades from now, the guys behind Tuthilltown or Kings County won't be celebrated distillers, mentioned in the same sentence as Rutledge or Beam. But it does mean that for now, we should appreciate them the way we would a rock band just emerging from its bassist's garage: full of promise and passion, but with a long way to go before they make a hit.