"It’s a little-known fact, but you don’t actually need a still to call yourself a distiller," Wayne Curtis writes in this month's issue of The Atlantic. "Craft" and "local" are often more marketing spin than accurate descriptions of what's in the bottle. Many start-up businesses don't have the resources to make booze from scratch so they buy generic neutral grain spirits from big suppliers and call the final blend a local product. Curtis describes the growing rift in the industry:
The hard-core, “grain to glass” distillers grow their own grain and do their own distilling, blending, aging, and bottling. That’s an expensive way to make a bottle of liquor, and the product is priced accordingly. So, understandably, they get a bit grumpy when competitors buy alcohol by the railcar and then repackage it as a “vodka handcrafted in Brooklyn” or a “Texas blended whiskey.”
To find out what it really takes to make craft liquor, we reached out to New Columbia Distillers, a bona fide grain-to-glass operation in northeast Washington, D.C. They bottled their first batch of Green Hat Gin last fall and have a hit on their hands, thanks to D.C.'s thriving restaurant and bar scene. John Uselton, who runs the distillery with his father-in-law Michael Lowe, spent an afternoon showing us the labor-intensive process behind their signature product.
Matt Ficke, the head bartender at The Passenger's Columbia Room, came along for the tour and capped it off by mixing us a drink with Green Hat's new summer blend (its ingredients include cherry blossoms!). Fittingly Ficke made the official cocktail of D.C. -- a gin Rickey -- also known as "air conditioning in a glass."
Read "When That 'Local,' 'Craft' Liquor You Pay Big Bucks for Is Neither" in the June 2013 Atlantic.