It appears that a lot of people who are into bourbon are now upset to learn that a lot of “craft” distillers don’t do their own distilling. That, in point of fact, the “craft” spirit they love may come from carefully selected mixes of spirits produced and/or aged elsewhere.
An article at The Daily Beast was the cold slap of reality for them, and it has led to a lot of angst and discussions of what “is” is, or rather what is craft and what is horrible-big-batch-chain-megaconglomerate-otherbadwordthing. Artisan, craft, crafty… Well, call it what you will (and this article makes some very good points).
For me, lost in the angst and the latest “in” bourbon (or some other spirits for that matter) is process. I know that my current favorite producer of bourbon has just started to distill on premises again — which means the product I love did not start life there. Yet, I personally still consider it to be an honest product.
Why? Simple. It starts with the fact that they don’t hide it. They may not advertise it, but they don’t try to mislead you. Following-up on that is the fact that they are building on the recipes and traditions that began decades ago in the family and were interrupted by a rather poor business decision (IMO) and a sale. Now that the family has bought things back, they are building on the previous traditions and refining.
Think about what goes into providing the flavors in any good spirit. It starts with the mix of grains/ingredients. Some families and businesses have developed recipes over the years and stick with them for good reasons. That’s where a lot of flavor comes from, and by playing with small changes in proportion you can make some rather interesting (and potentially significant) changes in flavor. Changing the type/variety of wheat/corn/rye makes a difference, which is why good distillers take care to ensure continued sourcing of preferred varieties of each.
Good stills do make a difference, pot or column, but where those stills are located does not make a significant difference. It may be next door, or it may be a few hundred miles away. On-site or next door are much easier to deal with from a logistics standpoint, but…
Next is the wood for the barrels, and if charred how charred. Again, there has been a lot of trial and error over the years and those who have been doing it a while have their preferences. New companies have a good idea (often) of what they want, but if smart they are likely going to play around with that at least a little bit.
Finally, where it is stored makes a difference. A range of temperatures and humidity do make a difference. My current favorite may not have been distilled on site, but guess where the aging warehouses are? Again, for each type of spirit there is a good bit of data on the climate needed, as the conditions of aging are important.
To me, what makes a truly great spirit are the flavors that come from the differences in the production and aging, while the spirit remains within the larger brand taste. It’s why I like single-barrel single malts a lot, and accept that in many respects each bottle I buy is going to be different. Accept heck, I look forward to it. It’s also why I’ve quietly snickered at some of the hot-brand-of-the-month bourbon and rye whisky out there (and most especially at their fanboys).
Folks, if that very expensive bottle of aged “craft” bourbon or rye comes from a company that’s only been around a couple of years, the odds of it being produced and aged elsewhere is, oh, about 100 percent. They may have a true genius blending things for a great taste and consistent taste over time and from a large source of stock. They may have a wonderful product through chemistry. However, if you think it comes from people who have devoted years or decades to learning the craft and carefully producing a product from start to well-aged finish, well, I have a bridge for you.
Find what tastes good to you. Explore. Enjoy. Learn a bit about the process and what goes into making that spirit. My “everyday” bourbon and favorite “small batch” bourbon are technically both mass produced. My current favorite high-end bourbon and rye come from a place that just started distilling on-site again fairly recently (at least by bourbon standards). For me, the devil — and the pleasure — are in the details, and the details are not exact sameness bottle-to-bottle. Consistent, yes. Exactly the same and rigidly checked by chemical analysis, no.
If you have to have a spirit from master distillers/craftsmen who have studied and worked for years/decades and only do small batches that are distilled, aged, and mixed to taste on site, good for you. There are a few out there. Just be prepared to pay a truly premium price and accept scarcity of supply.