A quick glance at the craft spirits database of the American Distilling Institute website will reveal upwards of 2,000 entries. True, many distillers have multiple products on the list, but the mere fact that the number is in the thousands suggests that the craft spirits boom is not just an anomaly but rather a major explosion.
Many companies started as passion projects have gone on to become national influencers. FEW Spirits, House Spirits Distillery, St. George Spirits and Leopold Bros. are but a few of them. Still, for every brand that hits the big time, there are others that are just getting started. These are eight mom-and-pop distilleries that may be small today but could hit the big time tomorrow.
With circus-themed labels and names like Contortionist gin and Sword Swallower rum, Backwards approaches its craft with a distinctly tongue-in-cheek sensibility. “Our philosophy as a company is to produce spirits from scratch that have a unique twist,” says distiller Chad Pollock. “We work to bring an interesting addition to a cocktail. We are also beginning work to resurrect lost and forgotten recipes.”
Distillery facts: One 530-gallon still and one 125-gallon still capable of making 16,000 cases per year. Current production sits at 3,000 cases per year.
Current products: Contortionist gin, Sword Swallower Rum, Ringleader vodka, Milk Can moonshine, Milk Can cinnamon moonshine.
Upcoming products: Navy-strength Strong Man gin, absinthe and aquavit in development. Whiskey and rum are currently aging in traditional 53-gallon barrels.
Where available: Distributed in Wyoming and online
Bowen’s is a true mom-and-pop shop, with Wade Bowen distilling and Joanne “The Whiskey Maker’s Wife” Bowen acting as head of marketing and sales. Wade had been distilling on his own for years, inspired by conversations as a boy with a seventh-generation moonshiner named Bud McCafferty. McCafferty was “just pure old school,” says Wade, who learned the actual mechanics of distillation from a chemist and then spent years perfecting his own 100 percent corn whiskey recipe.
Sourced from the local Piute Mountains, wood from black oak trees that have gone through forest fires gives the distillate its smoky character. The result is a true “California whiskey” with a bourbon-ish sweetness and an unapologetically campfire-like profile. As for the back-of-bottle photo of the fellow with piercing eyes, it’s actually Wade’s cousin’s wife’s great-great grandfather. “Everyone said ‘you need a story’ on your bottle,” says Wade. “My cousin and I came across this photo and thought, Who is this guy? What’s he doing? He’s either drunk or mad; let someone else figure it out. That’s the story.” Iconoclastic to the end, just like his whiskey, and proud of it.
Distillery facts: Currently producing 1,200 cases per year. Bowen’s also produces whiskey for other small whiskey labels.
Products: Just one—Bowen’s whiskey
Where available: Los Angeles area bars and some retailers, and online
Forty miles outside of Philadelphia stands a 120-year-old barn that whiskey expert and spirits consultant Riannon Walsh purchased to create her dream distillery. Surprisingly, she’s focusing on gin. “People often ask, ‘Why did you stop doing whiskey?,’” she says. “When you make single-malt whiskey, the recipe never varies. With gin, the entire world of botanicals—all fruits, flowers, herbs and spices—are available to work with. It’s like being a chef and incredibly challenging and adventurous.” Her four iterations, released in June 2016, follow the seasons and their familiar botanicals such as jasmine and rose for summer and anise and orange peel for the barrel-rested winter blend.
Distillery facts: The stills, storage, bottling, warehouse and bistro/bar are all located in the 10,000-square-foot barn. An apple orchard is being planted for brandy, as have juniper bushes for a Juniper Revival Program on site.
Current products: The Revivalist gin collection—Equinox, Harvest, Solstice and Summertide; DragonDance jalapeño-infused gin
Upcoming products: Single-malt whiskey, rye, apple brandy and a bourbon collection
Where available: In restaurants and bars in Pennsylvania, for purchase in some major markets and at the distillery and online
Co-founder and master distiller John Miller has been making his Apple Pie liqueur since he was around 20. “I got it to a point where all my friends started saying, ‘Stop changing the recipe and start selling it,’” he says. He learned to distill in 2006 and hasn’t looked back. In 2013, he and his partners started discussing a brick-and-mortar distillery. Rick Burch, the drummer for Jimmy Eat World, signed on because he too was trying to get a distillery up and running but didn’t have the time with his band commitments. Currently, CaskWerks is a four-person operation with John, Rick, Chad Labelle and bartender Travis Nass as their “spirits guide” and marketing director.
Distillery facts: 2,200 square feet; plans are underway for an 800 foot tasting room. Capable of 3,000 cases a year; current output is at about 720.
Current products: Apple Pie liqueur, gin
Upcoming products: Whiskey is in the planning stages. They are also talking to Arizona wineries about distilling brandy in the future.
Where available: Currently self-distributed throughout Arizona and looking to expand into other markets in the next year
Greenhook Ginsmiths in NYC’s Brooklyn makes what its name suggests—gin and only gin. And for all intents and purposes, this is a one-man show, founded by gin enthusiast and former Wall Streeter Steve DeAngelo, who does everything from distilling and sales to marketing and PR. His one concession to practicality is having about half a dozen folks help him bottle on the weekends. DeAngelo is completely self-taught, relying on a combination of personal gin knowledge and intense study of the distilling craft.
Greenhook uses a technique that employs a low distillation temperature with the goal of producing spirits of more pronounced aromatics and less astringency. The dry gin features chamomile and elderflower as well as the familiar juniper. The company also makes a barrel-aged Old Tom gin and the first commercially available Beach Plum Gin Liqueur (a twist on sloe gin) with plums harvested on Long Island.
Distillery facts: A nondescript warehouse in Brooklyn
Products: American dry gin, Beach Plum Gin Liqueur, Old Tom gin
Kimo Sabe is a father/daughter collaboration; co-founders Jim Walsh and Ashley Walsh Kvamme are CEO and COO, respectively. With a background in agriculture, the duo cultivated the first chocolate plantation in the U.S. and produced an award-winning chocolate brand in the 1990s.
They took the same determination to build their mezcal brand, which combines a modern sensibility with a respect for community. Their giving-back campaign allows for the donation of agave seedlings to a group of growers in Mexico, as well as training in planting and maintenance, with a promise of purchase. The company is also developing A Journey of Mezcal, a series of experiential events for the consumer.
Distillery facts: Fifteen employees work in a 3,000-square-foot distillery and tend 500 hectares of land, producing about 2,700 cases per year.
A family-run business—composed of Mark Meyer, Mary Ellen Meyer, Alex Grelli, Meredith Meyer Grelli and Eric Meyer—Wigle makes organic and often locally sourced spirits. After two years of lobbying to change Pennsylvania state laws to allow them to produce and sell directly from the distillery, Wigle opened its doors in 2012.
The venture was inspired by Pittsburgh’s whiskey history. In the 18th and 19th century, Western Pennsylvania was the center of U.S. whiskey production. The company name comes from a fellow named Philip Wigle, who was sentenced to hang after refusing to stop distilling, an action that helped spur the Whiskey Rebellion. Wigle has brought back the historic Monongahela style of rye, once a standard style also known as Pennsylvania rye.
Distillery facts: A distillery and tasting room located in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, with barrelhouse No. 1 at 4,500 square feet and full of barrels and barrelhouse No. 2, at 6,100 square feet, recently acquired. There’s also an outdoor 3,000-square-foot whiskey garden and tasting room at the barrelhouse. With a second still and additional fermentation tanks installed March of 2016, Wigle will produce 47,000 proof gallons per year.
Current products: Various wheat whiskeys, ryes and bourbons, a line of gin and “Ginever,” a collection of organic bitters
Upcoming products: A series referred to as Whims produce monthly experimental bottlings.
Tom Burkleaux got the distilling bug in 2001. With only $3,500, he purchased a 25-gallon still, and in 2004, the distillery was licensed. Why make booze? “Who doesn’t like to make things?” asks Burkleaux. “Portland, Oregon, has such a strong craft/DIY culture that it’s hard not to be inspired and believe you can make world-class products on a small scale.” Compared to some of these other folks, New Deal is old guard, at least in its home state of Oregon, but it’s still a small-scale producer.
Recently, the company came out with a gentian bitter liqueur and has plans for much more innovation. “Our future is a lot like our past,” say Burkleaux. “I want to keep exploring and experimenting and constantly work at learning our craft and making our products and processes better every year. I want to strive for world-class quality, while keeping our original spirit of reaching one drinker at a time.”
Distillery facts: Five stills, including a 450-liter Christian Carl pot still with brandy and vodka columns. Current output at 8,000 cases with plans for 10,000 cases by 2017. Core production staff of four; 15 to 20 employees total.