They are very much hands-on--self-taught, building and repairing equipment, learning the alcoholic beverage laws of their states, getting licenses and doing their own PR and marketing.
Their output varies from gin, vodkas and fruit eaux-de-vie to aged whiskies, bourbons and rums. According to the website of the American Distilling Institute, a micro-distillers trade association, www.distilling.com, President Bill Owens lists 38 states with small distilleries.
Here is a modest selection of the many micro-distilled spirits out there. Starting with white spirits, Philadelphia Distilling's organic Bluecoat American Dry Gin has a lot of citrusy aromatics along with flagrant juniper and other botanicals. It is bottled at 47%, similar to many English gins on the market. A companion vodka is the pristine Penn 1681 Rye Vodka, distilled from locally grown organic rye in a 4-column continuous still. Even the bottle is made in PA. In New York State's Hudson Valley, Tuthilltown Heart of the Hudson Vodka and Spirit of the Hudson Vodka are distilled from local cider. This takes place in a 14-plate column still, followed by a 4-plate stripping still. The owners have obtained a wholesaler's license and can sell directly to retailers. Tito's Handmade Vodka from Austin, TX, is distilled from corn, six times in pot stills, and filtered through activated charcoal, although that step has not been required for many years. It is a truly neutral spirit. 360 Vodka from Missouri is "eco-friendly," with efficient production methods and recyclable packaging. It is quadrupled-distilled from grain, and filtered five times.
Here are a few flavored vodkas. The Firefly Distillery's Sweet Tea Vodka was originally produced near Charleston, SC, and is now produced in Frankfort, KY. It is vodka infused with southern-grown American tea, with sweetening. The color is amber, and it has the aroma and flavor of tea. Its 35% alcohol is gentle on the palate. Domaine Charbay's Green Tea Vodka, from northern California, is made once a year from whole leaf green tea and Charbay's own vodka. It has a misty yellow color and an aroma of green tea with a hint of cucumber and some slight sweetness. This is also 35% alcohol. (The addition of flavorings allow the vodkas to be sold at a lower proof than the 40% alcohol that an unflavored vodka must be.)
Among the whiskies are Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, which is produced in a kettle-and-column still from roasted western barleys. With the malts of a Scotch and aging more like a bourbon, this aromatic sipping whiskey is smooth, despite its 47% alcohol. Several whiskies are also produced at Tuthilltown: Manhattan Rye Whiskey, Old Gristmill Corn Whiskey, Hudson Baby Bourbon, Hudson 4 Grain Bourbon, Single Malt Whiskey and Hudson River Rum, packaged in 375 mls. The most unique and expensive whiskey is produced by the innovative Domaine Charbay--Charbay Whiskey Release II ($325), which pays tribute to the "beer" that starts the whiskey-making process. It is distilled from a premium pilsener beer, with aromatic hops added, aged six years in American white oak, followed by three more years in stainless tanks. It is bottled at 55% alcohol. The color is bright amber, and the intense nose is slightly piney from resiny hops. It is very dry and spicy. This is a whiskey for collectors.
So, if you are in one of the 38 states with micro-distilleries, it might be interesting to look up a local producer. Remember, local sells.
Harriet Lembeck, CWE *, CSS ** firstname.lastname@example.org is a prominent wine and spirits educator. She is president of the renowned Wine & Spirits Program, and revised and updated the textbook Grossman's Guide to Wines, Beers and Spirits. She was the Director of the Wine Department for The New School University for 18 years. (* Certified Wine Educator, ** Certified Specialist of Spirits)