by Lee Griffith, Director of Sales
It takes a lot to get my dander up, but recently an article came across my desk that seemingly took a direct shot at who we are as Boot Hill Distillery and what we do.
I will say at the outset, the article title clearly states it is an opinion piece. This writing clearly states so as well. These are just my feelings, as we all know tastes are subjective and everyone’s are different.
Opinion: 'Rapid-Aged Whiskey' Is A Hard 'No' For Me written by Steve Coomes for the Whiskey Wash, read to me as a shot across the bow for all emerging craft distilleries. The title says it all, but delving further, Mr. Coomes opines that the price that craft distilleries charge is not commensurate to the “juice” in the bottle.
The Craft Spirits Startup Dilemma
I will be the first to pay my respects to the long and storied histories of our Kentucky distilleries. They have survived centuries of up and down trends and, of course, the industry-killing 18th Amendment and have still emerged as the most consistent producers of America’s own spirit, bourbon. As if God himself kissed the lands in which these spirits were distilled using the finest waters, purest grains, and bootstrapping know-how. The industry has been led by these titans of the distilling world. As such, not only do they produce a consistently good product, but also have the advantage of years of distilling and aging. Rickhouses holding 46,000 barrels each dot the bluegrass countryside.
Craft distilling, conversely, has only seen a renaissance in the last 10-15 years, give or take. With a majority of small, family-run distilleries cropping up in the last 5 years. So what are the choices these distilleries have to get their product from grain to bottle? Option A is to buy or grow their own grain. Then transport it to their distilling facility where it then has to be milled, mashed, fermented, and distilled at least twice before filling into a barrel to age. In the case of whiskey, this process can take 10-14 days -per barrel- of whiskey, depending on the facilities. Once the new-make spirit is filled into new charred oak barrels, only then does the aging clock really start. The end can be years later. Option B, ready made and already aged whiskies can be produced from large, established distilleries, transported to the DSP (distilled spirits plant, federal designation) and either filled into their own barrels to age a little longer, or most likely, filled directly into bottles, labeled, and made available for sale. As you can see, Option A takes much longer.
So what is a new, start-up distillery to do if they want their product to be as authentic to their region, family, or story as possible? Well, ya can’t cheat time. And money, real operating capital, isn’t made with whiskey just sitting in barrels. So these distilleries are forced to release the best quality spirits they can make in a short amount of time. There is simply no getting around it, unless they buy someone’s else’s pre-aged whiskey.
This creates a constant push-pull of bottling whiskey to sell, while still holding back longer aged stock. I dare say there is no magic formula to this.
So when you see a $40 or $50 2-year old whiskey, consider everything that has gone into making it and every advantage that the big distilleries have in selling their products over the craft producer. Raw materials, overhead, labor (employees, people), and supplies have all gone into that bottle. They’re genuinely putting blood, sweat, tears, and in many cases their last dime into the making of that bottle and this is before any marketing, advertising, or (for the lucky ones) distributor costs/margins that factor in.
What You're Really Paying For
Now for the second (sometimes first) argument. “Well it tastes like crap AND it’s expensive.” I won’t deny that there is a lot of trial and error in distilling; there is very little formal education out there that teaches a person how to distill. Sure, some of those early batches might be a little rough. New distillers might be figuring their processes out. But trust me, they’ll get there. Whether it be a fermentation issue, a distilling issue, or simply how long the spirit sits in the barrel, these things will get figured out. The distillery will truly start to shine with what makes them special -- be it the grain, the soil, the climate, or just the heart that gets put into each bottle. But never judge a bottle or distillery solely by its earliest expression.
The quality will be there, it will start to shine through. The purest grains and the narrowest of cuts will yield a beautiful whiskey completely unique to where it’s made. Kentucky may be blessed with the finest limestone water and soil, but they don’t have a monopoly on the climate. Wild temperature swings are all over the country and this is the true secret to the aging process: time and climate. (For a more in-depth look at barrel aging, read my Aging Whiskey 101 post.)
Quality Without Compromise
All of this is not to mention the most egregious offender of overpricing: pedigreed whisky brands selling overaged, barrel-beaten spirit for top dollar to those poor souls seeking status. The markup on these “rare gems” borders criminal territory, yet too few in the industry have called these titans out for taking it upon themselves to prey on ignorant consumers. Why take the time to educate when there’s a market for it? Well, that’s a post for another day.
Short-aged whiskies are starting to get noticed and win awards from all over the country. We’re coming for those long-storied Kentucky distilleries and we’re coming with unique stories, authenticity, and grit to make the finest whiskey anywhere in the country. Not only are the bottles produced great quality, but due to production and distribution challenges within the three-tier system, they are really some of the rarest anywhere. A bottle with a batch and bottle number hand-written on it likely means there won’t be another one of those around - ever. With Pappy or BTAC bottles going for hundreds of dollars, it makes those $50 bottles seem pretty cheap. Better get them while you can!