Aspen Times Weekly: In good spirits
February 5, 2015
Walk into any liquor store or watering hole and you may want to brace yourself: An assault on your intelligence is nigh. So-called "craft" spirits are booming — there are now more than 600 microdistillers of artisanal whiskey, vodka, rum, tequila, and other types of hooch, according to the American Distilling Institute, a figure that has soared from just 50 in 2005 — but they're also loosely labeled and regulated.
Jimmy Yeager, proprietor of Jimmy's: An American Restaurant and Jimmy's Bodega, calls it a "massive misinformation campaign." What's going on, and how might we parse quality products from the pack?
Seeking guidance, I sat down with three local experts in the wide world of American spirits: Yeager; Mark Kleckner, CFO/COO of Woody Creek Distillers in Basalt; and Jeremy Barbin, on-premise spirits specialist for Southern Wine & Spirits of Colorado. Each subject — a bar owner, an artisanal producer, and the liaison between the two — identifies the issues surrounding this burgeoning trend to uncover what, exactly, lurks in the bottles.
First off, what's your definition of 'craft spirit'?
Jeremy Barbin: That's a tough question. Craft, to me, means something that's not mass produced, that you can track from farm to bottle. Small-scale production.
mark kleckner: That's a great definition. I think it's more hands-on. There are parallels to the food industry: On one end there's fast food, and on the other end there's fine dining.
Jimmy Yeager: My first distinction has much less to do with volume. For instance, when Mark gets to the point where he's doing half a million cases per year, is it a mega-corporation like Diageo, or is there a face behind the product? Is he turning the still on in the morning, is he there distilling? I think that craft is not something that's mechanized (but) a hands-on process. I'm not concerned with the size of an operation; if somebody grows and stays true to their craft process, that doesn't take them out of craft distilling because they've become a higher volume company.
JB: You have what Mark and Woody Creek Distillers are doing, and then you have neutral grain spirits and Costco. Those two are easy to define, but then there's everything in the middle. You have to realize that there are small guys who are not being truthful — who are buying industrial spirits — just like the Tito's of the world.
What's the deal with the class-action lawsuits against Tito's Vodka, anyway?
JY: Tito's got in big trouble. They went from this small operation where they were pot-distilling their vodka…as they got bigger they realized they had this hook into the market. Instead of just becoming a bigger company, going out and buying industrialized vodka and finishing it in that craft style, they chose to mislead the consumer.
JB: Another lawsuit dropped today in New Jersey against Tito's and the whole 'handcrafted' thing.
So if a product is labeled 'handcrafted,' how do we know if it's actually an industrial, mass-produced product?
MK: A clear and distinct way to know is to look on the bottle and see who it's distilled by. If it's just 'produced and bottled by,' they're buying it. If I can buy a handle for 20 bucks, it's probably not craft.
JY: Let's take two whiskeys: Bulleit and Whistle Pig. Bulleit started out more than 20 years ago, buying whiskey bourbon from Four Roses/Jim Rutledge. It's darn good whiskey. They leveraged that quality and started buying rye from MGP (Midwest Grain Producers) in Indiana, but with name recognition, people thought that's what rye should taste like because it's Bulleit. The thing that doesn't bother me about Bulleit is that A) They label on the back of their bottles where the whiskey is from, and B) They don't charge a large premium. Bottles are still under 30 bucks.
You're asking for transparency and fairness.
JY: When all of the sudden you have these companies charging enormous premiums for very standard industrial product then passing it off as a craft, that's when the hair on the back of my neck stands up. Whereas with Bulleit I'm OK with a non-distilled product. There's nothing wrong with it—as long as you're honest.
JB: Take Maker's Mark: they put 'handcrafted' on their label and they got sued. That's where it starts to get fuzzy. Maker's Mark you can trace back to the Samuels family. I've been to the distillery. You have what people perceive are these huge, national, global brands — Maker's, Patron — but when it comes down to it, they're still, in my mind, handcrafted or handmade or small batch, because you can trace the lineage and where it comes from. From a sales point of view, if Spring44 says, 'We buy our stuff in Kentucky and its only 'Colorado bourbon' because we put Colorado water in it? Hey, man, let the consumer decide.
JY: And none of this is limited to vodka or whiskey. This is across the board. I get offended when there's a little bit of truth and a lot of untruth in marketing. This is what puts people like Jeremy in a tough position and wants to send Mark through the roof. I'll stand by the Leopold Bros., and Woody Creek Distillers all day long, because I know what they do. I can't go visit every distillery, but there's lots more info available. On a label, it's fairly simple: Distilled By or Produced By/Bottled By. Breckenridge Bourbon, I'm on the fence. They're starting to add their own bourbon in as a blend, but it doesn't really pass the smell test…
MK: [Breckenridge Distillery] sells a ton of vodka, and it is 100 percent industrial. You can walk into their facility and see what they can and can't do. You see industrial tanks, (but) they'll tell you they make it. If the consumer just realizes that it takes at least two years to make bourbon…the temptation is there to buy some aged whiskey. We didn't wanna do that. Templeton Rye is another, claiming they're using Al Capone's pre-Prohibition recipe, but it's the exact same industrial rye coming from MGP in Indiana. They aren't being honest about it!
So these brands are flat-out deceiving us?
JY: Take Whistle Pig, buying their rye from Alberta Distillers in Canada. I know someone in Mexico that buys it by the tanker at $7 a liter! And that's tanked from Canada to Mexico, and Whistle Pig is right over the border in Vermont. The Alberta premium is probably in the $6-10 range. Whistle Pig is charging, through a distributor, $65 a 750ml. This has gone too far! Their labeling is craft, their image is craft, their pontification is craft…
… But they ain't craft. Mark, as a competing farm-to-bottle producer, how does this make you feel?
MK: When we first started a few years ago it really pissed me off. These guys are cheating. They're cutting corners. They're not being honest. But I've always taken the approach: Do things the right way, people will see that, and you'll prevail in the end. We've stuck to our guns. Fortunately, people like Jimmy and Jeremy are getting the word out. In the last couple of years there's been a paradigm shift in the knowledge, first in the industry and then in the consumer base.
JY: It makes a difference, to people like Mark, to have end sellers who are willing to stand up. Here at the Bodega, I had a very luxurious opportunity to start over with my spirits list. Over the years at Jimmy's, we've built relationships with certain brands. It's hard to drop them, even if they've changed [the recipe]. Say Tito's: Texas pride is a hard thing to fight. I've had people tell me straight to the face, 'I don't care, it's still made in Texas!' Even though I'm telling them its not made in Texas, they still want to support it. It's off our list, but we still have a bottle for those diehards. Because it's not my job to tell people what to drink.
What is your responsibility?
JY: Being an end seller, I'm a consumer advocate. I'm the last stop between the product and the customer, so shame on me if I don't know what I'm selling. I can rely 60-70 percent only on the distributors. And I say only because it's not their fault. The rotation of personnel from company to company is so rapid — and Jeremy's the exception; [at 5 years] you're an old man in the business. These guys are trained on their product and not on their category. There's a lot of pressure, these products come in, they have to move. It's a business.
MK: Jimmy, you can maintain neutrality if you choose to, but Jeremy and many other distributors don't have that luxury. They've got big brands that keep the lights on in the building for them.
Jeremy, how much comes down on you to sell the product line instead of the real story?
JB: My job as a distributor is performance-based, buying from guys like Mark to international companies. At the end of the day, how much did you sell? That's what you're judged on. You have to know your customer. With Jimmy, I wouldn't try to sell him Whistle Pig.
At what point did you know that Whistle Pig was not made in Vermont?
JB: Oh, that the Whistle Pig distillery didn't even exist? Not when I first got it. These things are presented to us on another level. Maker's Mark, Dave Pickerell: this was his 'swan song.' He created this little brand on a farm in Vermont when he left Maker's' —you're given this picture.
MK: What's been awesome for me to experience is the fact that you're willing to assess a local craft distiller, and you're willing to try it.
JB: If I could make a living just selling Mark's stuff, and Leopold Bros., sign me up. But that's not the case. Every brand I sell has applications in different places. What I sell to Jimmy or Justice Snow's is different from what I sell to other bars in town. The problem is that smaller guys try and play off what guys like Mark and Leopold Bros., are doing and ride on their coattails, and it's total bullshit. Mark has every right to sit here and feel pissed off about the labeling in the industry, and rightly so.
JY: I do think that the government has a responsibility, that there's fairness in labeling. The government of Mexico has great pride in tequila and mezcal. Every bottle is numbered as to what distillery it's made from. There are production methods outlined, and severe if not lethal penalties for companies who don't comply.
How are bar owners and consumers responding?
JB: Aspen is trending toward people educating themselves. Vodka is all marketing — it's what friends drink, it's what's cool, it's what Jay-Z drinks. How many times can you give someone at a bar this brand or this brand or this brand and they can pick out their vodka? Very rarely.
MK: I had not heard many complaints about our spirit until we were passing our stuff at the 2014 X Games. You have a ton of kids [of legal age] who mix it with Red Bull, who were looking for neutral vodka. I probably heard a dozen times, 'Did you give me tequila?' It has flavor. It's not neutral.
JY: By definition vodka is the absence of flavor, but it doesn't really mean there's no flavor. It's an unadulterated spirit — there's a purity of the grain or potato or grape.
JB: Woody Creek is challenging the industry as a whole. Mark can see the potato through the bottle to the store — that's an amazing story. They're changing the way people think about vodka. It's not just tasteless, odorless, over-distilled, straight alcohol. It's groundbreaking.
So, what do we make of all this?
JY: Sometimes it doesn't matter. People just want something good. I know guys who will just drink Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. There's nothing wrong with Jack Daniel's. Whose job is it to put up a billboard saying if its 'produced and bottled' it's not 'distilled by' [that brand]? Some people are open to that conversation, some people are not.
JB: If you like it, drink it.