If the craft spirits movement of the last ten years has taught me anything, it’s that terroir and tradition in the realm of whiskey are as real as anything in the world of wine. You can’t just grow top quality grapes anywhere, and—as it really hit home over the last few days in Kentucky—you can’t just make top quality whiskey wherever you feel like. It always used to sound a little dramatic to me when I started learning about whiskey production—back when I first met passionate and knowledgeable distillers like Jim McEwan or Willie Tait and heard them talk about the importance of water and weather in Scottish single malt production. They’d be off on some tangent about the minerals and the purity of some hard-to-pronounce loch, but back then I didn’t really have a real point of reference. It’s not like there were a bunch of other regional single malts to compare them against and it sounded like marketing at the time. I remember Jim Rutledge talking about the importance of Kentucky’s atmosphere to the maturation of Bourbon—the intense heat in the summer and just the right amount of cold in the winter; how that fluctuation of temperature forces the whiskey in and out of the oak in perfect ratios. But would the exact same whiskey aged in California or Colorado really taste any different? Is Kentucky’s unique climate really that important, or was this just the opinion of some local distiller looking to protect his territory? It seemed farfetched to me. That was in the past, however. Today, after spending nine years tasting hundreds of craft whiskies made in dozens of different locales that are neither Kentucky nor Scotland, I have a different mindset.
Some people seem to think making a batch of whiskey is just a matter of following a recipe, no different than baking bread or roasting a chicken. It’s as if alcohol is just a simple formula made from a few simple ingredients that can be replicated anywhere and by anyone. I’ve been invited over for dinner by people like that before. They stand there literally cooking a particular meal for the first time, following instructions off a piece of paper and acting like it can’t be that hard. It sucks, and usually their food does too. Guess what? Spirits made in that same flippant manner are no better. I cannot tell you how baffling (and rather insulting) it is to visit with a distiller who has absolutely no taste or feel as it pertains to production, but for some reason expects his whiskey to be gobbled up by the rabid marketplace just because he took the time to make it. My wife said to me once after such an occasion: “If I ever offered to personally cook for someone I would only ever make something I knew I was good at.” I patted her on the head and said: “Sweetie—we’re living in an age where everyone thinks they’re good at everything.” If whiskey can be made anywhere, however, under any type of conditions and on any type of still, then why is it that I have yet to taste one craft Bourbon from any of the other forty-nine states that tastes better than the cheapest corporate Kentucky version? Jimmy Russell told me on Tuesday that the limestone-rich water Wild Turkey pumps from the Kentucky River is one of the most important ingredients in his whiskey. Do you think he’s making that up? Or do you think that’s maybe one of several important factors that modern craft distillers overlook when they hook up a hose from their urban warehouse space and pump tap water into their cooker? There’s something particular about whiskey made in Kentucky that can’t be a coincidence, don’t you think?
Then there’s the importance of tradition. You know what Brown-Forman, Beam, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Barton, and Heaven Hill have in common besides decades and decades of experience? They’re all still in business. Why are they all still in business? Because over the last sixty years many companies have come and gone, opened and closed, and moved in and out of the American whiskey business; but these are the players who have maintained their standing through many turbulent eras. That’s just simple evolution, if you ask me. The market decides what is and what isn’t worth paying for and the distillers who can’t hack it get crushed by the cruel hand of capitalism. I have to imagine that a similar day of reckoning is coming to the American craft whiskey market in the near future. Last night at Meta, a hip and happening cocktail bar in Louisville, they had a Wednesday special: a can of Old Style and a shot of Old Forester for five bucks. It was such a fun deal I couldn’t pass it up. The real kicker, however, was how great that Old Forester tasted compared to some of the absolutely terrible (and pricier) craft whiskies I had tasted earlier that day. Did you know that you can get a handle of Old Forester in Louisville for less than twenty five dollars? Same with Ancient Age and Very Old Barton. How can you beat that?!! The only way a craft whiskey distillery can compete with that type of bang-for-your-buck quality is by making a spirit that’s clearly better. However, in order to make something clearly better you not only need years of experience, you need to find the right combination of terroir, ingredients, and equipment. You can’t just set up shop anywhere, buy a still, grab a few bags of commercial grain and yeast, and expect magic to happen. I can tell you this: the guys who recently rebuilt Wolfburn in Scotland were much more interested in locating the original water source than the original distillery site. “The water was the most important part,” they told me. Funnily enough, their three year old whisky is already delicious.
One of the reasons I have so much respect for Westland in Seattle is because, before they built the distillery, they realized Seattle has a lot in common with Scotland: the climate, the quality of the barley, the local peat bogs—everything. Those guys chose to make single malt whiskey in the Pacific Northwest because they understood the Pacific Northwest was particularly suited to making single malt whisky. The proof? It’s in the bottle, boys and girls. The recent Garryana release from Westland is without a doubt the best American single malt I’ve ever tasted and it’s one of the most exciting whiskey releases of 2016. They’ve got nothing left to prove to me. But is California particularly suited to making whiskey? I don’t know. I can’t say I’ve ever had a whiskey made in California that was life-changing. What about Texas? Is Texas particularly suited to make whiskey? Maybe. Again, I don’t know. What I can tell you with absolute certainty right now is that if either of those states is a preternatural haven for whiskey distillation, no one has yet figured out why. More importantly, no one has figured out how to strategically harness those mystical forces to create a better spirit. Maybe rye whiskey is California’s thing. Maybe wheat whiskey. We won’t know for sure until we’ve tried a number of different options, and the creation of that whiskey culture is still in its infancy. Kentucky? Scotland? They’ve been making whiskey for hundreds of years. Even if they don’t scientifically know why they do something, you can bet that the reason came from decades and decades of trial and error. Just like a recipe from a grandmother is passed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation, these whiskey making traditions are tweaked and honed over time. The better they get at making it, the better the whiskey tastes. The better the whiskey tastes, the better it sells. The more they distill, the cheaper it becomes to make it. The better the price, the greater the market share. The distilleries that don’t evolve to that ratio of price and quality go out of business and that’s why the same Bourbon distilleries have dominated the marketplace for some time. Even the newer ones to gain traction like Willett and Alltech are still located in Kentucky. The Kentucky outliers like MGP and Smooth Ambler? They’re a stone’s throw away—technicalities of geographical politics, that’s it. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
When I hear about new whiskey distilleries popping up today, most of the strategy is indeed based on geography, but it’s one based on local economics rather than any local potential for quality. “There wasn’t anyone distilling in the area, so we figured there was a need,” the owners say to me with confidence. Then I taste their whiskey and it ends up tasting like every other craft whiskey: it’s drinkable and not flawed in any way, but there’s nothing special about it—other than the fact that it’s the only whiskey made in that particular area, of course. More importantly, there’s no way I would ever buy a bottle myself, so how can I expect my customers to do the same? I’ll admit: there’s a certain novelty to seeing new American whiskey distilleries pop up in strange and unusual places. But real Kentucky Bourbon? Real Scotch whisky? Those are special things. You can’t just make them anywhere. I’m not sure I would really have understood that, however, had so many people not tried and utterly failed over the last decade. If there’s one thing craft whiskey has helped me to do it’s gain a better understanding on just how complex and arcane Kentucky Bourbon and Scotch whisky really are.