Old Potrero: The First Craft Whiskey
With hundreds of craft distilleries making whiskey across the country, it can be hard to remember that the modern craft spirits movement is only a few decades old. It started with a smattering of brandy distilleries – Germain-Robin started up in 1982 in northern California making French style grape brandy and Clear Creek in Oregon followed with fruit brandies in 1985.
A few years later, the first craft whiskey distillery set up shop. San Francisco’s Anchor Steam beer was a micro-brewery before the word existed, so it’s appropriate that it would also be a pioneer of the craft distilling movement. Anchor’s Fritz Maytag founded Anchor Distilling way back in 1993 and started making rye whiskey.
Not only was craft whiskey not a thing in 1993, rye whiskey as a category was on life support. There were only a handful of ryes being made and you’d be lucky to find them. At most bars in 1993, if you ordered rye, you would likely be served a Crown Royal or Canadian Club.
The ryes that did exist then – Old Overholt, Beam and Wild Turkey were the most widely available- were all around 51% rye, the legal minimum, with a good dose of corn in the mashbill as a secondary grain. These Kentucky ryes were made on the same column stills that made the bourbon with most of the distilleries switching to rye for just a few days per year.
Maytag made something different – pot still rye whiskey made from 100% malted rye that he labeled, quite confusingly for consumers, “single malt rye.” He called it Old Potrero after the Potrero Hill neighborhood where Anchor was located. In the early days, Anchor released a one year old rye and then, a three year old straight rye. They were followed by Old Potrero 19th Century Style Rye and an 18th Century Style Rye (the 18th Century Style is still around). In 2006, Maytag released Hotaling’s Rye – the first bottled in bond craft whiskey, a limited release that came out at various ages, including an 18 year old that, as far as I know, is the oldest craft whiskey ever released. (They also made Junipero Gin and a Genever style gin before there were many Genevers on the market).
In 2010, Maytag sold the Anchor company to the Griffin Group, a booze investment company founded by two former executives of Skyy Vodka which partnered with Scotch bottler Berry Bros & Rudd. Last year, Griffin sold Anchor Brewing to Sapporo, the Japanese beer company. The Anchor Distillery wasn’t included in the sale, but the Anchor name and the physical location were. As a result, earlier this year, Anchor Distilling morphed into Hotaling & Co. Hopefully they will get back to distilling soon.
So, if you get some Old Potrero, which I’ve always been a fan of, raise a glass to Fritz Maytag, a pioneer of craft whiskey and the rebirth of rye (not to mention craft beer and artisan cheese, but that’s another story).