457 craft spirits came face to face with 20 experts recently in San Francisco when the American Distillery Institute hosted their 9th Annual Judging of Craft American Spirits. The Judging created the perfect platform to showcase the rennaissance the industry is currently enjoying.
A palpable hush enveloped the second floor of the venerable Le Colonial, a quiet oasis of French Vietnamese cuisine tucked into an alleyway in downtown San Francisco. The quiet, dark second-story dining room was filled, from February 23rd — 25th, with tables circled by intent industry experts. Glasses lay in flights before them: they nosed, they tasted, tasted again, sniffed, muttered to themselves, wrote notes,and tasted again.
The highly-regarded blind tasting featuring a distinguished set of judges, each renowned and expert in their field — a carefully chosen mix of bartenders, distillers, buyers and reviewers. Among the many were Hubert Germain-Robin, master distiller and blender, Dan Farber formerly of the Bonnie Doon Distillery and owner of Osacalis Distillery, Luis Ayala of Got Rum Magazine, Flavien Desoblin of the Brandy Library, and Master Noser Nancy Fraley, to name a few. These highly-regarded experts were flown from all over the country to taste the créme de la créme in craft spirits, a burgeoning industry echoing an increasing national interest in artisanal spirits and cocktails.
Sitting around the table, facing uniformly poured flights of stemmed tulip glasses, the judges awaited the moment to lift the watch glasses and inhale the subtle aromas, the backbones of taste. Glass-toppers lifted, quiet murmurs filled the room, and deep, essential aromas wafted through the airy, open veranda. An anchor judge presided over each table, leading the discussion of each flight, tallying scores and reconciling the numeric scores and medal recommendations.
With more than 457 entries, palate fatigue was an issue. As one judge stated, “you can definitely blow out your palate early on,” but with careful tasting and a steady stream of palate cleansing snacks, the judges managed to maintain a steady pace. Raw, unsalted almonds and crackers were served to remedy the situation, while both distilled and plain water were available to bring out the nuances of each spirit. A stable of alternate judges waited in the wings, to be rotated in when needed.
Behind the scenes in a crowded but perfectly orchestrated back room, bottles were banded together on designated tables as staff members carefully poured flights waiting to be wheeled out to judges. The precision with which the tasting was choreographed was extraordinary. Flight after flight poured by style and brand with each glass carefully marked to maintain the spirit’s anonymity.
Sommelier and crew member Justin Koury described how each flight was selected. Within each class of spirit, there are several categories and subcategories. Each flight is representative of a cross section of a flavor profile. The softer, less palate-busting, spirits go first. The percentage of alcohol in a spirit, going from least to highest, usually determines the order within each flight. However this guideline “is not always the set way of deciding, since sometimes a spirit can be higher in spice or sugar, which can alter its viscosity,” Koury explains. “Really, the order comes down to mouthfeel.”
So, why all this relatively new fuss over craft spirits? According to Andrew Faulkner, Managing Editor of Distiller Magazine, it has been a long time coming and the craft movement has no where to go but up. “It was really a perfect storm that brought about the popularity of craft spirits,” said Faulkner. “It is closely related to the locavore and slow-food movements, craft beer, craft cocktails, information sharing on the internet and, actually, to the formation of the American Distilling Institute.
“Hand-crafted, locally-sourced spirits are now hugely popular and it is long overdue!” continued Faulkner. “Today, there are slightly more than 500 craft distilleries, but prior to 1906, the most conservative estimate is that there were four times that many. There is incredible room for growth.”
He cites the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 as a precursor to the decimation of US distilleries. “All of a sudden everyone had to state what was actually in their product, and it led to a huge decline in distilling operations.” During both WW I and WW II, alcohol production in the US was diverted for military purposes. Those factors combined with prohibition, changed the liquor landscape to where most spirit production was controlled by a small cartel of factory distilleries. “Now, with the influence of the food movement, organic and locally-sourced ingredients, people are paying a lot more attention to everything they put in their mouths,” said Faulkner. “The environment is ripe for the small-batch, hand-crafted booze.”
The national trend towards pride in craft provides the momentum for the current boom in micro-distilleries. Distillers focused on creating the best possible product starting with the best possible ingredients are finding increasing success and acceptance in a wider audience. Whiskey, rum, brandy, gin and even bitters and vermouth, so many kinds of spirits are enjoying a well-deserved renaissance in the hands of pioneering distillers whose passion for the ancient craft is propelling the industry forward. This new breed of distiller is both artist and alchemist, and their inspiration can be tasted in every sublime, nuanced sip.
Award-winners to be announced at the 2015 Craft Spirits Conference in Louisville, Kentucky March 30-April 2.