Spirits: Of microdistillers and moonshine

Washington Post, By Jason Wilson

Booze is, by and large, peddled by a handful of gigantic multinational companies. The names are familiar even to casual drinkers: Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, Beam, Brown-Forman, Moët Hennessy, among others. To flex their lobbying and marketing muscles, 13 of the world’s liquor behemoths band together in a powerful trade group named the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, or DISCUS.

So it was surprising and noteworthy last week when DISCUS announced it will allow small, independent craft distillers under its umbrella. These new “affiliate” members will represent a small fraction of the big guys’ sales: DISCUS’s definition of a craft distiller is one that produces fewer than 40,000 cases per year. But the move represents a significant industry shift, and it should be applauded. Above all, it recognizes the significance of the microdistilling trend, which in many ways mirrors the microbrewing explosion of the 1990s that changed the beer industry forever.

Over the past decade, the number of American craft distillers has grown from a few dozen to more than 200, including some of my favorites, such as the Charbay distillery in St. Helena, Calif. (which makes vodka, tequila, whiskey and rum); Philadelphia Distilling (makers of Bluecoat Gin and Vieux Carre Absinthe Superieure); House Spirits in Portland, Ore. (makers of Aviation gin and Krogstad aquavit) and, locally, Sperryville’s Copper Fox Distillery, with its excellent Wasmund’s single-malt and rye whiskeys.

Consumers are embracing these smaller, high-quality brands, and it’s an exciting time to be a microdistiller. Frankly, if you’re a retailer and you’re not stocking independent brands, you’re not running a serious liquor store. And in the District of Columbia, there’s no excuse: Stores can order directly from the distillery in most cases.

“America was historically a land of small distillers,” says Max Watman, author of the wildly entertaining new book “Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine” (Simon & Schuster).

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