After 15 years in the spirits industry I am still not quite sure what “Small Batch,” “Craft distilling” and “Artisanal” truly mean. I understand what they imply, but lately I feel that they have become mostly used as a marketing term in much the same way as “All Natural” is used on food packaging. Of course, because my inner instinct has always been built to support the underdog or the small guy, I am drawn to these terms — but why, I don’t know.
Just because something is small doesn’t always make it good. How many so-called craft distillers are just former bankers wondering what to do with their Wall Street millions and probably wouldn’t know how to distinguish a decent whisky from some moonshine gut rot? On the flip side, some of the most experimental and best distillers in small distilleries are young, passionate industry experts who have become entrepreneurs after years of industry experience, and have turned to making excellent spirits. I will continually use Allen Katz as a fine example because I witnessed how much hard work he put into developing the recipes for Perry’s Tot and Dorothy Parker gin. He spent almost two years refining his recipes at a friend’s distillery before he started making these gins at his shiny new distillery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The smaller “craft” distilleries provide the world of spirits with lots of innovation, which is why I, for the most part, love the movement, especially in a world where giant vodka companies still insist on churning out yet more useless and disgusting-sounding flavors. Two of my favorite distillery operations that are considered “small batch” or “craft” are in California. The first is St. George Spirits; I am a big fan of the rebellious and adventurous approach. Their gins are tasty, and they make great rum, absinthe and single malts as well. It’s hard to master one category, let alone multiple ones.
My other favorite is Charbay Distillers in Ukiah, California. Every spirit I have tasted from them, I feel, has been made with a great combination of love and knowledge. The distillers are the father and son team of Miles and Marko Karakasevic, who are the 12th and 13th generations of their family to make spirits. It’s hard to say where you should start sampling, but my recommendation would be their Aged R5 whiskey. You can also get an idea of how talented these guys are by trying Charbay’s Tequila. Marko and Miles headed to Arandas in Mexico, and use the distilling techniques they learned there. The result is outrageously good.
But big doesn’t mean bad either. For years, I watched Desmond Payne make Beefeater Gin. He is the most experienced gin distiller in the world, with over 45 years of gin-making time under his belt. Who out there is better qualified to innovate new gins? Beefeater 24 was only launched a few years ago and is of excellent quality. He figured out how to incorporate green tea flavors into the botanical mix, which is great for mixing punches and other tea cocktails. I have been to the Beefeater Distillery many times and it’s beautiful: all the gin is made in vintage copper stills and, just like the smaller operations, everything is done by hand. Sometimes artisanal can’t beat history. Anyone who has ever tried Plymouth Gin can attest to that.
The first time I ever heard of the term “Small Batch” was in reference to the Small Batch Bourbon collection that Jim Beam, the number-one selling premium bourbon in the world, produces. Knob Creek, Basil Hayden, Bookers and Bakers — which I think are all great bourbons — are hand crafted, small batch and ultra premium, according to their website. Great, but what does that mean? How can we distinguish?
Complicating all this is that some so-called craft distilleries are growing bigger by the minute. The St. George Distillery is massive, for instance, bigger than some of the “non-artisanal” producers’ distilleries. Which begs the question, when it comes to your spirits, “Does size really matter?”