How Craft Brewers Are Shaping the Spirits Industry
Craft beer is at the top of its game. Thanks to an endless stream of passionate producers, it's gone from niche to nationwide and, miraculously, has yet to lose sight of its experimental, boundary-pushing ethos. The quadruple IPAs, opaquely hazy New England-style pales and chocolate doughnut- and rain cloud-infused espresso stouts crowding today’s shelves are a far cry from their staunchly regulated European predecessors and a testament to craft’s commitment to innovation. But the curious minds behind the craft revolution are just that—curious—and that same adventurous drive that helped build the beer scene as we know it is leading some brewers to seek new adventures: New adventures in the form whiskey.
Ironic? Maybe, because unlike craft beer, American whiskey has long been ruled by tradition. Despite bourbon’s recent boom, the industry is inextricably linked, at least symbolically, to a handful of Kentucky families with recipes passed down from generation to generation—an unlikely second career for a forward-thinking craft brewer. Break it down, however, and the move isn’t such a stretch: Whiskey, in its most basic sense, begins life as beer, a fermented base liquid also known as distiller’s wort or whiskey wash.
“I brewed for 12 years and loved it,” says Christian Krogstad, who founded Oregon’s House Spirits in 2004. “In 2002, I was managing McMenamins' Edgefield Brewery in Portland, which also has a distillery on site, so we were making whiskey washes and chucking them up to the distillery. I’d heard that whiskey is just distilled beer, but until I actually experienced that process, I didn’t realize how amazingly true it was. When we hatched a plan to open a distillery, it just felt like taking the next step.”
Indeed, in order to become hard alcohol, malt whiskey first has to undergo primary fermentation. This process—mashing grain, boiling it to extract its sugars, dosing it with yeast and letting it fester while the magical organism converts the sugar into CO2 and alcohol—is identical to making beer (minus the hopping part). The only difference is that distiller’s “beer” is then heated into a concentrated vapor, stripped of its water and cooled back down again a few times until it reaches a desired potency.
A brewing background, then, is a huge plus when it comes to making whiskey. That goes double for American single malt, which, like craft beer, derives sugar from malted grain as opposed to corn or other sources. Because they’re so well-versed in the art of fermentation, brewers-turned-distillers are big proponents of the idea that what goes into the still is just as crucial as what comes out, representing a break from the old guard’s distillate-centric ways.
Miles Munroe, lead distiller at Krogstad’s House Spirits Distillery, knows this full well. “I think a lot of distillers see fermentation as more of a means to an end, like they pitch yeast to make alcohol so the still can create flavor. But 80 percent of a finished whiskey’s overall flavor is a result of fermentation. That’s when organic acids called esters are formed, which can create these honey, orange blossom, pineapple and pear notes," he explains.
A whiskey lover from way back, Munroe actually attended brewing school with the express intention of becoming a distiller—an unconventional path that gave him the edge he needed to excel in Portland.
“I developed an entirely new love and respect for beer, which is fantastic because that’s our approach to Westward Whiskey,” he explains, referencing House Spirits’ American single malt.
If any distillery represents the inherently logical stop from brewing to distilling, it's Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey in Denver. As the story goes, co-founder Jess Graber, then a volunteer firefighter and novice distiller, met his future partner, George Stranahan, while putting out a fire on his property. At the time, Stranahan was running the already well-established Flying Dog Brewery. Intrigued, the two joined forces and Stranahan’s came to fruition in 2002.
“One day Jess came across some leftover kegs of Flying Dog and asked George if he could have them,” Rob Dietrich, Master Distiller recounts. “Jess distilled off the beer and realized that the distillate was much more pure than his open-mash fermentation. That was when the cartoon light bulb went off, as he likes to say. Our whiskey is 100 percent malted barley, so the richness of the malt contributes to the richness and depth of the whiskey. The Flying Dog, which was next door to our old distillery, made our wash for us in the early days and pumped it up over to the building where I would distill it.”
Of course, the leap to distilling doesn't happen overnight—or rather, the profit doesn't, as barrel-aged spirits take years to come to market. That’s why many new distilleries crank out gin or vodka while the real money-maker matures. And here's another place where beer begets booze.
Take Interboro Spirits and Ales, which uses its beer as interim funding to keep its distilling program afloat. Interboro co-founder, brewer and distiller Jesse Ferguson, spent years embedded in NYC’s brewing scene before opening Brooklyn’s first and only brewery-distillery in 2016. The company brews and distills in the same facility using many of the same ingredients and equipment, and Ferguson is charged with helming both sides of this boozy coin. Early in the planning phase, he and co-founder Laura Dierks saw a unique way to utilize his past experience.
“I showed them that beer turns around in two weeks while whiskey can take years,” says Ferguson. “The reason people have to raise billions of dollars to start a distillery is so they have enough operating money to get from day one to the first aged product. I was like, ‘We can make IPA in two weeks and it'll sell in two weeks, make another and sell that in two weeks, and it'll float the business.’”
“Because we use beer to underwrite our company, we don't need to go out and source spirit we're not producing,” he continues. “We can experiment, make a little gin, do unaged and short-aged projects, play with canned cocktails. That’s not the only reason we’re brewing—I'm still super passionate about beer—but it buys me the time I need to really figure out this whole new process.”
Time to experiment is key, and just one more way that brewers are contending with the tradition-laden spirits world.
As Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Tom Potter, who, in 2004, went on to open New York Distilling Company with partner Allen Katz, points out, “Craft beer started out with younger and more adventurous drinkers and makers than mass-market beer, but has now become so successful that its demographics pretty much resemble America as a whole. [But] craft distilling is still such a small segment, that it retains the adventurous culture I remember beer enjoying 20 years ago."
It's that adventuresome spirit that breaks down barriers that are all-too-prevalent in distilling culture, where makers are so often isolated—their recipes are tightly guarded. The open exchange of ideas has always been central to brewing, however; companies act less like competitors and more like collaborators.
When he entered the distilling world from brewing, Korgstad “had this idea that there should be community,” he explains. “I made a point of going around to other distilleries, letting them know that we're all in this together and we can help each other. We ended up forming a distillers guild with the idea that we can all lift each other up. I would say probably a third of the members in Oregon have a background in beer.”
“Culturally, I see beer and whiskey very much on the same page,” adds Munroe. “You can see the natural progression. An educated consumer with an appreciation for beer eventually gets to the point where they can't help but see how wonderfully they compliment each other.” We couldn't agree more.