What We're About:

Learn about the history and process of whiskey distillation in America

 

It's an exciting time to be drinking in America! Hundreds of distilleries have sprung up in the past decade or so, dedicated to reviving forgotten spirits, reinventing the classics, and creating entirely new categories. It’s safe to say that we’ve never had more ways to fill our glass, which is an exciting but often confusing proposition. The world of craft spirits is where craft beer was 25 years ago— tangled, uncharted and constantly in flux.

 

We want to help. Klatch is the old German word for an informal gathering with casual conversation and refreshments, and this site is the modern-day version.

 

Gather here to learn, talk, and drink. We want to spark conversation and enthusiasm for the expanding frontiers of American distilling. We hope you’ll try some new drinks and find a few you love. Cheers!

The Scoop on Stills

The still is the most important piece of equipment in any distillery. At its simplest, a still looks like this:

 
old moonshine still
 

Though it does the job of separating water from alcohol, this design also leaves in a lot of things you wouldn"t want to drink—hence the famous tales of moonshiners going blind. Thankfully, stills have come a long way over the centuries. Today we have two basic categories – the pot still and the column or continuous still. Each design has a unique set of advantages and limitations.

Pot Still

The pot still is a more sophisticated version of the still above. The wash is heated in the main pot and the resulting vapors are cooled and condensed, producing the "low wines." Those low wines are then redistilled to produce the final spirit. This process is known as batch distillation, because the design only allows a single batch to be distilled at a time. This means that batch distillation is costlier and more labor-intensive than continuous distillation, because the still must be monitored more closely and cleaned between each batch. However, many craft distillers favor this method because it allows them to control the end product and creates spirits with more character. Certain categories, including Scotch whisky and cognac, are always made in a pot still.

continous/column still

The continuous still, also called a column still, is so named because it distills continuously rather than in individual batches. Invented around the turn of the 19th century, the column still is considerably more complex but behaves like a series of small pot stills, evaporating and condensing different components of the wash across many levels in two columns. Column stills can yield an end product with a much higher alcohol content and can produce flavorless, nearly pure alcohol. This, combined with their increased efficiency, made column stills the favored design of distillers worldwide. All vodka, most American whiskeys, and most white rum and dry gins are made using column stills. However, some distillers prefer the control and handcrafted nature of the pot still, finding the column still to be impersonal and its results to be lacking in complexity.

GTB, MGP, GNS

Not just random letters

Some distilleries perform each step of the process outlined above, bringing the product all the way from raw material to finished spirit. You might hear these distilleries referred to as “grain to bottle” (GTB) or “from scratch” operations. This approach gives the distiller total control over every step of the process, but it also means more equipment, labor and expenses.

 

Not surprisingly, many distillers choose to outsource some of the legwork. Massive, industrial facilities produce a variety of base spirits, which are then bought and bottled by distilleries around the country. Midwest Grain Products (MGP), one of the largest of these producers, sells various whiskeys, gins, and vodkas at low prices. Distilleries can then bottle them as-is, blend them with their own products, or age them in barrels. Thus, many “distilleries” may be doing little or no actual distilling, instead focusing their efforts on blending, ageing and marketing.

 

MGP and similar companies also sell what’s known as “grain neutral spirits” (GNS). GNS are as close to pure alcohol as is possible, and they are produced to be odorless and flavorless. This makes GNS a blank canvas for distillers, who buy it and use it as the base for vodkas, gins, and a variety of liqueurs and bitters. GNS also shows up in many blended whiskeys and brandies. Though the practice of buying bases and neutral spirits from large producers is common in both craft and larger commercial operations, many distillers prefer to oversee the entire process. Whatever your stance, it’s interesting (and often challenging) to find out who is actually making your favorite spirits.

What the Craft?!

Though the word “craft”gets used in a lot of different ways, here are a few of its hallmarks when it comes to distilling.

Small

Size is perhaps the defining characteristic of a craft distillery. What “small” means can vary quite a bit, of course. The American Distilling Institute defines craft distillers as those with “maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases.” This may not sound small at first glance, but note that Jack Daniel’s sells more than 11 million cases annually. Whatever the numbers, “craft” necessitates relative smallness. Small batches made with traditional equipment (more on that in “Distilling 101”) allow creative, careful methods that would be difficult on a large scale.

small vs big bottle
scient experiment

Experimental

Speaking of creativity, it’s another essential part of craft distilling. Where large companies tend to develop and aggressively market a constant portfolio, craft distilleries are free to experiment with small runs of lots of different things. This freedom allows them to bring exciting, risky products to the market instead of just sticking to safe bets meant to please a mass audience.

A Sense of Place

Long valued in the world of winemaking, the concept of terroir is making a return to spirits. Terroir is the distinctive set of attributes that geography brings to a crop and to the products made from that crop. Craft distillers are playing with that notion and creating spirits that are expressions of their locale. And like barbecue sauce or pizza crust, local palates play a part in creating spirits unique to a particular region. Craft spirits taste of a specific place and moment in time in a way that the big guys, with a dogged focus on consistency, never will.

local ingredients
group of happy drinkers

Community

Along with supporting local farmers, craft distilleries can be powerful forces in their communities in other ways. We love to gather around good drinks. Craft distillers are finding new ways of educating and engaging their communities that go beyond the typical tours and gift shops. Many craft distilleries are strongly tied to their towns and committed to supporting the local economy and using their positions to create positive, sustainable changes.