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!
Humans have been making distilled spirits for an awfully long time – some scholars say nearly 2,000 years. Not surprisingly, there is quite a bit to sort through on the subject. Though thick textbooks and unfamiliar jargon may look intimidating, the basic principles of distillation are surprisingly simple.
The Process: The specifics of distillation will vary based on individual distillers and the products they are making. These are the basics of distilling a grain-based spirit:
The grains – often corn, wheat, rye, barley, or some combination – are milled and combined with water. This mixture, called the mash, is then cooked, which breaks down the starches into sugars.
Yeast is introduced to the mash to begin fermentation. The yeast feeds on the sugars and creates alcohol and carbon dioxide. The fully fermented liquid is referred to as the "wash" or the "beer" and tastes, not surprisingly, like beer.
Here's where the magic happens. All distillation revolves around a simple principle: alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. By heating the beer to different temperatures, distillers can control what evaporates and what stays behind. The vapors are then cooled and allowed to condense, giving us the base for the spirits we know and love. The type of spirit and the variety of still (more on that in a moment) will determine how many rounds of distillation are needed.
Many spirits (including most whiskeys and some brandies and rums) are aged in barrels to develop and deepen their flavor. The length of ageing and types of barrels will vary based on federally defined requirements and the desired end result.
At this point, different versions of the same spirit might be blended to create the final product. Blended or not, the spirit is diluted to the appropriate strength, bottled, and passed on to you, the thirsty consumer.
The still is the most important piece of equipment in any distillery. At its simplest, a still looks like this:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Though the word “craft”gets used in a lot of different ways, here are a few of its hallmarks when it comes to distilling.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Drew Cranisky is a graduate student at Chatham University. He is pursuing an M.A. in Food Studies and hopes to write a book on American distilling. When not scrambling to finish a paper, you can find him bartending, hanging out at farms, and trying to figure out how to get paid to drink.
Meredith Grelli is co-owner and co-founder of Wigle Whiskey, a grain to bottle distillery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When she’s not at Wigle, Meredith teaches New Product Development in Chatham University’s Food Studies Program. Before Wigle, she worked in brand management at the Heinz Company, went to business school at Carnegie Mellon, cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, worked in urban redevelopment efforts, and studied urban history at the University of Chicago.
Lauren Kolber is a web / UX designer living and loving in Pittsburgh. She designed this site in her spare time, outside of working as a UX designer at American Eagle. Always a lover of spirits, she was easily convinced to join the team, as she believes in this project’s mission of educating people about what they're drinking.