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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Craft Distillers Fuel American Whiskey Renaissance

Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., is one of hundreds craft distillers that have opened up in recent years. (jdparker/Flickr)

Dry Fly Distillery in Spokane, Wash., is one of hundreds of craft distillers that have begun production in recent years. (jdparker/Flickr)

American whiskey is experiencing a renaissance. Production used to be dominated by a handful of companies, but in recent years, craft distillers have come into the market, bringing with them an openness to experimentation and innovation.

Although the growth in the American whiskey market has come mostly from super premium brands, the price tag doesn’t necessarily correspond to quality.

“You can have a great bourbon for $15,” Clay Risen, the author of “American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit,” told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “Michter’s, which is a bottler based in Louisville, just announced a $4,000 bottle of bourbon, which they are releasing right now, and it’s selling very well.”

Manny Gonzales, the beverage director of Saloon, a whiskey bar in Somerville, Mass., believes the future is in the craft distilleries.

“There’s a thought that craft distillers can’t necessarily make as fine of a product as some of the more famous houses,” Gonzales said. “And where it’s true that the craft distiller’s movement is a little bit behind schedule, it’s more of a resource issue, rather than an ability.”

To help us understand, Gonzales takes Jeremy Hobson through a tasting of three different whiskies from craft distillers in different regions: Dry Fly’s Washington Wheat Whiskey (based in Washington state), St. George’s Single-Malt Whiskey (based in California) and Prichard’s Double Barrel Bourbon (based in the heart of bourbon country, Tennessee).

Gonzales also shares two recipes: “Riffing With Ben” and “Momma Rita Likes Whiskey (the Whiskarita).”

Riffing With Ben

Benjamin Prichard is the great-great grandfather of Phil Prichard, who founded Prichard’s Distillery in 1997. This particular drink is a play on the Manhattan. Because the whiskey has a higher proof and a richer flavor, the drink focuses on the aromatics of the spirit rather then it’s inherent sweetness. Spirit-based drinks should not be shaken, as it dilutes the complexities of the drink’s flavor profile.

Manny Gonzales, the beverage director at Saloon, a whiskey bar in Somerville, Mass., in Here & Now studios. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Manny Gonzales, the beverage director at Saloon, a whiskey bar in Somerville, Mass., at the Here & Now studios. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

1 1/2 oz Prichard’s Bourbon
3/4 Dolin Sweet Vermouth (this is herbal and light, which is a good match for a sweeter and richer bourbon)
1/2 oz Cynar (a slight bittersweet liqueur made with artichokes)
1/4 oz Gran Classico (a more herbaceous bitter like campari, with a little more sweetness and less bite)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes of absinthe

Add all your ingredients in a mixing glass that is filled with ice. Stir your mixture and strain it into a small rocks glass. Squeeze some oil of an orange over the drink, and add one large ice cube.

Note from Manny: To extract the oil of an orange, take a pairing knife and slice a sliver of orange skin (as little of the pith as possible). If you choose to use a rye instead of a bourbon, replace the Dolin Sweet Vermouth with Carpano Antica Vermouth. 

Momma Rita Likes Whiskey (the Whiskarita)

The "Whiskarita" (Courtesy of Manny Gonzales)

The “Whiskarita” (Courtesy of Manny Gonzales)

8 mint leaves
1/2 oz clear Curacao (Cointreau or triple sec will also do)
2 oz Jim Beam Bourbon
2/3 oz honey
1 oz lemon

In a mixing glass, muddle the mint leaves and the Curacao. Then add the bourbon, honey and lemon. Shake vigorously for about 30 seconds. Strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a lemon wheel.

Sour drinks like this should always be shaken to dilute the bitterness of the lemon and focus on the sweet, floral smells of the fruits and spirits.

Note from Manny: This is a very simple drink a non-whiskey drinker will appreciate. The lemon adds a brightness, the mint plays of the aromas and the honey adds viscosity for the more straight forward and lighter Jim Beam. 


  • Clay Risen, an editor at The New York Times and the author of “American Whiskey, Rye & Bourbon.” He tweets @risenc.
  • Manny Gonzales, beverage director of Saloon in Somerville, Mass. His blog is Life by the Drop.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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