Why what home distillers are producing and experimenting with is more important than anything currently happening in the distilled spirits industry.
Wait, did you feel that? That shaking? That’s fear; that’s the anger of thecrowd that subscribes to the stance that “home distilling is illegal and no one would ever hire a home distiller”. Certain individuals and institutions have repeated that mantra (and the one revolving around needing a few million dollars to even start a distillery) for years now, constantly belittling the lowly “folk distiller”. With innovation increasingly coming from the home distilling arena.
The powers that be are slowly losing that battle.If you haven’t noticed, the landscape of distilling has changed. Craft distilling has started turning out quality products, and craft distillers are demanding a fair share of the attention now from both big and small names in the media. Why is that, you think? Could it be that the market didn’t bear the load of the bulk of bad craft distillers and that the ones that made it finally figured out what they were doing? More than that though I’m noticing a trend, one where more and more home distillers are being hired by companies who will listen to their expertise, and evena few of these home distillers launching their own legal distilleries. Whyis that important? How does it change the game? What does it mean?for the future? Are there past historical parallels? We are going to touch on all that and more moving forward here.
Let us start with those criticisms and historic parallels. When I entered the legal industry eight years ago, I was consistently told not to mention home distilling, not to advocate for it, and that nobody would take it seriously — that, in fact, this experience was not meaningful nor valuable in the industry; that somehow the legal industry had some endemic knowledge and insight that a home distiller could never access. I heard it said in overpriced classes where the virtue of the big boys were sold off in pre-packaged parcels to the next Johnny-come- lately types to enter the industry – typically, those attending had more money than talent. I read it in books. I heard it from those with a platform. I still sometimes hear it, although now it rings particularly hollow and the vast majority of people now understand just how wrong this assessment is.
I find it strange that here, so close to “Bourbon Country” and being part of the bourbon industry, that anyone could possibly think this is true. For an industry so tied to an outlaw tradition, with folk heroes who all started as home distillers and moonshiners, it seems funny how quick the industry sycophants and some members of the industry itself can ignore, belittle, and in fact talk down about anyone distilling at home and trying to get into the industry. Lest you forget that many of the most notable figures at the roots of the bourbon tree were, themselves, “home distillers”, or at least from a long line of “Folk Distillers”. Hell, the very processes that make up the fundamentals of Kentucky distilling philosophy can nearly all trace their roots right back to this lineage. The only thing that is truly new is the industrialized (column stills and bottling) and tourism catered aspects of production. The relevance of water quality, yeast, sour mashing, grain bills, and more were all originally aspects of home distillation that led to the creation of this beloved category of whiskey.
Would it surprise you that many of your notable Bourbon heroes turned? to moonshining during Prohibition? It shouldn’t, and none of those folks or their families nor their respective companies should be ashamed of that. Unfortunately, they are, that is why you rarely ever hear those stories. Beautiful pieces of Americana about not only survival, but art and the love of that art, slowly being eroded by time. Illegality and immorality are not one and the same.
So, why should you as a consumer, distiller, or industry member be paying attention to what home distillers are doing? Because home distillers are pushing the envelope in ways that even the medium-sized craft distillers currently cannot. The consumer is constantly on the search for something new, exciting, and qualitatively “better”. While traditional Kentucky Bourbon isn’t going anywhere, there is certainly plenty of room being made for Old World and New World innovation with existing spirits drinkers and as an atmosphere of “show me more” has become much more apparent, even in large sectors of the dedicated Bourbon drinking crowd. How do you think we craft guys making off-the- wall products not only survived the pandemic but thrived? The caveat: it has to be damn good!
The next wave of craft distillers won’t hang their hat on traditional bourbon; they can’t. That space is too crowded and far too noisy even for differentiated types. Instead, they will hang their hat on innovation, personal experiences, stories, and a deeper lever of understanding and education not limited to the ordinary tourist experience. Involvement will become paramount. Classes, atmospheres, community. Above and beyond consumers will want spirits that push the envelope in the same way that cooking culture has, in the same way that the locavore movement did, in the same way that the heirloom seed movement did. Luckily the home distilling movement is there and has been for some time.
The most involved distillers I know don’t work for companies from which you can buy their product; they don’t even work in the industry (at least not yet). The home distiller has no boundaries beyond whatever they can imagine and practically make happen. They can work with small lots of hard-to-find ingredients and pursue avenues of fermentation and distillation that, as of yet, have not been implemented in the distilling industry in major ways. They can play with odd yeasts, they can design new types of equipment, they can find interesting ways of creating “Intuitively flavored and matured” spirits. The best of them is 10x the distiller any of us in the public spotlight will ever be. They know more, they are more widely educated on the subject, they go deep, they mine old books and create entirely new philosophies. Many of my legal distilling friends would struggle to keep up in conversation. The operators of the large distilleries mostly wouldn’t even know where to start. These folks grow a lot of their own ingredients, and in some cases they even breed their own varieties of fruits and grain. The truth is they have no one to tell them “No” or that it can’t be done, or that it isn’t marketable. Anything qualitatively “good” can be marketable, even on a small scale. They do these things because they LOVE the art. Because they are passionate about the art, to the extent that they are willing to break the law to partake in their passion. They share amongst one another and improve upon one another. Most “distillers” in the industry, on the other hand, seem to only be passionate about the attention they can attract by saying they are a distiller. That’s the real difference. And why does it matter? Because these are the distillers that will work their way into this industry via good employers or via their own investments. In 5 years, the only craft folks you’ll hear from will be the ones breaking the mold, and because most of the current crop of legal distillers aren’t willing to take a chance coloring outside the lines, home distillers will have a real chance of doing meaningful things in the space. Will they be huge producers? Not likely. Will they make good product? Damn right they will and they will be able to explain why it’s good. Will they make money? If they can market the product correctly and take full advantage of the social media platforms available alongside real life educational opportunities such as distilling centric classes and unique lifestyle opportunities, they definitely have a chance. Either way, they will start the trends that drive the market outside of and alongside bourbon, and some of them will ride those trends to financial victory. They will change the way we view and speak about the art of distillation — that alone is a victory in and of itself — and they will change and prove wrong that tired, old assumption that has been so vocally parroted for so long. In fact, I suspect that most craft consumers will in time turn back to the old traditions and, themselves, become home distillers to some extent, at least in terms of having the flexibility to learn outside of the strict controls of a DSP wall and ostensibly educating themselves beyond the realms of the marketing mysticism and pseudo-traditional gab that has been so prevalent until now.
As a professional distiller I can not advocate for illicit distilling, but as a private citizen (As I am here on this blog which is representative only of my own opinion and not In anyway that of any employer or organization that I represent) I certainly can Advocate for the eventually legalization of the hobby as well as for the qualities that It can and often does imbue a distiller with. We live in a time after all where small, cheap, and Useful pot stills are readily available via Wal-Mart and Amazon, we are potentially just years away from Discovering some new “Picasso” of the art of distillation, someone who was willing to break the rules, dive deep, find something old and shine it up or create something new and truly exciting.
In the next several weeks I will be working on a new series of YouTube videos regarding home distillation and contributing where I can to the education of current and future distillers.
This will include recipes, theory, methodology, process, and equipment and ingredient reviews.
Until then be sure to check out the following channels:
Bearded and Bored
Barley and Hops