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Against Local Liquor

When it comes to whiskey, artisanal doesn’t mean desirable.

 

Locavorism: It’s a great guiding principle for buying vegetables. But when it comes to whiskey, think way, way out of your zip code (unless your zip code is 40202—Louisville, KY). This theory runs counter to everything I believe about eating and drinking. I’d rather eat sand dab from Monterey Bay than tuna from who knows where. I never buy out-of-season fruit from the southern hemisphere. As a die-hard California wine fan, I’m a stalwart defender of our state against smug Europhiles. 

But for whiskey, and some other spirits, I make an exception. I may be a locavore, but I’m also a hedonist—I want to enjoy what I’m drinking. And most “local craft” whiskeys are—how can I put this gently?—awful. Some taste like paint thinner; some have little body or complexity. But mainly they stink for a simple reason: They are made with neither the maturation time nor the skill required to produce good whiskey. This is not a radical sentiment, even among bartenders who champion craft spirits. “When I’m building a cocktail, the base spirit that we use more often than not is a mass-produced product. Especially with brown spirits,” says Daniel Veliz, bar manager of the Mission’s Hog & Rocks. 

Base spirits aside, Veliz also uses plenty of small-production spirits. The reason most of his whiskeys come from Kentucky, he explains, is that its manufacturers “are taking the time to ensure that the product comes out right.”

Gabriel Lowe, bar manager at the Black Cat in the Tenderloin, concurs. “In terms of using local spirits, as a rule I don’t subscribe to that,” Lowe says. “In distilling things, you can preserve the essence of the ingredients and you can use it on the other side of the world.”

And yet it’s surprisingly difficult to find notes of skepticism amid the craft spirits boom. Admittedly, that boom is an impressive phenomenon: In the last 13 years, according to the beverage industry magazine Market Watch, the number of craft distillers in the United States has increased from 60 to 760; 200 more distilleries are currently under construction. California alone has 64 microdistilleries, more than existed in the entire country in 2003. On January 1, 2016, California law changed to allow distilleries to operate tasting rooms and sell their “tasting samples” in cocktails. Tasting rooms have always enabled subpar wineries to stay in business, because everything tastes better when you’re talking to the producers. And now you can hire a professional bartender to hide the spirits’ taste! The new law should both further accelerate the craft distilling trend and provide a safe space for lousy whiskey. 

Naturally, the media bears some responsibility for fueling the sensation: It is far less sexy to write about a whiskey from a big, long-established company—say, Jim Beam or Maker’s Mark—than some upstart ex-banker who quit his job, bought a single-pot still, and is charging $75 for 375 milliliters of two-month-old whiskey, even if that whiskey tastes like it could strip the varnish off a floor. The zeitgeist, too, has made it woefully unfashionable to speak ill of craft spirits. Small, the narrative goes, is better, more trustworthy, and more authentic than a nameless corporate behemoth surfing a tidal wave of brown liquor all the way to the bank. In turn, this bias dovetails with our innate tribalism: Most people like to promote their neighbors (the little guy!) and are more forgiving of their imperfections. I am, too. My neighborhood pizza place isn’t as good as a dozen other places across town, but it’s close to me, so I eat there. But pizza is best when it’s hot and fresh. Bottles of wine and spirits are fine when they’re shipped across the country.

Outside of the West Coast, consumers have learned to be wary of local wine, regardless of its story. An ever-popular topic for wine bloggers (who tend to champion local products) in states further east is “Why don’t local restaurants carry more wines from Ohio/North Carolina/ Montana?” The answer is because someone without a rooting interest tasted them and went, “Ewwww.”

But in California, good wine is produced everywhere. You’re in Lodi? Drink local! Mendocino? Drink local! El Dorado County? You get the idea. We don’t get burned by drinking local wine. Local whiskey, though, is the sour-tasting bottom of the craft spirits pyramid. There are some excellent small-production local spirits, but you have to start with the easiest things to make, like gin, which is really just flavored vodka. St. George Spirits in Alameda makes three gins; its Terroir Gin is the best gin I’ve ever had. Blade Gin, made in Belmont, is also terrific. Getting into spirits production with whiskey is like starting math with calculus instead of basic arithmetic. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop plenty of people from trying: 37 percent of all craft labels are whiskey, according to analysts from BNP Paribas bank; 25 percent are gin and vodka combined.


In many cases
, “local craft” whiskeys are actually nothing of the kind. Many of them come from an enormous factory in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, that was built by Seagram’s and is now owned by the food-ingredient corporation MGP. It sells bulk whiskey, vodka, and gin to many small distilleries around the country. Some doctor it a little, but many just bottle and sell it as their own. High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, built its reputation by doing just that, though to its credit, it’s always been open about using MGP whiskey. Others have not: Last year, Templeton Rye—made in Indiana by MGP—paid a $2.5 million settlement in a class action lawsuit over deceptive marketing. 

And you know what? You’re probably better off if your “local craft” whiskey is from MGP’s factory, because then at least it’s made competently. See, that’s the thing about whiskey: It’s hard to make well on a micro-production scale. With wine, you can buy good grapes, ferment them in a tank, and, if you don’t screw it up, probably get something delicious. Whiskey takes skill and nuance, something companies in Kentucky and Scotland have developed over generations. It requires expensive oak barrels, a place to store them, and patience while your investment gets tied up in inventory. Good whiskeys are aged 10 to 12 years: The time mellows them and integrates their flavors. Great whiskeys are aged 15 to 18 years or more. Your ex-banker with a pot still and a hangar in an industrial park isn’t waiting that long. 

I’m not saying all big-brand whiskeys are great. There is plenty of caramel-colored booze out there that tastes like water with a touch of oak (cough cough Jameson). But there is no shortage of great whiskey from established companies at every price level, and price is the biggest advantage with production economies of scale. Four Roses Bourbon costs $20; Rittenhouse Rye costs $25. You’re going to spend triple that for a craft whiskey, and you’ll be lucky if it tastes nearly as good.

When I ran this theory past a few good local bartenders, almost all of them agreed that the big brands are more reliable. That said, because the big brands are nothing special to them, bartenders tend to be passionate about quirky little bottlings. Everyone I spoke with did have a craft whiskey they loved that I hadn’t heard of. Veliz likes Ottis Webber, a three-year whiskey from Oregon. Lowe, a fan of Dad’s Hat Rye from Pennsylvania, calls St. George’s bourbon “spectacular.” But my conversations also tended to go like this one with Caitlin Mackey, the bar manager at Wente Vineyards in Livermore.

Caitlin: Diablo’s Shadow out of Livermore just made their own bourbon from local grains. 

Me: Is it as good as a Kentucky bourbon? 

Caitlin: [Pauses] It’s good. People in Kentucky have been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s not the same as those. You’ve got to give them props for trying and doing something different. 

Me: Wouldn’t you want the better bourbon?

Caitlin: It’s your personal preference.

One thing all the bartenders pointed out was the unique quality of our local spirits other than whiskey. San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling makes fine gin. Spirit Works in Sebastopol produces a not-overly-sweet sloe gin that is easily my favorite. Germain Robin distills world-class brandies up in Mendocino County. And, of course, there’s St. George Spirits.

“Local’s not always better, because you don’t know where they’re sourcing their botanicals from,” says Brian Means, lead bartender at Dirty Habit. “But we’re pretty fortunate to be in the Bay Area.” 

I concede the point. I’d be drinking better local whiskey if I lived in Lexington, Kentucky (not to mention Edinburgh). But man doesn’t live by whiskey alone. In fact, sometimes I like to add a little vermouth.

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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