Here’s my latest piece in the Times, about nano-breweries popping up in New York.
One thing that I hope comes through in the piece is my appreciation for the “garage” aesthetic these guys embrace. I call them the “garage bands of the beer world,” but of course lots of people start out in garages: just think about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, alongside countless other Silicon Valley pioneers. But garage isn’t just about mythmaking — it’s not about the humble beginnings from which something big began. Or not only that. It’s also about running a stripped-down, DIY project as a way of reducing risk and overhead, so you can focus on what you really love. Some of these will scale up, and a few nanos will explode in popularity and size. But unlike Silicon Valley, business success is not the defining ethic of the typical nano. Like a garage band, they’re in it for the enjoyment of the art, and the shared experience that comes from providing their art — music or beer — to others. Clay Risen
As people become more familiar with American whiskey, they have to contend not only with the many varieties of the liquor itself, but also with the often byzantine branding system, whereby a huge distiller can hide behind a “crafty” front (I recently spoke with a decently informed reporter who was gobsmacked to learn that the Evan Williams Distillery did not actually exist). At the same time, many craft “distilleries” that are, indeed, small companies nevertheless get their juice from a big contract or bulk seller, then pass it off as a handmade product, when the only hands involved are the ones moving boxes and counting dollars.
Chuck Cowdery, among others, has been pushing for a labeling system to clarify these various distinctions, sort of a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Whiskey Approval.” Today the American Distilling Institute, which represents very small distillers, announced the first stab at such a regime: it has applied to the Patent and Trademark Office for a certification mark for ”Certified Craft Distilled Spirits” — distilleries that make everything in-house — and “Certified Craft Blended Spirits” — which buy distillate or aged product but then add a step, like redistilling or further aging, that “shows significant craftsmanship in the creation of flavor.” Of note, ADI insists that “simply buying bulk spirits on the market and watering it to proof does not constitute craft and those spirits are not eligible.”
I’ll leave it to Chuck to analyze the project in more detail, but this strikes me as a promising step in the right direction. Obviously, as with any voluntary certification program, and especially a program that involves fee-based membership in the underlying organization, there will be a lot of distilleries that qualify but aren’t on the list (off the top of my head, I see that Peach Street, Berkshire, Lost Spirits, Clear Creek, and St. George’s aren’t on the list). That’s inevitable, but it behooves ADI to do its best, now that it has this tool (some would call it a weapon), to make sure that it does everything it can to get them on board. - Clay Risen