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  • Barrell Craft Spirits



The distilling world is full of legally defined terms, but “microdistillery” isn’t one of them. And while there may have once been a clear, crisp line between microdistilleries (or craft distilleries, now the more common term) and the big guys, that line is getting blurrier every day. Here’s the background on the meteoric rise of small-scale distilling in the United States, and how we think of “microdistilleries” versus “regular distilleries.”


The very first American microdistilleries, at least in the way we think of them today, were launched in the 1980s. Early birds were producers like Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon; St. George Distillery in Alameda, California; and Anchor Distilling Company (now called Hotaling & Co) in San Francisco, California. These producers were much smaller in size than the big whiskey distilleries in the South, and they often focused on then-obscure spirits like malt whiskey, brandy, and fruit eaux de vie that hadn’t been made in the United States for generations.

But in the mid to late 2000s, the category boomed, spurred in part by the rise of craft beer, as well as people seeking new opportunities during the recession. By the early 2010s, there were hundreds of small distilleries in communities across the country, with more popping up seemingly every day.

One of the great things about the rise of craft spirits is the increase in consumer knowledge about distilled spirits. Who among us hasn’t visited at least a couple of distillery tasting rooms, peered into the production floor on a distillery tour, or heard the basics of the distillation process from a friendly guide?

Twenty years ago, you pretty much had to live in (or at least visit) Kentucky or Tennessee to have a similar experience. Now, the odds are good there’s at least one distillery in your hometown, and you can taste the products of hundreds more at local bars and restaurants.

That increasing familiarity with distilled spirits has paved the way for distilleries of all sizes, from micro to macro, to grow. None of the amazing growth in global spirits we’ve seen in the past decade would have been possible without those intrepid small producers bringing distilling into so many communities across the country.


One of the reasons you hear the term “microdistillery” less these days is that some of them are far from micro. Many of the most prominent craft distillers have grown significantly, even if they’re still smaller than some of the famous heritage distilleries (Jack Daniels can produce 2,500 barrels of whiskey every day). Still others have been acquired by some of the biggest brands in spirits, making them one small part of portfolios worth billions.

On the flip side, many of the big distilleries have begun to follow small producers’ leads and begin experimenting with nontraditional techniques, like unusual grains in their mash bills or one-off special releases.

Plus, of course, there’s plenty of robust debate about what constitutes “craft” in the first place. Does a producer have to be small to have a sense of craftsmanship? When a small producer buys finished whiskey and then bottles it under their own name, is that craft whiskey? And is smaller really better after all? Perhaps the quality control and know-how heritage producers have under their belts actually results in better spirits?

These are important questions, and we suspect the answers differ from drinker to drinker. From our perspective as an independent bottler, we think growth in craft distilleries has been nothing but good for the American spirits industry. We’ve been thrilled to be able to source whiskeys from distilleries across the nation, big and small, and we’re amazed by just how much flavor diversity those different sources have contributed to our blends.

Curious to taste some of that range for yourself? Our Infinite Barrel Project includes a host of whiskeys, ranging from mainstream bourbon and rye, to Scotch whisky, to Polish rye whiskey. We turned to craft producers to make our American Vatted Malt, which brings together malt whiskeys from distilleries across the country. And craft distilleries have also been a key source for finishing barrels used in our Private Release series and Armida, including fruit brandy casks and amaro casks. You can shop our spirits online, or use our store locator to find them at great liquor stores near you.


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