Bourbon and beyond: North America's thriving craft distillery scene

Advertisement

Prohibition in North America never worked. Canada largely kept on quaffing and the US failed to temper its love for libations, and both nations never lost sight of where to find the next drink. But while mighty corporations later rose to legally slake everyone’s thirst, a recent wave of petite producers is reflecting an evolution in tastes.

Like the ever-rising microbrew beer scene, North American liquor fans are increasingly craving distinctive, even eclectic tipples. Hundreds of small-batch craft distilleries have sprouted to meet this demand, creating the booze equivalent of a local food movement – and recalling the ghosts of those pre-prohibition producers that once thrived.

If you know where to look, these tasty micro-distilleries are a guaranteed trip highlight – designated driver required, of course.

Whiskey a go-go

Strong, smooth and slightly spicy Colorado whiskey is the lure at Denver’s Stranahan’s. Founded in 2004, the crew makes 40 barrels of its hand-bottled copper-colored nectar each week, using malted local barley and Rocky Mountain water. And while its free tours – best booked in advance – illuminate the production process and include generous samples, you’ll likely also want to pick up a bottle (signed by individual bottlers) for later imbibing: the aged-in-wine-barrels Snowflake 2011 is a recommended high altitude pick-me-up.

Whiskey is just one of the lip-smackers across the state line in Park City, Utah where High West Distillery became the state’s first legal spirit maker since 1870 when it opened in 2007. Ideal for skiers – yes, you can ski in and ski out, although it’s probably best to avoid that while you’re drinking – rye and a seasonal peach vodka are also on the menu. After the tour, hit the complex’s wood-beamed saloon for whiskey cider short ribs and a four-tipple tasting flight – including the velvety, slightly nutty 21-year-old Rocky Mountain Rye.

Toronto Taste 2011
Victoria Spirits Gin. Photo by LexnGer.

Gin-tastic

A whistle-whetting round of tasty North American gin makers has also popped up in recent years, including Canadian small-batch producer Victoria Spirits on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. Their Victoria Gin appears on menus across the region, a success that’s enabled them to branch out with Oaken Gin – a soothing, amber-hued concoction matured in oak barrels – and what may become B.C.’s signature sip: Left Coast Hemp Vodka, made from organic hemp seeds and known for its delicate spice and hazelnut undertones.

Weekend tours are offered here between April and October, but you can dive even deeper into the process at Wisconsin’s Death’s Door Spirits, home of a celebrated London Dry-style gin. Every fall, visitors brave the cool Washington Island weather to pick wild juniper berries for next year’s gin run – and partake of some samples and a hearty hog roast.

Alternatively, if you’re dry in New York City, Brooklyn’s tiny Breuckelen Distilling – named after the early Dutch spelling of the area’s name – offers short Saturday tours and a US$3 three-glass sampling, including its signature Glorious Gin. Launched in 2010, organic ingredients are favored, with wheat sourced from upstate New York.

Vodka va-va-voom

For vodka nuts, Canada’s Pemberton Distillery is a short Highway 99 hop from Whistler. Its slightly sweet, slightly peppery Schramm Vodka – named after the family owner-operator – uses five locally-grown organic potato varieties (7kg per bottle) to produce a tipple markedly silkier than traditional grain liquors.

Or you can head to Canada’s east coast, home of Prince Edward Distillery. It serves up both grain and potato vodkas, including a delectable blueberry variety.

Back to the dark side

Pack your taste buds south for a visit to Corsair Artisan Distillery in either Tennessee or Kentucky. Tasting tours are available at both locations – US$8 in the former but free (on Fridays and Saturdays only) in the latter – and their eclectic beverages include Triple Smoke single malt, citrus-infused Spiced Rum and an eye-popping Red Absinthe.

Naturally, this region is the bedrock of US bourbon production. But it’s not the only place to sip on America’s signature spirit.

Garrison Brothers Distillery

A tasting at Garrison Brother's Distillery. Photo by Boz Bros.

Hidden among oak-covered ranchland hills an hour from Austin, Texas Garrison Brothers Distillery started in 2005. Charmingly laid-back – except when it comes to the serious business of booze-making – the cowboy-hatted operation evokes those historic small-batch producers that were wiped out by prohibition.

Much of Garrison’s bourbon is still maturing – including hundreds of barrels quietly waiting in a climate-controlled barn – but visitors can sample from the rich tipples now ready. Surprisingly smooth with sweet butterscotch notes and a deep but not overpowering finish, it’s an ideal libation for toasting North America’s long-overdue craft distilling renaissance.

For perhaps the most thorough listing of North American craft distilleries, see the wonderful distillery map created by Distilling.com.