The first clear evidence of the distillation of alcohol dates back to the 12th century at a medical school in the town of Salerno in southern Italy. In that regard, “innovation” is a tricky word to use as a descriptor of the recent rise of microdistilleries across the United States. It might be tempting to use the phrase “innovation through anachronism.” In a marketplace saturated with megacorporations pumping out seemingly identical offerings, local distilleries are reaching for a share by placing a product on the shelves that features an old-fashioned sense of craft. (Editor’s note: This article originally apreared in the May/Jun 2014 issue of mvm. )
“Our definition of ‘craft distilling’ would be something that’s made from scratch, something created from its raw product,” says Heather Houle, general manager of Flag Hill, a winery and distillery in Lee, N.H.
Flag Hill has been a mainstay in the local wine industry since 1994. Co-owner Frank Reinhold Jr. will celebrate the 10th anniversary of running his still this September.
Houle likens craft distilling to home baking, “Like baking cookies [from scratch], you can have your eggs and sugar and flour and they taste much different [when you put them together] than just getting the store-bought package,” she says.
Definitions of “craft distilling” — there is no official, legal definition of the term, according to the American Distilling Institute in Hayward, Cal. — vary, as does the innovation that lies within the craft. Andrew Cabot, founder of Privateer International, in Ipswich, calls it “innovation out of necessity.”
Cabot’s company, which focuses on rum production, was born in 2011. He is passionate about helping to create a “consumer community” where what is produced and consumed is sourced and crafted locally, and is made with an eye toward quality. An item created locally does not always denote superiority, he says.
Privateer strives to bring what Cabot calls “best practices” to a rum industry he says is “underdeveloped.” He cites the maritime climate in Ipswich, which allows the rum to ferment in “long, cool” temperatures. This environment also makes it possible for the barrels that the rum ages and develops in to go through “natural breathing cycles.”
“We’re not solving a problem,” Cabot says, “if we’re delivering an inferior product.”
Andy Harthcock of Djinn Spirits in Nashua, N.H., echoed this sentiment.
“Our goal is to focus on making a [quality] product,” he says of his distillery business, which opened in December 2013. “We want to focus on small, quality batches. It’s always been about the craft over making money.”
Harthcock’s small batches currently include a white whiskey and a gin. Harthcock, who owns Djinn with his wife, Cindy, eventually intends to add “new recipes with new twists,” including a krupnik, a high-proof spirit made with honey, cinnamon, clove, vanilla and citrus.
Part of what’s driving innovation in the craft distilling movement is the recent birth in the U.S. of a more refined cocktail culture that’s straddling the fence between craft and convenience.
“The cool thing about distilling in the U.S. is [that] we can push limits,” Houle says. “In more established cultures, they often stay within boxes. Here, a lot of us are looking for something unique in mixing and trying things. We’re all trying to find something different to break the mold.”
Innovation, according to Houle, is also driven by community — the local population and — terrain, agriculture and the community of local distillers.
“If we [distilleries] are not helping [one another] as far as making actual product, we’re helping each other because we’re making sure we’re all making a good product,” says Houle, who notes that Flag Hill relies on local products such as corn, apples, cranberries and maple syrup.
Cabot says that producers and have a responsibility to work together to make distribution easier so thatsmall distillers can establish a stronger foothold in the spirits market.
“It’s been great to see the [local and state government] act more proactively,” Cabot says. But, he adds, “We’ve got to continually ask ourselves, ‘Is there more we can ?’ ”
Flag Hill Enterprises