I’m in San Diego this week for the Annual Craft Distillers Conference. Its a gathering of the great and good in this growing category. There are now over 900 licensed craft distillers in the U.S the barrier to entry to distilling in the U.S. is close to nothing compared to that in Ireland and this has fuelled serious growth nationally over the past decade. The craft distilling movement is following the same growth trajectory as craft beer and there is no end in sight. States are starting to soften legislation around direct sales and there is enough grass roots pressure to change limiting laws allowing for serious commercialisation. ARE YOU LISTENING IRISH GOVERNMENT?????
This is my second time at this conference and I’m here because these guys are about 15 years ahead of us in Ireland and Europe when it comes to the disruptive craft spirits making model. So its the perfect opportunity to see what is trending and most importantly its a great chance to learn. I did a Rye Whiskey making workshop on Monday at the San Diego Distillery. The distillery is located in a 642 sq foot garage and founder and master distiller Trent Tilton began making whiskey, rum and Eu de Vie last May. He was formerly a brewer so is technically quite gifted when it comes to Mash Bills and fermentation and this translates well to distillation. He has a killer custom make little 100 gallon pot and column combi still made by StillDragon and produces and sells award winning Rye and Single Malt whiskey like its going out of style.
Unlike in Ireland there is no age requirement on Trent’s whiskey, so his youngest whiskey is about 3 months old and his oldest is not yet a year. Also unlike in Ireland of course he is maturing in New American oak. Like many American craft distillers he uses 5 an 10 gallon barrels for this. By doing so he can intensify the maturation process as there is more wood contact with the liquid with these smaller barrels. He also has the weather working for him. All his stock is aged in his little garage and of course San Diego temperatures hit well over 30º regularly in the summer, even more when you consider he has the still running adding even more heat to the place. All these conditions, the new oak, the tiny barrels and the high temperatures & fluctuations mean his whiskey takes on more ‘mature’ characteristics a lot faster. It also means he has an income stream and can begin to lay down whiskey for longer time periods whist ensuring he can keep his lights on.
In Ireland technically we can’t emulate Trent’s model. We have a 3 year and one day minimum maturation wait to produce “Irish Whiskey”. I’m in favour of this as it sets down an ongoing precedent and differentiation for ‘Irish Whiskey.’ Its important that we have our appellation protected. It is limiting though and does kind of suck out some of the potential creativity and excitement from the world of “Irish Whiskey”.Right now all the mature whiskey on the market from new Irish distilleries is basically from the old Cooley Reserves because like Trent everyone needs to keep the lights on and there is only one place to buy old “Irish Whiskey”. This is why a lot of people make gin and vodka to get going.However a core pillar of my company is innovation and I’ll be honest, I am jealous of the freedom that Trent and all the guys here have, they seem to be having a lot of fun and making great quality whiskey. I too need to keep the lights on and I won’t be making gin any time soon. I do however have a cunning plan which this trip has helped to solidify in my mind……