Craft whiskey, typically made by smaller, independent distilleries, is made using time-honored techniques with a focus on quality and originality. Many of today's experimental and creative craft distillers are looking to the past to revive whiskey traditions that have been forgotten in the wake of mass production techniques. Craft distillers, by reviving these traditional methods, are doing more than just manufacturing whiskey with interesting new flavors; they are also preserving and honoring the history of whiskey.
The art of floor malting is one such forgotten whiskey heritage that has found new interest among craft distillers. An essential part of making whiskey is germinating barley, which is done traditionally through floor malting. To ensure equal germination, the barley is spread out on the floor or a malting bed and turned by hand. Malting barley is a time-consuming procedure that calls for expert hands and a keen eye. Floor malting is favored by craft distillers because they believe it gives whiskey a more complex flavor with more pronounced maltiness and other subtleties.
Westland Distillery in Seattle, Washington is one example of a craft distillery that has brought back the practice of floor malting. They malt their own barley in a conventional floor malting operation because they think it gives their whiskeys more flavor. Westland Distillery has done more than set itself apart from the competition by reviving a long-forgotten method: they have also brought back a procedure that was previously standard in the making of whiskey.
The use of heritage grains in whiskey production is another lost practice that has resurfaced in recent years. The term "heirloom grain" refers to ancient grain types that have been mostly phased out of commercial agriculture in favor of newer, higher-yielding variants. However, boutique distillers have recently begun employing these traditional grains, which are typically more flavorful, in the making of whiskey. Red maize, purple barley, and black rye are just a few examples of heirloom grains that can be used to make whiskey that has its own particular flavor, texture, and scent.
Waco, Texas' Balcones Distilling is one of many craft distilleries that uses heritage grains to make its award-winning whiskey. Farmers that are dedicated to conserving heirloom grain varieties like Hopi blue corn are the ones they buy from. Balcones Distilling uses heirloom grains because they offer richness to their whiskeys, help sustain small-scale farmers, and advocate for agricultural diversity.
Whiskey aging and maturation practices are another area where craft distillers are rediscovering historical traditions. For example, some distilleries still use copper pot stills, which have been used for centuries in the whiskey-making process. In comparison to the modern column stills employed in most industrial distilleries, these stills are lauded for their capacity to create a spirit that is both more delicious and more robust. Traditional pot stills are used by artisan distillers because they impart a distinct flavor to the whiskeys they produce.
Kilchoman Distillery, located on the Scottish island of Islay, is a well-known example of a craft distillery that employs the usage of classic pot stills. Kilchoman is well-known for its unique approach to making whiskey; the distillery grows its own barley, malts it in-house, and employs old-fashioned pot stills. This method of manufacturing allows them to make a whiskey that is genuinely one-of-a-kind and artisanal, paying homage to local customs and traditions.
Another long-forgotten practice making a comeback, the use of different barrels for aging whiskey, is being investigated by craft distillers. Distillers at the artisan level are branching out from the standard bourbon barrels made of American oak by using sherry barrels, wine barrels, and even barrels made of non-traditional woods like acacia or chestnut. Whiskey aged in these various containers often develops novel and distinctive flavors due to the influence of the wood from which it was originally distilled.
Newport, Kentucky's New Riff Distilling, for instance, ages its whiskey in both bourbon barrels and other types of barrels, like sherry and brandy barrels. This method provides a novel spin on the standard aging procedure, allowing them to make whiskeys with complex and nuanced flavors.
Craft distillers are not only reviving age-old practices in terms of production, but also in terms of branding and marketing. Many small distilleries are returning to the more labor-intensive but ultimately more rewarding practices of hand-labeling, hand-waxing, and hand-bottling their whiskey. The whiskey's genuineness and the care that went into making it are reflected in the packaging and labeling, which contributes to the product's visual attractiveness.
Craft distilleries like Scotland's Ailsa Bay Distillery are proud of their hand-labeling and wax-dipping packaging processes. This time-consuming method ensures that each bottle of whiskey is truly one-of-a-kind and a reflection of the skilled labor that goes into its production.
Craft distillers are bringing back old methods of distilling whiskey not merely to develop new and interesting tastes, but also to honor the history of the spirit. Craft distillers honor the heritage of whiskey making by returning to traditional methods, but they also push the envelope of invention and originality in the process.
Craft whiskey's devoted fan base is made up of people who appreciate the traditional processes used to make the spirit and the distinctive flavors and aromas that result. Craft distillers are bringing back long-forgotten methods of making whiskey, infusing the process with a sense of history and creativity that results in spirits that are about more than simply their flavor.
In an effort to revive long-forgotten whiskey practices, current craft distilleries are recreating and combining historical processes, ingredients, and customs. Craft distillers are using methods from the past to create whiskeys that are unique and innovative, such as floor malting, heirloom grains, traditional pot stills, a variety of barrel types, and hand labeling and packaging. The resurgence of these forgotten practices not only enriches the one-of-a-kind flavor profiles of handmade whiskeys, but also pays homage to and maintains the spirit's rich history. An increasing number of craft distillers are rediscovering long-forgotten whiskey techniques, a trend that promises to continue expanding the whiskey canon with exciting new expressions that pay homage to the past even as they push the envelope of flavor and originality. So the next time you raise a glass of craft whiskey, think about the forgotten customs that have been brought back to life by the hardworking distillers of craft whiskey, and the history and folklore that are contained within each bottle. We raise a glass to the master distillers who have kept the skill of making whiskey alive in the modern world.