A microdistillery is a small, often 'boutique', distillery established to produce beverage grade alcohol in relatively small quantities. While the term is most commonly used in the United States, micro-distilleries have been established in Europe for many years, either as small cognac distilleries supplying the larger cognac houses, or as distilleries of single malt whisky originally produced for the blended Scotch whisky market, but whose products are now sold as niche single malt brands. The more recent development of micro-distilleries can now also be seen in locations as diverse as London and Switzerland.
Throughout much of the world, small distilleries operate throughout communities of various sizes without being given a special description. Due to the extended period of Prohibition in the United States, however, most small distilleries were forced out of business, leaving only the corporate-dominated megadistilleries to resume operation when Prohibition was repealed. to produce small batch brands.
A recent trend in this segment of the distilling industry is for megadistillers to create their own micro-distillery within their current operation. Makers Mark, owned by Jim Beam Inc., and Buffalo Trace in Kentucky are now producing specialty bourbon brands with small stills. It is anticipated that other megadistilers, Bacardi, Brown Forman, Diageo, will soon join the parade.
The modern microdistilling movement grew out of the beer microbrewing trend, which originated in the United Kingdom in the 1970s and quickly spread throughout the United States in the following decades. Whilst still in its infancy, the popularity of microdistilling and microdistilled spirits is expanding consistently, with many microbreweries and small wineries establishing distilleries within the scope of their brewing or winemaking operations. Other microdistilleries are farm-based. Anchor Brewing Company and Dogfish Head are two examples of American craft breweries that have begun expanding into microdistillation. Leopold Bros. is an example of a microdistiller that began as a microbrewery, and now operates as a distillery alone.
Some of the newer microdistilleries procuce only spirits. Plain and seasonally-flavored vodkas are popular products. As with the emergence of microbrewing, California and Oregon have experienced the highest number of microdistillery openings. Significant recent growth has also occurred in the Midwest. Microdistilleries for gin and vodka have also now started to re-emerge in London, England, after being restricted and effectively banned for over a hundred years due to UK government restrictions on still sizes, which have now been partially relaxed. There are now 4 licensed distilleries in London: Beefeater and Thames Distillers (not microdistilleries), and Sacred Microdistillery and Sipsmith, which are. At the same time, European micro-distilleries have been a key element in the absinthe renaissance in several countries, including Switzerland.
In the 1990s the liquor industry established the notion of super premium spirits offering a higher-quality (and usually more elaborately packaged) product at a higher price. The higher prices created an opportunity for small distilleries to profitably produce niche brands of exotic spirits that did not need massive economies of scale to maintain profitability. The first decade of the new millennium saw the creation of hundreds of such distilleries producing products that were designed and marketed in a way that resembled celebrated restaurants more than alcoholic spirits marketing. Numerous competitions and publications were formed to support the burgeoning sub-culture of spirits.
It is no longer the case that microdistilleries are producing at the premium end of the market only; the established brands are under threat from local microdistilleries at all price points (with the possible exception of the ultra discount supermarket brands such as Sainsbury's and Tesco's "value" brands, which are close to loss leaders).
Whilst many small brands contract out distillation to larger firms (for example Oxley gin is distilled by Thames Distillers under contract for Bacardi, as is Jensen's gin, Fifty Pound gin, The London gin, and Geranium gin is distilled under contract by Alcohols Ltd.), true innovation is to be found with the microdistillers, where new techniques produce new flavors. Tony Conigliaro uses a rotavap (i.e. glassware not copper pot) on a small scale to produce distilled spirits which change from day to day in his bar, and Ian Hart uses vacuum equipment to conduct distillation at much reduced temperatures, resulting in less cooked aromatics.
Prior to the microdistillery movement, distillation was largely viewed as a high tech industrial activity and little attention was paid to the makers of spirits. However with the worldwide birth of hundreds of small boutique distilleries in the 2000s came a new way of thinking about spirits, not as simple commodities but as works of culinary art. This is especially true in the United States where early microdistilleries vocally tied themselves to California's Asian-inspired fusion cuisine. The notion of the celebrity distiller is a recent phenomenon and has emerged worldwide. It has been dramatically elevated since 2007 when absinthe was legalized in the U.S. spurring a flurry of media attention on both the spirit and the artists who make it. The rarer spirits distilled by these figures can fetch from US$50–400 per bottle.
The U.S. Government regulates distilleries to a high degree and currently does not distinguish its treatment of distilleries in terms of size. This stringent regulation has prevented microdistilling from developing as rapidly as microbrewing which enjoys relatively more relaxed government control. A number of states, such as California, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Utah and Washington, have passed legislation reducing the stringent regulations for small distilleries that were a holdover from prohibition. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) are responsible for enforcing Federal statutes as they apply to all manufacturers of beverage alcohol.
First Guide to North American Micro-Distilleries
Until May 2011, no guide existed that was solely dedicated to micro-distilleries in North America. Then, Sunbury Press released David. J. Reimer, Sr.’s, Micro-Distilleries in the U.S. and Canada. This comprehensive book is more than just a guide that provides location, contact information, and hours. It also provides histories of the micro-distilleries and lets people learn about the distillers, who often had no background in distilling, brewing, or winemaking but gave up lucrative careers to follow a passion. Many of these people are also fighting for legislation to change their state’s laws to allow micro-distilleries to exist and to distribute their products. For more information, visit www.microdistillerybooks.com.
- Portland Oregon Distilleries
- Third Wave Coffee
- ^ a b c d "Farmyard Stills Quench a Thirst for Local Spirits," New York Times, 25 Nov 2007.
- ^ Berman, Jillian “Popular A2 bar Leopold Bros. to close this summer”, Michigan Daily (February 7, 2008)
- ^ Mathis, Jo and Gershman, Dave, “Ann Arbor brewpub to split for Denver”, Ann Arbor News (February 6, 2008)
- ^ "Absinthe: Committee of Swiss Absinthe Producers, most of whom are very small operators.". http://www.absinthe-interprofession.ch/membres.php. Retrieved 2009-07-20.
- ^ Forester, Jonathan M. (2007-11-25). "Micro-Distillery movement in US kicks into high speed". Slashfood. http://www.slashfood.com/2007/11/30/micro-distillery-movement-in-us-kicks-into-high-speed/. Retrieved 2010-05-29.
- ^ Digg (2007-10-21). "Oregon is epicenter of new microdistillery movement". Digg.com. http://digg.com/business_finance/Oregon_is_epicenter_of_new_microdistillery_movement. Retrieved 2010-05-29.
- ^ "A Chill at the Still" NY Times 1st Dec 2009
- ^  The London Word visits a vacuum microdistillery
- Botanically infused libations naturally spice up cocktail hour - Portland Tribune - 4 April 2008
- The Art Of Artisan Vodka - William Dowd - Falls Church News Press - 20 February 2008
- Ian's Gin is just the Tonic for Highgate - Hampstead and Highgate Express - 14 May 2009
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