The alcohol industry has long been plagued by tradition. Everything from whiskey to gin was run by an old boys club who saw no value in breaking from what's always been done.
Innovation was seen as sacrilege to a sacred liquid, so for years we saw little change in the alcohol industry. But a new generation of drinkers has inspired a new generation of distillers to shun tradition and create unique and exciting drinks. Here are 10 distilleries that are shaking up the industry.
1. St. George Spirits
If St. George isn’t the godfather of the craft spirits boom, it’s certainly the grandfather. While ‘craft distillery’ wasn’t even a term in the American lexicon until the last few years, St. George has been creating artisanal spirits since founder Jörg Rupf first began making eau de vie in his 65-gallon still in 1982.
The Alameda, Calif. distillery was also the first to make absinthe after it became legal in 2007, and it makes a wider variety of spirits than nearly any distillery in the country – including the fruit brandies that gave the company its start, as well as an Italian-style amaro, and a selection of gins, whiskeys, rums and vodkas.
The green chile vodka has four kinds of chiles infused and blended with a distillate of jalapenos, lime, and cilantro that makes an insane martini or Bloody Mary.
’Distillers’ might not be the most accurate description of Corsair founders Darek Bell and Andrew Webber. Mad scientists is probably more suitable. In addition to coming up with wild creations like red absinthe and pumpkin spice moonshine, Corsair has turned whiskey on its head, making America's favorite brown alcohol from grains as diverse as quinoa and oats.
Before they started playing around with liquor, the two head distillers were homebrewers, and they show their roots with whiskey distilled from oatmeal stout and various kinds of IPAs that taste totally unlike anything anyone else is making.
3. Rogue Ales and Spirits
Rogue Ales and Spirits is more famous for its innovative beers than anything else, which is no surprise considering it has brewed hops, yeast and malted barley with everything from sriracha to – we swear we’re not making this up – beard hair. But the Newport, Ore. company uses the same trademark innovation for its spirits as its ales, which is how it came up with products like its Chipotle whiskey, pink spruce gin and maple bacon vodka.
4. Kavalan Whisky
Kavalan is innovative not so much for its methods as its location. In its short 11-year life, this Taiwanese whisky brand has somehow managed to rack up accolades as impressive as being named the world’s best single malt whisky at the World Whiskies Awards – despite being a young company in a subtropical climate.
The heat and humidity makes regulating the aging process difficult, but it also means Kavalan takes on flavor from the barrels quicker than any other whisky on earth, so even young whiskies can taste like they’ve been in the barrel for years. The distillery also shaves, toasts and chars its own barrels.
5. Teeling Whiskey Company
Teeling is known more for its aging techniques than for its distillation methods. Traditionally, Irish whiskey has always been aged in either virgin oak, bourbon or sherry casks for at least three years (though usually longer) and bottled right from the barrel.
But Teeling – which just opened a new distillery in Dublin in 2015 to become the first company to produce whiskey in the Irish capital in 40 years – has said 'to hell with tradition' and currently has its spirit aging in a dozen different types of casks. The company’s flagship small batch whiskey is finished in rum barrels to give it an incredibly smooth, easy drinking character.
6. Industry City Distillery
New York’s only vodka distillery is one of the most forward-thinking alcohol companies in the country. While most vodka distilleries these days simply buy industrial spirits, cut them to their desired proof and then market them in flashy bottles to undiscerning customers, Industry City Distillery does things differently.
Not only does the distillery create its own spirit, but it has created its own distillation method and its own distillation technology. The result is a clean, high-proof spirit made from beet sugar. And while most vodka is cut three times to maximize its purity, Industry City’s is cut 30 times.
7. Hanson of Sonoma
Hanson is another vodka distillery disrupting an otherwise tired spirit category. Staying true to its Sonoma County roots, Hanson creates its vodka from varietal grapes. This wine-country distillery preaches sustainability and uses organic products, which is not only good for the environment, but good for the customer.
Rather than using flavoring that vaguely resembles the fruit it’s supposed to represent, like most large vodka companies, Hanson actually infuses its vodka with real, organic fruits like mandarin, cucumber and boysenberry.
Simultaneously a newbie to the Scotch whisky game, and one of the oldest scotch brands around, Bruichladdich marches to the beat of its own drum. This distillery still uses the same equipment as it did in 1881, but since reopening in 2000 after being shuttered for six years, Bruichladdich has done nothing else traditionally.
While Islay – the island on which the distillery resides – is famous for its heavily smoky, peated whiskies, Bruichladdich’s flagship uses no peat at all, and the distillery also plays with a variety of finishes and distillation methods.
It also eschews traditional bottles geared towards old men with their colorless labels with pictures of game animals or distillery photos in favor of a more modern, colorful look. And to prove it doesn't even follow its own rules, Bruichladdich also makes a whisky that's the most heavily peated on earth – Octomore is so smoky it makes Laphroaig taste smooth and delicate by comparison.
9. Cleveland Whiskey
Many craft distilleries have been playing around with ways to quickly age whiskeys, because, well, who on earth wants to sit around and wait six to twelve years for your drink to be made? Everyone from Corsair to Hudson Valley ages some of its whiskey in small barrels in an attempt to get product on the market faster – usually because they can’t afford to wait so long to sell their whiskey.
But Cleveland Whiskey has taken things to a new level with its whiskey aged for a ridiculously short six days. Cleveland uses its own patented process that basically involves flash aging the spirit in a barrel before throwing it in a tank and adding chopped wood from the barrels to impart flavor and rapidly speed up the aging process.
10. House Spirits Distillery
Gin was long known as an old man’s drink that tastes like Christmas. And that’s because for a long time, most gin did taste like juniper berries (its main ingredient) and not much else. But the craft cocktail boom brought new demand for gin, and with it a new wave of styles – flavored gins, aged gins and newly revived old styles of gin – have hit the market.
Gin distilleries have moved far beyond the juniper flavor profile, and one of the first to make that trend popular was House Spirits Distillery with its lavender-heavy Aviation gin. For the last decade, House Spirits has helped pave the way for gins where juniper takes a backseat to other botanicals, and in 2015 the company opened a new distillery to become to largest alcohol producer in the Pacific Northwest.