PICKING YOUR POISON has never been harder.
Although household names like Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker remain staples in the American liquor cabinet, now liquor connoisseurs have a much wider pool of spirits to choose from.
Today, there are more than 200 distilleries in the U.S. pumping out boutique booze and artisanal spirits, and they’re growing at a rate of about 25 to 30 a year, according to the American Distilling Institute, an industry group in Hayward, Calif.
Small, neighborhood distilleries are thriving for a couple of reasons. First, they’re capitalizing off the same consumer shift toward local drinking as craft-beer brewers and small-scale vintners. Second, various state laws have helped small players in the industry. A number of states have recently legalized liquor tastings at manufacturing facilities and retail outlets. Some states have even relaxed certain alcohol-sales prohibitions, such as selling liquor on Sundays.
Although such victories were hard-fought, small distillery owners like Ralph Erenzo are now reaping the benefits. In July, Erenzo opened up tours and a shop at Tuthilltown Spirits, a micro-distillery that he co-owns in Gardiner, N.Y. And despite being sold at fine-dining locations and elegant bars around the world, his distillery’s store is the company’s second-largest customer – raking in over $150,000 in its first five months. In total, the company’s sales amounted to roughly $500,000 in 2010, up from just $60,000 in 2006. By the end of 2010, Tuthilltown, which makes Hudson-brand whiskeys, expects to break $1 million in sales. And although the company isn’t yet profitable, Erenzo expects it to be within the next two years.
SmartMoney asked Erenzo a few questions about the ups and downs at his seven-year-old company. Here are his condensed answers.
Name: Ralph Erenzo
Business: Tuthilltown Spirits, a micro-distillery.
Location: Gardiner, N.Y.
Year founded: 2003
Number of employees: 10
Web address: www.tuthilltown.com
In the grand tradition of grain alcohol, age is a key ingredient. However, many of your whiskeys are short-aged — that is, they’ve been distilling for just months, not years. How are you able to produce a quality product in less time?
We just started with the legal definition of the liquors we aimed to make, which now include vodkas, whiskeys, rum, eau de vie and brandy. To make bourbon, for instance, federal law says a grain mixture made up of at least 51% corn (ours has 100%) must be stored in new, charred oak aging barrels. But it doesn’t say anything about how long that mixture should rest in the barrels. So, we decided to make it to taste. We also use three-gallon and, more recently, 12-gallon barrels, which allow more of the alcohol to interact with the oak in a faster span of time. By contrast, big alcohol companies, which often use much larger barrels, typically let their whiskeys age for longer. They can also afford to keep their products tied up in production for longer periods.
What do you do if a batch doesn’t taste right?