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'Still’ Life

Food & Drink

From Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” to the backwoods and back rooms of “Justified” and ‘Boardwalk Empire’—and culminating in the upcoming film “The Wettest County”—the whole country’s gone punch drunk over old-timey alcohol. And now it’s the Establishment antidote for a posse of back-door men, seeking a rebel jolt in a time of reticence. In gentlemanly repose, Stinson Carter meets the new moonshiners, creating their very own haute-hooch movement.

In the 1980s, small wineries were the stuff of yuppie dreams.  Then came the craft-brewer craze of the 90s and early aughts. But today, the new “bobos” are cooking hooch.

In 2003, the American Distilling Institute had 69 registered distillers in the Small Craft category. Now they have 240, and expect to near the 500 mark by 2015. Americans have always been good at making booze when geographic isolation and (later) Prohibition required it of them. But neither circumstance can explain the source of the current movement.

“Moonshine has rural roots, and obviously flourished in response to laws cracking down. But now, when laws are pretty lax about liquor, moonshine and small distillers are having a real boom,” says Wayne Curtis, cocktail columnist for The Atlantic Monthly and author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.  Curtis explains this boom as “a collusion of the cocktail renaissance and the rise of the DIY movement—clothing, jams, relishes, cheeses, beers, whatever.”

Curtis, like others privy to the industry, believes the craft distiller to be the direct descendant of the craft brewer. “Hipster moonshine seems to be rooted in the home brewing trend––people who got beer figured out were casting around for something different. They found they could do it, and it was illegal, which was cool. Some of what came out of the still was pretty good, and some folks figured they should try to make a business out of it and started craft distilleries.”

The craft distillers who got in early and made a good product have done very well with a market thirsty for the different and the new.  Andrew Webber, co-owner and distiller at Corsair Artisan Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee, has built his brand on “taking risks that the bigger companies can’t afford to take,” he says. (Making pumpkin-spice moonshine is one of them.)  Webber chalks his success up to timing, saying, “Classic mixology and the local food movement were taking off when we started out. We were one of the first [distilleries] making unusual spirits.

Mixologists always want something new, like different flavors, to show customers something they haven’t seen before.” Down the road in Kelso, Tennessee, former-dental-technician-turned-distiller Phil Prichard shares a similar sentiment: “There wasn’t but about four or five of us when we were starting out, and we were making a unique product—Tennessee rum.”  Prichard now produces a variety of spirits—including White Lightning and rye—all made in copper pot stills in an old brick country schoolhouse, and his business has grown from a stovetop operation into a well-respected craft distillery selling in 44 states, 8 European countries, and, “Pretty soon, Australia and Canada,” says Prichard.

“We’re not even close to the peak of this,” says Bill Owens, founder of The American Distillery Institute, the trade association for craft distillers. “I get calls every day from all over from people trying to get into this business.”

The bar culture side of this polysepalous trend includes flapper cocktail waitresses, barmen with artisanal facial hair, unfrosted light bulbs, taxidermy, burgundy velvet anything, and an aversion to exterior signage.  And, naturally, the evolution of the Top Shelf: 100% rye, white whiskey, baby bourbon, absinthe (with its ornate spoons), eau de vie, local potato vodka, local botanical gin, and whiskey finished in sherry, port, and apple brandy barrels. And for those who don’t already know how to navigate this changed back-bar landscape, any faux-hibition bartender worth his Baskerville mustache and arm garters will gladly educate you with a heavy pour of condescension.

For today’s urban bartender, not having a specialty cocktail list is like not having ice.  Upon hearing this news, a customer’s face freezes in an expression of utter disappointment at the prospect of having to order a drink they already know the contents of.  They’ve come to expect cocktails with redolently historical names in which spirits bottled in artisan quantities are painstakingly mixed with house made syrups, rare muddled flora, and obscure bitters.

Green Apple Martini (1999-2011); revered in life for his close resemblance to candy, the son of Vodka Martini and High Fructose Corn Syrup has died after a long battle with popular culture. He is preceded in death by a great-aunt, Cosmopolitan “Cosmo” of The City, NY; a sister, Midori Sour of Las Vegas, NV., and two cousins: Sex On The Beach, of Daytona Beach, FL., and Long Island Iced Tea, of Ronkonkoma, NY. Survived by his aunt, Vesper Martini of Monte Carlo; and his uncle, Dirty Martini of Chicago, IL.

In the Jolly Rancher era of hard-alcohol consumption, “The cocktail was the candy coating on the outside of the pill,” says Lance Winters, Master Distiller at St. George Spirits in San Francisco’s Bay Area.  “Now,” says Winters, “cocktails are spirit-driven, so the spirits have to be of a better quality.” Winters’ distillery produces a number of high-end craft spirits including naturally-infused eau de vie, French-Colonial-style rum, absinthe, and a gin crafted with local botanicals. Like the other players in the craft distillery category, Winters was ahead of the game, saying, “we’ve been at this ‘hot trend’ for 30 years,” and his label is one of the most successful stories in the craft distiller market.

Saturday night’s bar owl is next Wednesday’s liquor store customer, and retailers have to play keep-up. Five years ago, buying a bottle of rye whiskey was about as anachronistic as carrying your possessions in a bandana tied to a stick. But now, says David Girard, spirits buyer for K&L Wine Merchants in Los Angles, “We sell twice as many rye whiskeys as we did five years ago. And we had zero white whiskeys at that time, now we carry three.”

But when Old-Line distillers like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels have spent a century perfecting their product, can these new upstarts really make a better breed of booze that justifies their higher price point?”  Well, sometimes.  “The new guys”, says K&L’s David Girard, “don’t necessarily look to those historic and important precedents that may help them make better whiskey.”  Cocktail writer Wayne Curtis echoes this, saying, “The craft thing is riding on the locavore, handcrafted thing.  But people also like authenticity, like Evan Williams or Buffalo Trace—making the same thing for 100 years.”

So maybe you can order a tabletop still on the internet for as little as $100, and according to American Distillery Institute’s Bill Owens, you can get a proper distillery going for about six hundred thousand dollars.  But before you take out a second mortgage and quit your day job to get into craft distillation, know that “this is not a way to make money, this is a lifestyle,” says Owens. “Don’t do it unless you’re going to do it right.”  K&L’s David Girard puts it even more simply: “Sometimes just being a rebel isn’t enough.”

– Text and Photography by Stinson Carter