Boutique Spirits: When Smaller is Better

Editor's Note: The 2012 Nightclub & Bar Convention & Trade Show, to be held March 12-14 in Las Vegas, once again will feature the Emerging and Boutique Brands Pavilion. For a sample of the brands that will be appearing on the show floor, check out “Boutique Spirits Highlight Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show.”

Offering your clientele a fresh array of spirits on your backbar is a proven tactic for bolstering beverage sales. It encourages experimentation Caskand keeps the staff from becoming complacent. There are more handmade, so-called boutique spirits from which to choose now on the market than ever before — products such as organic tequilas, single-barrel whiskeys, pot-distilled vodkas, fresh-pressed rums and small-batch gins. As far as the backbar is concerned, these are the best of times.

In today’s cocktail-driven culture, marketing these boutique spirits makes a great deal of business sense. The better the spirits, the better the resulting drinks. But what is it that distinguishes these hip, artisanal spirits from their more pedestrian counterparts?

The fact of the matter is that not all spirits are created equally. Small differences in how they’re made often have a huge impact on what is inside the bottle. There are six essential quality factors that you should be familiar with when you’re evaluating any spirit. Knowing how these factors ultimately affect the finished product will greatly benefit your efforts behind the bar.

• Base ingredients. As is true for beer and wine, using high-grade raw ingredients in production goes a long way to ensuring the highest-quality finished product. Distillers today have embraced this self-evident truth. Today, boutique spirits are made from locally cultivated grains, potatoes, sugar cane and vine-ripened varietal grapes. Increasingly, more tequilas are being produced from organic blue agaves and gins from indigenous juniper berries, aromatics and botanicals. Certainly, relying on premium raw ingredients is more expensive. The same is true about going to your local food co-op and buying organic products. The decision-making process is the same. So first, find out what the spirit is distilled from. If it sounds like the raw material was shipped from Point A to Point B in freight cars, it’s likely not a boutique spirit.

• Tradecraft. Most — if not all — distillers of handcrafted spirits will make a point of stating that they used traditional techniques to make their products. High-tech production methods are quite effective at producing high quantities of alcohol, but not necessarily high-class spirits. For example, when making tequila, the traditional techniques include crushing the agaves with a tahona wheel and baking the plants in clay ovens. It’s a slow, laborious process. While there are high-tech alternatives available to producers, they haven’t been proven to yield better results.

• Water source. The fact is, the largest ingredient in any distilled spirit under 101 proof is water. A whiskey bottled at 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume) contains 60% water, so the water’s quality and taste is a huge variable. (Note: The one notable exception is spirits labeled “cask strength.” They are bottled undiluted directly from the barrel and, therefore, do not contain water.) Suppliers of boutique spirits make a point of identifying the source of the water used in production, such as limestone-filtered spring water, glacial water or underground aquifer well water. Boasting the use of city tap water doesn’t have exactly the same cachet.

• Fermentation. Fermentation is the process by which the sugars in a raw ingredient are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The catalyst is yeast, which may be a proprietary strain developed especially for that purpose or wild, naturally occurring yeast present in the air. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. However, most handcrafted spirits are allowed to ferment slowly over the course of 48 to 72 hours.

• Distillation. Although there are some exceptions, the vast majority of artisanal spirits are distilled in a traditional copper-pot still. The capacity and exact configuration of the individual still is a significant variable and often a well-kept secret. Two stills configured differently will yield markedly different spirits from the same fermented mash.

Another quality variable is the portion of the distillation run the master distiller selects for bottling. The beginning portion of the run — called the “heads” — contains aldehydes, esters and acids that are unfit for consumption, while the end of the run — referred to as the “tails” — is comprised of higher alcohols that are equally disagreeable. Using the middle portion — or “heart” of the run — is optimum. Some distillers use a far smaller slice of the heart than others. The smaller the slice used, the more costly the production run.

• Aging. Some types of spirits are left unaged, such as gin and vodka, while others, like brandies, whiskeys and some tequilas and rums, require maturation in wood to reach their full potential. Over its stay in the barrel, the alcohol is drawn into the wood and then out again depending on the ambient temperature and humidity. The process slowly transforms the spirit. The wood imbues it with flavor and color and gradually softens its character.

The type of wood a spirit is aged in is a huge factor. American white oak is different than French Limousin oak, and they affect spirits differently. The barrels’ size alters the amount of surface area the alcohol has with the wood. Naturally, the amount of time the alcohol remains in the barrel also is a significant variable. Remember, there is a moment in the aging cycle when a spirit reaches its peak. Removing it from the barrel beforehand is largely done for financial considerations, rushing to get the spirit on the market sooner. Leaving it in the barrel longer yields diminishing returns and invariably dulls its character.

Another trend in the business is to finish a spirit’s maturation in a different type of barrel. A spirit may spend eight years in charred American oak barrels previously used to age bourbon and then another year or so in another type of cask, such as a port pipe, Sherry butt, Madeira cask or one previously used to age cognac or Caribbean rum. All will yield an entirely different finished spirit.

In the final analysis, the real measure of a spirit’s greatness is taste. A particular brand may have a laudable pedigree, and its makers may have done everything true to form. However, by the end of the process, the spirit may fade to something little more than average in the glass. The taste test is the great equalizer.

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