Think small: Indie distillers craft spirits not for the masses

During prohibition, a neighbor with a still was the best friend a would-be tippler could have. Today Americans can get all the spirits they want, thanks to the 21st Amendment, but ease of access and mass production of distilled spirits may have cost us something in the personal touch and unique character of handcrafted spirits. But small-batch production is making a significant comeback as many regions ease up on their restrictions on distilleries, leading to a growing craze among cocktail fans for spirits from independent producers.

"I think it started with the locavore food movement; people started getting more and more conscious about knowing where their food's coming from, and that trend is coming over into cocktails," said mixologist Adam Seger of Naçional 27 in Chicago, who says he mainly uses craft spirits behind the bar. "It's a great way to support your local economy, but also you're getting spirits that have a great deal more flavor and character."

Not many bartenders can say they have their own liquor brand, but Seger does. Hum, his unique, botanically infused rum, will end 2011 with 3,000 cases. Whistle Pig Rye, the small-batch darling, had 2,500 cases available this year.

According to Seger, the explosion in the openings of craft distilleries makes it possible for more bartenders to create a formula and partner with a local distillery to produce it, which makes the process much less complicated than attempting to build one's own distillery. Distilleries are faced with countless red tape and licensing issues that can make it difficult for a small brand to get footing. Some brands even have to change the laws to do so.

Chicago's Koval Distillery successfully lobbied Illinois to create a craft distiller's license, which went into effect last summer, and FEW Spirits in Evanston, Ill., which produces gin and white whiskey, had to get the law changed to allow for distiller's licenses in a town that was founded as a dry city and didn't give up its own mini prohibition until the 1970s.

A small-batch producer's size is one of its greatest assets, according to FEW founder Paul Hletko. "I don't expect to sell three million cases of my product, so I don't have to create a product that will appeal to three million people," he said. "People are excited to have the small batch spirits that are different. There's an awful lot of distilleries in the country that are producing truly different unique spirits that are different than you can get form the big boys and people are excited to get that."

by Elizabeth Licata