June 18, 2012

Distill my beating heart: A whiskey odyssey

Boston Beer Co., makers of Samuel Adams, announced today a partnership with Berkshire Mountain Distillers--their in-state brethren purveying adult beverages--to create two whiskies literally made from two different Sam Adams beers including the flagship Boston Lager.

The story was picked up by several news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. It's a new frontier for craft brewers and distillers to be sure. But the press release chose its words carefully to insinuate, but not state, that Jim Koch is the Christopher Columbus discovering this new world (though maybe that's an apt comparison since Chris gets the credit but hardly "discovered" an already inhabited frontier).

As I'd reported in a Draft Magazine story in 2010, "Whiskey is a distillate made from 'low wash' or 'distiller’s beer,' meaning it contains the same malted grain, water and yeast that all beer has. The difference is that the beer we drink is bittered, usually with hops." The story was about Charbay, a winemaker and distiller in the San Francisco Bay Area using various beers, predominantly from local Bear Republic Brewing, to turn into whisky whereby master distiller Marko Karakasevic uses " a copper alembic pot (to make) cuts to the distillate to ensure only the hearts—the most desirable liquid—and not the heads or tails, remain." (That other stuff is the reason moonshine has a reputation for making you go blind.)

Oddly, the WSJ story also notes that Boston Beer isn't the first brewing company to get into the microdistilling biz. (Those who've tasted Utopias, first introduced in 2002 and clocking in usually at 27% alcohol but more like 54-proof, would say they're already selling cognac or something close to it.) It says that Rogue from Oregon, "for example," started distilling in 2003. Other breweries-cum-distilleries include Dogfish Head and Ballast Point. But I'm curious why they didn't just point to Anchor. Established in 1896, it famously launched the craft/micro brewing revolution in 1965 when Fritz Maytag salvaged the brewery. The microbrewing renaissance didn't begin until over a decade later. Maytag did the same with whiskey and craft distillation in 1993 when Anchor Distilling was born.

The first time I'd interviewed Fritz, he said, “In the eighties when all the competition came in the brewing world, some of the fun went out of it. Then I found out that no commercial American whiskies were made in a traditional manner. When I heard that, I realized, we’re going to make an all-malt, pot-distilled rye whisky aged in uncharred barrels. You don’t put hops in it, but whisky is really distilled beer.”

The Boston Beer Co. deserves a tremendous amount of credit as an early pioneer in the good ol' days of better beer. Starting in 1984, Koch put a better product in front of millions of Americans and had the gumption (and advertising moolah) to convince them they could be drinking a better tasting beer. They now release 40-some-odd active beers a year. And while they were the company behind Hard Core Ciders, they've things up quite a bit with Angry Orchards brand ciders. Can their foray into the world of winemaking be far behind?

Perhaps they're waiting until 2015ish to see how the whiskies do.