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Chronicling America's Craft Spirit Movement, a Sip at a Time

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Feb 2, 2011 8:20PM

Over the past few years, a groundswell of independent spirits distilleries has cropped up all across the country. Some call the Chicago area home (such as North Shore and Koval), while many more are setting up shop in Oregon, New York and Michigan. These newly minted enterprises are producing a stunning range of products, from whiskey to rum to absinthe. Sensing the tremors underfoot, Indianan Matt Colglazier has taken to writing the revolution.

Last summer, the Bloomington resident launched American Craft Spirits, a website devoted to the movement and its bottled goodness. Colglazier interviews distillers, coopers (barrel makers) and other major figures in this rebounding industry (Prohibition and conglomeration had killed off many of America"s original small distilleries). He also reviews the spirits coming out of these shops. "Nobody was really writing about them exclusively," Colglazier says. "So I thought, I'm going to limit myself to just American craft spirits from these small distilleries."

After building the site, Colglazier began reaching out to as many craft distilleries as he could find. "I kept on uncovering more and more," he says. "Immediately, I heard back from people who were really excited." Colglazier tries to post one interview, two spirits reviews and a video clip each week. "The distillery profiles come as I hear about new distilleries," he adds. "Some people have been established for two or three years. Anything over three years would be considered old hand in this market segment. Other people are ten months away from getting the still going, but they're in the process of getting the government regulations and federal stuff all done."

Colglazier says the current surge in American craft distilleries is similar to the craft-beer movement that preceded it, save one important difference: Craft breweries have had the support (and patronage) of a community of home brewers, who could appreciate the products on a deeper, technical level. "You can go visit a distillery and have that visceral experience of how is the spirit made, but you really can't - or I should say you really shouldn't - go home and try it yourself...because you'd be breaking federal law." That said, mindful bartenders, including many in Chicago, are doing their part to promote these spirits by featuring them in their cocktails.

His tasting approach is pretty straightforward. "I use a typical tulip-shaped nosing glass," Colglazier says. "I taste on multiple occasions. I chew on it a little bit, spit it, have a little bit more, chew on it a little bit. I get to the point where I feel I've homed in on two or three different aspects of the spirit of the spirit I really like and I think are working for it, and I try to write that."

Chicago may not have so many outfits as, say, Portland's Distillery Row, but Colglazier is no less excited about what's coming out of Chi-town. "I really think Koval is just doing some out-of-this-world white spirits, white whiskey," he says. "They're cutting just the heart of the spirit - so when it comes off the still, they're taking a pretty narrow cut - and that's responsible for how clean and how light and how nuanced the flavors are that they are getting. If you saw a Koval three, four or five years down the road - that they can afford to leave it in the barrel that long - I think you're going to taste something that really you've never tasted before in this country."

For Colglazier, the benefits of this movement boil down to wider choice for drinkers. "The craft spirits are the farmers market, and the other guys are the grocery store. Grocery store's great, no complaints. But sometimes you want to go to the farmers market to get something special."

Photos courtesy of Matt Colglazier.