Distilling is just a few steps past fermenting grains, a process brewers already have down pat. What started with just a few breweries producing whiskey and vodka is now a bona fide movement, with breweries distilling everything from gin to brandy to, yes, Rogue’s bacon maple vodka. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the number of breweries that also hold distilling permits increased from 47 in 2010 to 79 in early 2015.
Most began with a desire to please a different kind of drinker. When New Holland Brewing moved to its location in downtown Holland, Mich., in 2002, president Brett VanderKamp noticed that there were new visitors to the restaurant and taproom that beer wasn’t serving. So, New Holland began distilling.
To make the hybrid model work, though, brewers have to stand out from the major distillers—and each other.
“Breweries that distill can compete on quality, but they can’t compete on price with the bigger brands. They have to have another hook,” says Matthew Rowley, a culinary historian and spirits author. “Whether that’s hyperlocal ingredients or geographical identity, it’s not just cost.”
And it’s not beer drinkers’ allegiance to the brewery, either. In fact, most brewery-distilleries target spirits fans over beer drinkers when marketing their liquors.
“The craft beer consumer is incredibly loyal to craft beer. That’s not to say that they’re not going to have a cocktail once in a while, but I think it’s a rare occasion,” VanderKamp says. “The whiskey drinkers, the Scotch and bourbon drinkers, that’s where we’re really going to drive volume.”
Small-batch breweries and distilleries can also tout the craft nature of their liquor at a time when more consumers are questioning exactly where their booze comes from.
“That’s the cool thing about not just craft beer and craft spirits, but the local food movement,” says Jason Payne, who launched both Lucky Bucket Brewing and Cut Spike Distillery in La Vista, Neb., in 2008. “Think about artisan cheese, artisan bread; half of the fun is people become these local treasure hunters.”
Logically, many breweries’ top-selling spirits are these barrel-aged or one-of-a-kind offerings. At Griffin Claw Brewing in Birmingham, Mich., which began selling its gin, vodka and white rum in 2014, the top seller is actually Krupnik, a Polish-style honey liqueur. At New Holland, aged whiskeys fly off the shelf.
“We can’t make enough bourbon. No surprise there,” says Brett VanderKamp.
Barrels mean just as much, if not more, to spirits drinkers as they do to beer drinkers. But that means a waiting game for new distillers, who can’t just produce rum or aged whiskey overnight.
“Beer fermentation time is two to four weeks. With barrel-aged spirits and especially with whiskey, you have to make it, sit and stare at it for a few years before you can sell it. With beer, you can make that sale much faster after the production has taken place,” says Cut Spike’s Payne, who essentially watched his distilling equipment grow cobwebs for four years while he waited for his whiskey to age. “Now we have this nice, happy balance between the brewery and distillery. It’s only taken six years to pull that off.”
Payne expects profits from his spirits to surpass beer profits in the next few years, but that’s not everyone’s blueprint. At New Holland, spirits make up about 12 percent of revenue, and at San Diego’s Ballast Point, spirits remain a much smaller piece of the pie than beer.
But for all the waiting, watching and cost-benefit analysis, many brewers seem to come to liquor the way drinkers do: They’re curious.
“Once you start looking at the fringes of brewing, you start to look at ingredients and proof,” says Matthew Rowley. “And then, for a lot of brewers, it occurs to them that there’s way too much water in their beverage.”
TRY THESE THREE: Like liquid Good & Plenty, Ballast Point’s 72-proof buttery amaro Opah is all dark licorice up front with a dab of caramel on the swallow. Serve the herbal liqueur chilled as a digestif, or just replace your Jaeger shot. Mead fans should up the ante with Griffin Claw’s 80-proof Krupnik honey liqueur. Dry honey and baking spices warm up this versatile Polish spirit that could be poured as a pre-dinner aperitif, taken as a shot or incorporated into beer cocktails. And sip New Holland’s 90-proof Zeppelin Bend straight malt whiskey as thoughtfully as you would a high-ABV beer; you’ll notice a breeze of floral vanilla, brown sugar and cloves.