Indiana Craft Spirits Are Growing Up: Similarities & Differences with Indiana Craft Beer

Indiana Craft Spirits Are Growing Up: Similarities & Differences with Indiana Craft Beer

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

If you have attended many craft beer festivals in the past two years or so, you have seen an increase in the number of related beverages that are being displayed and tasted. Wineries and cideries are present at most every festival, both as a reflection of craft beverage production and as an alternative for people who might want to try things other than beer. There are even craft soda companies that now participate in festivals.

Another group of craft beverages have also been more conspicuous at Indiana beer festivals recently, the craft distillers. Many brewfests organized by Indiana On Tap in Central Indiana include a whiskey company or other distiller, and they prove popular each time. The increased presence of craft spirits at beer festivals has, as a result, made me more aware of them outside beer festivals too.

Walter (for you new readers, that’s my wife’s nickname; she’s a craft beer guru but loves her bourbon as well) and I see displays in liquor stores, signs on the road, and more bottles behind the bar. Certainly, many of our interactions are beer driven, such as sources of barrels for aging. Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, MI hosted the inaugural Journeyman and Friends festival last year, a brewfest focusing solely on barrel aged beers, most aged in Journeyman barrels. But while we were there, Walter sampled many of the Journeyman spirits, and even I learned a little bit about craft distilling by comparing and contrasting the various effects that different barrels have on beer.

The Indiana Distillers Guild is a new entity that will be organizing Indian spirits events in the future. image credit: Indiana Distillers Guild

Craft spirits are a burgeoning field, not just here in Indiana, but across the country. By looking at these craft products in greater detail, I have noticed some significant parallels between the growth of craft beer and that of craft spirits, as well as some interesting differences. With 160 or more craft breweries in Indiana and only 30 or so distilleries, many commonalities might remain hidden, so I sat down with Jeff Wuslich, co-founder and President of Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington to learn more about the Indiana craft spirits environment.

During our talk more similarities appeared, and the reasons for the differences became clearer. Jeff is the president of the Indiana Distillers Guild, an industry supported entity founded in February of 2017 to address issues that concern distillers across the state and to strengthen the sense of community and cooperation amongst Indiana distillers.

The distillers guild is modeled loosely on the early Brewers of Indiana Guild, where the officers of the guild are also working distillers. The brewers guild has moved on to have full time staff and an executive board of brewers/owners and brewery principals, but the distillers guild is still in its formative stage and hasn’t reached that point yet. However, the guild has already made significant progress in increasing the communication between distilleries and instilling that sense of community.

The distillers have seen the progress that craft beer has made in recent years and the resulting explosion of growth and are looking to reproduce that growth in distilling. Already craft spirits are seeing benefits, with new laws and a large increase in the number of distilleries in the state and nationally. In the near future, the distiller’s guild will be working to improve legislation to put craft distillers on equal footing with wineries and breweries. Jeff told me that issues such as a lack of satellite locations possible for distillers and the ease of moving product around for events prevent craft spirits from progressing as fast as the craft beer or wine industries.

Hotel Tango had to wait three years to open a tasting room, but they took that time to develop a farm to grown the fruits and herbs they add to the spirits. image credit: Hotel Tango

Relationship of craft beer and craft spirits. And yet the craft distilling community is closely tied to craft beer, not just because the two types of beverages have many similarities – liquors are brewed before they are distilled – but because the two communities have people that understand each other and get along very well. Jeff Wuslich counts many brewers and brewery owners as his closest comrades in the industry, and they constantly share ideas, ingredients, processes, advice, and equipment.

Perhaps the most visible link between beer and spirits is the use of barrels for aging beer and, once the beer is removed, for aging spirits again. Wine (both red and white), absinthe, tequila, and rum barrels are all used for flavoring beer, but the kings of the process are undoubtedly bourbon and whiskey. The used barrels impart flavors of both spirit and barrel into the beer, and the result is often a mystery until tasted. Bourbon is probably the most popular now, but I can attest that a citrus gose aged in a tequila barrel is hard to beat.

Stouted whiskeys just reverse the process. After a stout beer is removed from a barrel, whiskey can be added and it will pick up some of the roastiness of the stout. New Holland Brewing started this several years ago (they have their own distillery), and it was later jumped on by Jameson in their Caskmates series. But the merging of distillation and brewing doesn’t end there. Jeff told me about a distilled beer product that Cardinal has done in collaboration with Upland Brewing in Bloomington. Teddy Bear Kisses stout was distilled into Black Bear Bierschnaps, which has proven very popular.

There is more care needed than just throwing the beer into the distillation apparatus, as hops tend to get much more bitter when beer is distilled. This is why distillation of beer to form non-alcoholic versions is often less than successful. But managing the hops in the recipes led to a spectacular result. Jeff thinks that this a fertile ground for future collaboration between beer and spirits, but probably won’t reach the level of barrel aging.

Cardinal Spirits and Upland Brewing worked together to produce Black Bear Bierschnaps, a distilled beer. image credit: Cardinal Spirits

The ability and willingness of breweries and distilleries to work together is just one of the similarities seen between the two art forms. In a small way, craft beer’s increase in popularity and its growth across the country paved the way for the craft spirits boom we are now starting to see, but much of the work has been by spirits on their own. Regardless, it is interesting to see the parallels between making beer and selling beer and spirits in today’s environment.

Similarities between craft beer and spirits. The first similarity between Indiana beer and Indiana spirits is that they both come from….Indiana. Jeff indicated that it isn’t a coincidence that Indiana is having success in both of these areas. Indiana is an agricultural state, with the quality resources to produce good spirits and good beer.

Around these stellar agricultural products have grown quality companies, like Sugar Creek Malt, and willingness of the state to foster such business growth is also a reason for the success of both beer and spirits. But perhaps the most important element is that Indiana consumer appreciate handcrafted products and are quick to support local businesses. Add it all together, and you get strong growth in the craft beverage industries.

Also a similarity, the recent growth of both Indiana-made beer and liquor has been fueled by changes in alcohol legislation. Legislation allowing for on site craft beer sales in the late 1980s was matched by another law in 2013 that allowed craft distillers to serve directly to the public; previously all sales had to go to a distributor. While beer took off slowly in Indiana after the change in laws, craft spirits has blown up in a much shorter time frame.

Sun King is opening a distillery/tasting room in Carmel this spring. It will be the newest Indiana craft distillery. image credit: Sun King

In just the last decade, the number of craft distillers in the US has tripled. I checked out the Brewers Association website and found that in the same time frame, the number of US craft breweries has….tripled, almost exactly. In Indiana, the growth of distillers has been even more dramatic, from just five before 2013 to more than thirty now. That’s a six-fold increase, compared to a two fold increase in breweries during the same period. Of course, the brewery market was much more mature at the same point in time.

Besides abundant growth, Indiana craft beer and Indiana craft spirits seem to have a father. For beer, it was definitely John Hill, founder of Broad Ripple Brewpub. He had homebrewer meetings at The Wellington that sparked brewing in the state, and lobbied for changes in legislation after he founded the Brewers of Indiana Guild. For Indiana craft distilling, the father is a gentleman named Ted Huber. Ted founded the Huber Winery and successfully moved the legislature to allow for craft spirits sales from his family’s Starlight Distillery in Borden.

This leads to another similarity between beer (and wine) and distilling in Indiana, distilleries often spring from their brethren. As expected, many Indiana distillers started their business from scratch, but several others have come as additions to wineries or breweries. The wineries make more sense to me, since distillation of wine (or any fruit based alcohol) is how you make brandy.

But no fewer than half a dozen breweries in Indiana now have their own distilling operations. Cedar Creek is still the only entity that does all three (beer wine, spirits), but it is interesting to note that no Indiana distilleries have subsequently opened up wineries or breweries. Jeff is of the opinion that distillers have larger start up investment and that distilling requires more steps, so they are less likely to expand until much later in their evolution. This difference within a similarity leads us to talk about the things that differ between Indiana craft beer and spirits.

Craft spirits are intricate, but unlike beer, the mega versions are still pretty good. image credit: Oakley Brothers

Differences between Indiana spirits and craft beer. There are just a couple differences between craft beer and distilling in Indiana, but they are important. Jeff pointed one out to me that I had not considered. He said that an advantage that craft beer had in its birth was that people were tired of drinking bad beer (mega beer). Craft beer could sell itself, as long as people were willing to try it – it just tastes so much better.

But mass produced spirits, those from the well-known companies, are good. This makes getting people to switch to a local craft product harder; you have to make a connection on a different level. This would include building a personal relationship with your consumer. Craft beer does that all the time in the taproom. But until 2017, a distillery had to sell their product for three years before they were allowed to open a taproom. How can you build that relationship via the three-tier system?

For spirits, finding a proper price point, marketing to your clientele and building that relationship have been harder to pinpoint up to now. Hopefully this will all even out and people will willing to see what the local industry has to offer and when legislation levels the playing field.

As a craft beer festival geek, perhaps the most glaring difference between craft beer and spirits I see is in the paucity of festivals for spirits tasting. There must be 100 craft beer festivals in Indiana for every spirits festival. Jeff explained that much of this is due to two factors. One issue is that beer and wine are almost served straight from the container, while spirits are served overwhelmingly in the form of cocktails.

image credit: Hard Truth Distillery

Therefore, spirits festivals have tastes of straight liquor, which most people don’t partake in regularly, or batch cocktails that have been pre-made and are therefore limited in scope and style. Handcrafted cocktails, made on the spot and to the consumers’ tastes, are much preferred, but hard to do at festivals.

The second issue is the lower number of craft distillers and the many hoops they must jump through to serve at festivals. These make the prospect of a festival more daunting task and harder to build. Jeff says that distilleries haven’t yet hit that critical mass that will make festivals more abundant. So what do we do? We will rely on an innovative Indiana producer to break through and give us a paradigm shifting spirits festival. And as you might have seen teased on Indiana On Tap, Hard Truth Distilling Co., a sister company of Quaff On! Brewing, is going to give us just such an event in the Midwest Distillers Festival (MWDF) on October 6th. Tickets for this one of a kind festival are available here.

Held at Hard Truth Hills just outside Nashville, IN, this will be the largest purely craft spirits festival in the entire Midwest. Three hundred and twenty-five acres of rolling hills during the height of Fall foliage time, and dozens of distilleries serving the best the Midwest has to offer. Indiana craft spirits deserve nothing less than to have a showcase like MWDF so people can start thinking of the spirits community in the same way they think of Indiana craft beer. Let’s celebrate both their similarities and the differences between craft beer and craft spirits; it’s a win-win for everyone.


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