Straight, No Chaser

2.3.2011

By Aaron Hicklin

We've grown thoroughly accustomed to the locavore food movement and its holistic approach to regionally sourced ingredients, but lately that movement has begun to colonize a very different industry. Head to your local liquor store, and chances are you'll see something new nestling among the familiar brands. Small-batch producers of gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, and even absinthe are springing up all over America. Their products are often organic and more freewheeling in their inventiveness (Kaffir lime vodka? Check), and their quantities are restricted by economies of scale that make them regional affairs. 'With microdistilleries there's just a lot more passion behind it,' says Elana Effrat, the spirits guru for Dry Dock in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which stocks several local spirits, including the rosemary-hued Breuckelen gin, made from New York State wheat that Wall Street trader turned moonshiner Brad Estabrooke grinds and ferments himself.

In time, some of these distilleries grow legs. Tuthilltown Spirits, in New York's Hudson Valley, and California's Hangar One -- a grape-based vodka line -- are veritable granddaddies of the movement with nationwide distribution. Last fall, Tuthilltown's portfolio of robust whiskeys and bourbons received the ultimate accolade when William Grant & Sons, makers of Scotland's Glenfiddich, acquired it. At the other end of the scale are operations like the Columbus, Ohio, start-up Watershed, which has just launched with a vodka and gin that are available only locally for now. Owner/distillers Dave Rigo and Greg Lehman estimate they went through 15 batches to perfect their clean, citrusy gin. Their water comes from a local spring, and by using corn instead of wheat they are able to label their spirits gluten-free. Like other start-up microdistillers, Rigo and Lehman have found support from more established operations. 'The great thing is how noncompetitive it is,' says Rigo. 'At least right now, it seems like one big happy family.'

Five of the Best Small-Batch Distilleries:

Breuckelen Gin
Based in Brooklyn's Sunset Park, this gin is made from organic New York state grain, and blended with juniper, grapefruit and lemon peel, ginger, and rosemary for a bright, floral complexity.

Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey
Hints of Earl Grey and warm Christmas spices offer an elegant perspective on the true New York whiskey and make for a worthy Manhattan.

Watershed Gin
Columbus, Ohio, distillers Dave Rigo and Greg Lehman ease up on the juniper for an elegant and subtly fragrant gin perfect for a clean, vibrant martini.

Whistlepig
Master distiller Dave Pickerell learned his trade at Maker's Mark before heading to Vermont to join forces with Apprentice-contestant Raj Peter Bhakta for this superbly balanced, soft-on-the-palate 10-year-old 100 percent rye whiskey.

Averell Damson Gin Liqueur
Using small, tart damson plums from New York's Finger Lakes region, Averell's liqueur is great in a gin fizz: three parts gin to one part lemon, stirred with a teaspoon of superfine sugar, and topped off with club soda.

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