Craft distillers are creating unique offerings that are gaining in popularity – and just like their beer counterparts, it’s not because of the witty names, it’s all about what’s in the bottle.  For those wanting to try crafted whiskey, vodka, gin or rum, these award winning distillers are a good place to start.

Over the past decade, craft distillers, like craft brewers, have become increasingly popular. According to a recent article in Bar and Beverage Business Magazine, in 2008 there were only 210 craft distillers in America and now there are over 700. They predict that craft spirits will follow the same trajectory as craft beer, thanks partly to an increase in consumption by women and continued popularity of bourbon and whiskey.

Why are craft spirits becoming so popular? Like craft beers, aficionados of craft spirits connect with the philosophy – authenticity, purity, independent owners, locality of product or ingredients, and the passion of the distillers as some of the reasons. Craft beer now represents over 10% of beer sales in the US, whereas the American Distillers Institute estimates craft distillers could see a market share of 8% by 2020, thanks especially to the popularity of whiskey. Speaking of whiskey…let’s take a step way back for a moment…

Ever wonder what the term “a shot of whiskey” came from? We’ve done a little digging, and there are a few popular theories. The first theory: Historians identified the earliest reference in written form was in 1913, appearing in the book “A History of Cass County Indiana from its Earliest Settlement to the present Time“. In the book, author, Dr. Jehu Z. Powell describes a story from around the year 1857, in which townspeople initiated a protest against the opening of a saloon. When the barkeeper received delivery of the first barrel of whiskey, an irate protestor shot a hole through it, promptly draining it of its contents. In the words of Powell,

“The remedy was effectual, and the saloon was not opened, and ever after, when the boys wanted a drink they would ask for a ‘shot of redeye’.”

Another theory refers to the measure of the whisky: the “shot glass” originated as a glass receptacle that would be placed on the dining table, to spit the “shot” that remained in meat. At some point, it became a measure for whiskey. (Maybe when they got better at taking the bullets out of the meat before it hit the table :)).

Lastly, (by what we’ve read this is the least favourite theory of the masses), years ago, in the wild wild west, a bullet cost the same amount as a measure of whiskey, and the bartender would accept a bullet or cash for payment – and thus a ‘shot of whiskey’.

Now that the education (we use that term loosely) segment is over, we shall move on to the winners. The following is the ‘best of class’ segment of the winner list from the recently held 3rd Annual American Craft Spirits Awards. The American Craft Spirits Association is made up of independent licensed distillers and these awards are particularly important because the judges are their peers.

Best Of Show Award – Maggie’s Farm (Allegheny Distilling) Single Barrel Rum.

This amazing rum beat out entrants from whiskey, vodka, rum, brandy, and liqueur categories from over 400 distilleries.  Maggie’s Farm is independently founded, and the first producer of a commercially-available craft rum in Pennsylvania dating back to Prohibition, if not before.  The winning gold 90 proof rum, with flavors of vanilla and caramel, was distilled on a Spanish made copper potstill and aged in 10 gallon rum casks at the distillery, which is located behind their cocktail bar in Pittsburgh.  Maggie’s has some recipes posted on their website that you can make yourself, and a pub if you don’t feel like making your own drinks, because, you know, that’s sometimes just too hard after a long day…

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Image Source: edibleallegheny.ediblefeast.com

Best of Class:  Whiskey – Still630 Double Barrel Rally Point.  

On Still630’s website, the creation of the award winning whiskey is described by owner David Welglarz, “Double Barrel started life as one of our flagship RallyPoint single barrels.  But when I tasted it, I knew it was special.  So I set aside 15 gallons and gave it a secondary aging (hence: double barrel) in a new, charred 15 gallon American oak barrel.  It sat in this second barrel for an additional nine months, slowly picking up new oak flavors and strengthening the delicious rye notes and sweetness.  At about 3 years old, not only is this the oldest spirit that we’ve yet released, but it is also the strongest as we’ve left it at cask strength, which is a stout 119.4 Proof.” Definitely a sipping whiskey 🙂

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Image Source: http://still630.com/products/double-barrel-rallypoint/

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Image Source: http://still630.com/products/double-barrel-rallypoint/

Best of Class:  Gin – Barrel Aged Knickerbocker, New Holland Artisan Spirits.  

This aromatic 85 proof Gin is twice distilled, and is infused with over a dozen various herbs, spices, and fruity infusions of juniper, lemon and orange zest, providing a burst of flavor with a clean, dry finish.  Brewer of both beer and spirits, New Holland offers tours of their facility departing directly from their tasting room –  which is located next to their pub.  How convenient!  Jump on that.

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Best of Class:  Vodka – Fugu Vodka, Ballast Point Spirits.  

Using a selection of the world’s finest grains and distilled 15 times, Ballast Point describes their 80 proof vodka as ‘true precision’.  Starting off as a craft beer brewer, Ballast Point has expanded into spirits, and now has five California locations, with tours and tastes to be enjoyed!

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Image Source: http://www.ballastpoint.com/spirits/vodka/

Best of Class:  Distilled Spirits Specialty – Barrel Aged Blueberry Liqueur by Huber’s Starlight Distillery.  

This liqueur is distilled from fresh pressed blueberry juice, then aged in old red wine barrels for 5 – 10 years.   The result is a flavour of vibrant blueberry with nutty notes, combined with complex oak from the barrel aging process.  A great post-dinner choice or with your favorite Brie or other creamy cheeses.  Huber’s, located in Indiana, has recently expanded the distillery and offers tours.

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Image Source: http://www.huberwinery.com/product/blueberry-liqueur/

To see all of this year’s award winners, check out American Craft Spirits website.