Actually, It Makes a Lot of Sense That Craft Brewers Are Also Distilling Spirits

By Matt Osgood
Dogfish Head may be one of the more recognizable craft breweries in America, but there was a time when its Rehoboth Beach outfit made it the smallest brewery in the country. After the 90 Minute IPA became a cult favorite, owner Sam Caligione suggested the company “do more,” according to James Montero of Dogfish Head Distilling Co.

And so on the second floor of Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats, the company fashioned a stainless-steel still, where it created off-centered spirits like a peanut butter vodka. In 2014, spirits production moved to the bigger DFH facility in Milton, Del.
“We have the fortune of being afforded the patience to do things the right way,” Montero says. “We focused on three components. One, doing things at the highest level of quality; two, make sure our product was consistent; three, being able to do things in an off-centered, differentiated way.”

Now, hybrid brewery-distilleries are on the rise across the country. From an award-winning spirits offshoot of a winery-turned-brewery on the western shores of Nantucket, to major craft beer players like Dogfish Head and Ballast Point, brewers are embracing the hard stuff.

It’s partially thanks to logistics. More spirits licenses are being awarded to small operators, Montero says, at a rate similar to that of brewery licenses being doled out in the past decade.

Expanding brewing operations to include distillation also makes good business sense. Modern consumers are equal-opportunity drinkers, opting for beer one day, cocktails the next, and maybe some wine with dinner. Gone are the days when beer enthusiasts only drank IPAs or lager — though we do still love those.

It’s not all capitalism and cocktails, though. Breweries like Dogfish Head, Rogue, and Cutwater see spirits production as a way to continue their well-recognized company ethos of innovation. Others, like Nantucket’s Cisco and Mother Earth in North Carolina, view craft distilling as a way to provide a sustainable, local offering to their communities.
Rogue’s spirits lineup currently consists of three whiskeys and two gins — “what we do really well,” says Jake Holshue, who until this past June was in charge of the distillery at Rogue Ales. The botanicals for the gin are grown in-house and Rogue has begun to establish its own cooperage, building its own barrels from Oregon oak.

Rogue uses a method it calls “ocean aging” on its spirits production. Given the company’s proximity to the coast, plus an unusual climate that never gets too hot, yet never freezes, Rogue’s distillers use data logs to compile evidence on things like barometric pressure, and use the nature around them to extrapolate flavor from their barrels.

“We’ve found that high salinity in the air softens the contribution [of the oak in the barrels],” Holshue says. “It’s a unique set of aging conditions that more closely replicate a place like Scotland.”

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