Category Archives: Malternatives

U.S. craft distilleries pass 1,000

It’s official: the number of U.S. craft distilleries in operation has passed 1,000, according to latest assessment by Michael Kinstlick of Coppersea Distilling.

Kinstlick released his updated snapshot of the U.S. craft distilling market today, and the growth he’s tracking continues unabated at a rate of roughly 350 new distilleries per year, with a current in-production total of 1,043:

One of the most interesting trends Kinstlick notes is the predominance of craft distilleries on the West Coast. Washington state in particular has been an overachiever: it went gone from zero craft distilleries in 2006…

craft distilleries by state 2006

…to 94 in 2016–the most in the country. (California and New York are tied for second place with 89 apiece.)

craft distilleries by state 2016

Kinstlick offers some interesting comparisons with the earlier growth trends among craft breweries. While we can expect microdistillery growth to taper off somewhat in the near future as “marginal” players exit the market, don’t jump on the bandwagon when you see the first headline about the “end of craft distilling”:

The craft beer market started seeing exits in the early-90s, just as the craft distillery market is now. Then the number of new entrants continued to dominate until the late-90s/early- 00s when exits went up & entrants declined and predictions were for the “end of craft beer.” And then the number of breweries tripled after 2010.

Thanks to Kinstlick for sharing this latest update. You can sign up at Coppersea for future updates–and check out their delicious spirits too.

Cheers, friends! – BO

Ilegal Mezcal Review

Ilegal Mezcal Joven – Producer: Ilegal. Distiller: Tlacolula Distillery. ABV: 40%. Age: N/A. Price: $40.

Ilegal Mezcal Reposado – Producer: Ilegal. Distiller: Tlacolula Distillery. ABV: 40%. Age: 4 months. Price: $60.

Ilegal Mezcal Anejo – Producer: Ilegal. Distiller: Tlacolula Distillery. ABV: 40%. Age: 13 months. Price: $100.

After some malternative exploration in the cognac vein, it seemed high time to dip into mezcal. Ilegal Mezcal is a great way to do it.

The agave-based spirit is often recommended to scotch drinkers because of its distinctive smokiness, a result of the agave being cooked in an underground pit for several days before distillation.

But smoke alone isn’t enough to convert the whisky crowd, of course–not least because not all scotch lovers are peat freaks. We’re also used to the subtlety, complexity, and depth of flavor that come from a maturation process in oak that can’t be rushed. (Usually.)

Ilegal is a premium mezcal that has all of the above, even in its unaged version. Let’s dive in, shall we?

The Ilegal Joven (unaged) has a bright, fresh nose, sweet and grassy. The smoke is just barely detectable, which is characteristic of the whole line–and may be welcome news for curious scotch drinkers who hew more to Speysides and Highlands than Islays. The palate has bright fresh fruit notes, agave of course, along with apple. There’s a welcome creaminess to the mouthfeel, and a subtly buttery note to go with it.

The smoke starts to emerge–still restrained–toward the finish, along with a hit of roasted coffee. The lack of barrel maturation means it lacks the vanilla and caramel more familiar to whisky-drinkers, but don’t let that get in your way. This is delicious all on its own.

The Ilegal Reposado adds four months of aging in American oak, and with it, additional complexity. There’s a bright, pure sweetness on the nose here too–think just-ripe wild strawberries. Lemon curd. Floral scents, then a toasted coconut note that delivers the subtle influence of the smoke.

The palate is rich, with kumquat, blood orange rind, and sesame cookies with browned bottoms. The finish balances the fruit and smoke, with the strawberry note back for an encore.

The Ilegal Añejo is the richest of the bunch, aged 13 months in American and French oak. It also has the most familiar profile for whisky-drinkers. The nose is a vanilla custard tart with fresh berries, then a drizzle of caramel. The smoke is more pronounced but well integrated. The palate has the most heft and depth of the three. Ripe aromatic fruit mixes with dark chocolate, spice, and delicate smoke. Finish is long and delectable, mixing sweet and savory.

All three of these should put a smile on the face of a whisky lover. Happily for mezcal lovers and the mezcal curious, Ilegal recently signed a national distribution agreement with Southern Wine & Spirits, so this excellent sipper should be a more common sight.

Cheers, friends! – BO

Buy Ilegal Mezcal at Mash + Grape

Ilegal graciously provided samples for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Copper & Kings Blue Sky Mining Brandy Review

Producer: Copper & Kings. Distiller: undisclosed. ABV: 50%. Age: 7 years. Price: $40 for 375ml.

One of the few malternatives that has made its way into the regular Axis repertoire has been the line of extraordinary American brandies by Copper & Kings.

This young Kentucky distiller brings to brandy the same blend of tradition, innovation, and powerful flavors that its neighbors bring to bourbon. From their massive 62% ABV Butchertown to their beer barrel-finished Craftwerk line, they’ve made me think about brandy in a whole new way. I think they can do the same for any open-minded whisk(ey) lover.

Their latest release is the Blue Sky Mining brandy, a 7-year-old brandy distilled from Muscat grapes, matured in reconditioned wine casks, and finished for 30 months in a Kentucky  hogshead. It’s more floral and delicate in profile than C&K’s earlier releases, but the 50% ABV keeps up the intensity.

The nose is bright, fruity, floral. Jasmine and honeysuckle. A little juniper. Golden raisins. Applesauce. Very bright vanilla late on, bordering on the coconut notes from a light whiskey.

Substantial body. The palate starts with strong musky white grape note–that’s the muscat, naturally. The floral notes evolve into perfumed apple blossom. Then applesauce with cinnamon. Medium finish, with warm cedar and oak notes emerging late on.

Deliciously intriguing. A fair distance from Copper & Kings’ previous releases, but like everything else I’ve tried of theirs, a very welcome discovery. Availability will be limited, but K&L Wines has several other C&K offerings on sale and shippable. I’m about to head there to stock up myself.

Cheers, friends! – BO

Copper & Kings graciously provided a sample for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Lost Spirits Abomination and Navy Style Rum Review

Lost Spirits Abomination Single Malt – Producer: Lost Spirits. Distiller: undisclosed. ABV: 54%. No age statement. Price: $50.

Lost Spirits Navy Style Rum – Distiller: Lost Spirits. ABV: 61%. No age statement. Price: $50.

I’ve used the cliche “these guys don’t mess around” about some of the better microdistillers. The thing about Lost Spirits is, they do mess around, constantly–and better than just about anybody.

Founder Bryan Davis is a born iconoclast, a guy who literally vibrates with energy when he presents his experiments. The biggest of those has been the Thea One “flash-aging reactor”–see our feature on it for details.

We at the Axis haven’t been afraid to call BS when we see it, including in the “accelerated maturation” world. But if you’ll pardon the paradox, Bryan’s search for shortcuts takes no shortcuts. And his results put most other “accelerated maturation” efforts to shame.

Which brings us to their latest releases: two Abomination Peated Malts and a new Navy Style Rum.

The Abominations put young, heavily peated malt whisky sourced from Islay through the flash-aging process, together with Riesling-seasoned oak staves. The red-label uses toasted staves, the black-label uses charred.

Both are a big step forward for Lost Spirits malts–and the bar was already high. The nose is bold on both, with a core of BBQ-ey oak notes familiar from virgin oak-matured scotch. Then coconut, lemongrass, and ripe banana. The peat’s strong and brash on the palate, with smoked banana, clove, cooked sugar. At 54% ABV, there’s plenty of room to dial the intensity down if you’d like. I found the complexity grew as I did. The finish is on the sweeter side, with burnt zucchini bread, birch beer, and mesquite briquettes. The red-label gives a more of a toasted-baked-goods cast to this overall profile, while the black-label has stronger vanilla from the heavier char. Both are must-trys for peat lovers.

The rum is my favorite from the distillery so far. Bottled at a huge 61% ABV, it’s sublimely rich and buttery. Both brighter and softer than earlier Lost Spirits Navy Rums. A masterpiece.

All three show Lost Spirits at its best, and are excellent deals at around $50. Keep the experiments coming! Cheers, friends! – BO

Lost Spirits graciously provided samples for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.

Copperworks American Single Malt Review

Distiller: Copperworks. ABV: 52% (Batch 1), 53% (Batch 2). Age: 30+ months. Price: $60.

Since the beginning of the current whiskey renaissance, I can’t think of a whiskey-producing region in the world that has done a better job carving out its own unique identity than the U.S. Pacific Northwest. This is partially due to the region’s long history of craft brewing, but the more recent whiskey distillers have also capitalized on the unique terroir the region has to offer. They also have a climate very similar to the Scottish Highlands. So it makes sense that distillers using locally sourced malted barley and warehouses for aging has resulted in more than a few exceptional American single malt whiskeys.

The first two releases of American Single Malt from Seattle’s Copperworks Distillery are a perfect example of what I love about this region. Their whiskey starts as a craft beer, using Washington pale malts brewed at Elysian Brewery. It is then twice-distilled in gorgeous copper pot stills made in the highlands of Scotland, and finally matured in full-sized 53-gallon new American Oak barrels from the Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville, KY.

The two releases have similar aromas of sweet honey and dark molasses, but the second includes more herbal notes. On the palate, both have a mix of sweet fruit, toasted oak, pepper, and malt, with the malt and spice notes more pronounced in the second. The sweetness continues into the warm finish.

I’m really looking forward to comparing these to future Copperworks releases, along with others from this amazing region. Cheers! – JTR

Copper & Kings Craftwerk Brandy Review

Producer: Copper & Kings. ABV: 55.5%. No age statement. Price: $50.

More magic from Copper & Kings, the Kentucky bourbon-lover’s Kentucky brandy maker. They’re already busy converting bourbon drinkers with their Butchertown barrel strength brandy. Now with their Craftwerk series, they’re about to be the craft beer-lover’s brandy maker too.

The series salutes the “balls to the wall creativity” of four craft brewers by finishing Copper & Kings’ powerful pot still brandy for 12 months in the brewers’ beer barrels: there’s a a Sierra Nevada Smoked Porter, a Three Floyds Brewing Russian Imperial Stout, an Against the Grain Brewery Smoked Scotch Ale, and an Oskar Blues IPA.

The whole line is insanely fun. They invoke Seven Stills‘ beer-finished (and beer-distilled) malt whiskies, but with extra body and ripe fruit from the brandy base.

The Sierra Nevada Smoked Porter finish takes the brandy’s fruit core in a distinctly chocolatey direction. With time and water, you’ll get toasty cookie-bottom notes, together with candied lemon and a slight beeriness on the finish.

The Against the Grain Scotch Ale finish starts with more barrel notes on the nose–oak and cedar–then Tootsie Roll. The smoke comes through on the palate, more pronouced than with the Smoked Porter finish. Very well intergrated. The finish is dark and raisiny, reminiscent of a port-finished bourbon–or even a rye! I found myself in the mind of High West’s excellent Midwinter Night’s Dram.

The Three Floyds Imperial Stout finish starts with a ton of chocolate, darker than the Smoked Porter’s, and drizzled over a Belgian waffle. The palate recalls the Seven Stills Chocasmoke, but with a more substantial body (little wonder at 55.5% ABV). There’s macerated apple peel and baking cocoa on the palate. The beeriness interacts with the cognac fruit in fascinating ways on the finish: is that smoked key lime pie?

The Oskar Blues IPA finish was my least favorite of the bunch, but that didn’t surprise me: overly hoppy IPAs aren’t my favorite in the beer world either. The hops come through here in a way that’ll be familiar if you’ve tried hop-finished whiskies like the Charbay: green and floral and bitter and sweet in a way that strikes me as soapy. If you like the Charbay, though, you’ll likely enjoy this too.

All in all, I’m as impressed by the Craftwerk series as by everything else I’ve tried from Copper & Kings so far. If it’s not in your area, check K&L Wines online–they ship, and they’ve got three of these in stock at the moment, together with the Butchertown and Small Batch American Brandy.

Here’s to the balls to the wall creativity of the good folks in Louisville. Cheers, friends! – BO

Copper & Kings graciously provided a sample for review. As always, our opinions are 100% our own.