Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

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State 38 Distilling: The House Built on Agave

Designed by Gail Sands

From the early 2000s, “Tequila” and “mezcal”—Mexico’s most famous agave spirits—have experienced significant growth in popularity and consumption in the United States. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS), imports of Tequila into the US have grown by 92% since 2002. In 2014, Tequila sold 13.8 million cases in the US, 6 million cases less than all Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey. Given this growth, it is no surprise that US craft distillers have tried their hand at agave spirits. However, there are a couple of significant differences from Mexican and US agave spirits. First, while a few US distillers have tried to mirror the Mexican process of making agave spirits from whole piñas, the vast majority simply uses agave syrup. Second, US distillers cannot call their spirits Tequila or mezcal because
those are protected terms that refer to specific appellations of origin.

Despite difference in production and naming from their Mexican counterparts, a number of US craft distillers have brought agave spirits to market. For most US distillers of agave, their agave spirits often sit on the fringe of their portfolio, often playing 2nd or 3rd fiddle to some other brown spirit made from grain or sugar. State 38 Distilling however, is quite different. State 38’s entire portfolio of spirits, including their vodka and gin, are fermented and distilled from agave.

Sean Smiley, owner and head distiller of State 38, is not the most obvious candidate for creating the US’s only all-agave distillery. Smiley is a petroleum and process engineer who started by home brewing before he decided to open a distillery. But, unlike many former home brewers turned distillers, he did not make the obvious transition into whiskey. His choice to focus on agave seems even more strange in Colorado, the 38th state to join the union, and bursting with craft whiskey; and in Golden, of all places, with its long  association with the Coors Brewing Company.

Smiley explained that even though he tried making whiskey and rum, he did not think either were as intellectually challenging or interesting in their flavor profile as agave. Part of the challenge he faced during product development was to find a yeast strain that could fully attenuate agave syrup and give him a flavor profile he liked. He pitched his yeasts at a specific gravity of 1.070 and noticed that most quickly drop to 1.040 SG, but stalled out and would not attenuate much beyond that. Incidentally, Vapor Distillery (formerly Roundhouse Spirits), ran into a similar problem, which is partly why they suspended production of their Tatanka American Agave Spirit. However, Smiley persisted. After experimenting with 45 different strains, Smiley found his ideal yeast.

The Young Ace, reposado agave spirit, The Clever Jack blanco agave spirit and The Pious Queen vodka are part of the agave-centric spirits line distilled at State 38. The distillery also makes an agave-based gin. Photo courtesy of State 38 Distilling

All of State 38’s spirits start off as Fair Trade 100% Organic Raw Blue Agave syrup, which Smiley buys from Mexico. The syrup is separated into a half dozen or so 55-gallon stainless steel drums and diluted to 1.070 SG before he pitches his yeast. Smiley explained that because the agave was naturally
rich in minerals, he did not need to add nutrients to the fermentation. Once the yeast is pitched, the drums are wrapped with an insulating blanket to help maintain their temperature.

When fermentation has finished, the contents of a drum are transferred to the first of Smiley’s 250-gallon still that Smiley built from a used milk pasteurizer.

Both State 38’s Vodka and Gin are triple distilled. State 38’s vodka is stripped and then gets two passes through Smiley’s finishing still with its 6-plate column. After the third distillation, the vodka is proofed down, filtered and bottled. The gin, however, takes a slightly different path. For the third distillation, Smiley fills a vapor basket with Colorado juniper and a number of other gin botanicals. Once the gin has been vapor infused, it rests in a new charred oak barrel for one month before it is proofed down and bottled. Until recently, Smiley’s vodka was the only agave-based vodka sold in the US but, so far, no one else is distilling an agave-based barrel rested gin.

All of State 38’s agave spirits are twice distilled and matured in full-sized, new American white oak barrels with a #3 char from Independent Stave. After the finishing run, Smiley fills one of his barrels and lets it sit. His blanco agave spirit typically rests for five days before the barrel is emptied, proofed, filtered
and bottled. Meanwhile, Smiley’s reposado and anejo agave spirits mature for two months and 12 months, respectively, before they are bottled. Given all the media attention about the existence or non-existence of a barrel shortage, Smiley’s maturation schedule for his four aged spirits seemed like it
would burn through new barrels pretty quickly. However, he explained that, given the current after market for barrels, it is actually more cost effective for him to buy new barrels, use them once and then sell them to local breweries who use them two or three more times.

Sean Smiley and his wife Jessie show off a 250-gallon still that he constructed from a milk pasteurizer. Jessie went into labor a few hours after this picture was taken and their son Jordan was born in the wee hours of the next day. Photo © Bill Owens

Like many small distilleries around the county, State 38 is growing their business because people in their local market like what they taste. Their tasting room, modeled after an 1870s mining town saloon, does a good job of introducing drinkers to the idea of US agave spirits. Their Agave Reposado
has the distinct vegetal notes that one associates with a young, or lightly aged, Tequila. Its flavor profile, balanced finish and bottling strength of 90 proof, make the reposado an excellent candidate for margaritas. The Agave Anejo is likely to appeal to whiskey fans, or those drawn to extra-anejo Tequilas. Sitting in a new charred barrel for 12 months, the agave picks up a
ton of barrel notes. The palate is full of vanilla, caramel and sweetness, with an underlying note of green agave. Bottled at 80 proof, State 38’s Agave Anejo is a very smooth and tasty spirit worth sipping slowly throughout an evening.

Unbound by Tequila or mezcal’s legal definitions, Smiley plans to add complexity to his agave spirits by blending different varieties of agave syrups. While Smiley currently uses syrup from blue agaves, this past summer he purchased the remaining maugey organic agave syrup from Vapor Distillery. Maugey is a variety of agave, which traditionally has been used to make a low alcohol “beer-like” beverage in Mexico. Smiley stated that, when distilled, maugey has a fuller and earthier character compared to blue agave. He believes that a blend of maguey and blue agave will layer new flavors and add nuance, similar to the way that whiskey or brandy distillers use multiple varieties of grains or grapes to create flavor profiles.

State 38 has helped break new ground in the US with their range of agave spirits. Smiley and a handful of other craft distillers around the country have successfully demonstrated that agave spirits can be much more than just Tequila. US Agave spirits produced from syrup, like Smiley’s, are helping
to define the character of a new category of spirits. It will be interesting to see how the category grows as a whole, but if the history of the craft distilling industry is any indication, innovation will be the norm.

Origionally published as part of the "Defining Craft" series in Distiller Magazine (Winter 2015): 106-111.

Distillery Tourism on the Rise: Big Benefits for Local Communities

Eighty-two years ago, when
Prohibition was repealed, laws
treated distilleries as industrial factories producing goods for a national market, not as local producers of artisan spirits. Laws establishing the three-tier and state control distribution systems after repeal did not take into consideration that small-scale distillers would want to sell spirits direct to consumers in their local market. At the time, there was no real reason for states to consider such a thing. Both before and after prohibition, the distilling industry experienced a period of significant consolidation. It wasn’t until 1982, nearly half a century after prohibition’s repeal, that Jörg Rupf and Hubert Germain-Robin (together with Ansley Coale) founded the first two micro-distilleries and inaugurated the craft-distilling renaissance.

Until recently, most new craft distilleries were built without tasting rooms because state laws prohibited small distillers from offering samples or selling spirits direct to consumers. However, as the number of small distilleries has continued to grow and consumers have demanded greater freedom to interact with producers, state laws have begun to change. Distillers of all sizes know—and state legislators have started to realize—that allowing consumers direct access to taste and buy spirits from the source increases more than just a distillery’s profitability. Tasting rooms selling samples, bottles and even cocktails made with their spirits has a multiplier effect that spreads through local and state economies.

Although the current national boom in the popularity of bourbon has been
good for Kentucky, distillery tourism in the Bluegrass State has had a significant and positive impact on the state’s economy. In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) founded the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with six distilleries. Today the tour has nine heritage distilleries and another nine distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. Visitors are allowed to sample bourbon and purchase bottles. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail drew 627,032 individual visits to member distilleries, and the Craft Tour an additional 96,471 visits in 2014. In the economic impact report released in 2014, KDA estimates that 73% of the visitors on the trail come to Kentucky specifically to visit distilleries. Based on the approximately 15,000 visitors that turned in their passports annually, KDA estimates that bourbon tourism generated more than $5 million in lodging, transportation, meals and other purchases. Out of that, about $615,000 went to state and local governments in the form of sales taxes, lodging taxes, income taxes and payroll taxes. That $5 million also supports about 104 jobs state wide, for a total increase in economic activity of $7.5 million. With individual distilleries on the Craft Tour reporting estimates of 20,000 visitors annually, it is likely the overall economic impact is far greater.

In New York State, distillery tourism is growing in popularity and the economic benefits are reaching far beyond the money tourists spend on lodging, transportation and meals. In 2007, New York passed the Farm Distillery Act, which allowed small-scale distillers to produce 35,000 gallons of liquor per year, offer three samples of their spirits, and sell bottles directly to consumers as long as at least 50% of the agricultural products used to make the spirits were grown in New York. This law opened the door for distillery tourism and similar economic benefits in lodging, transportation, meals and other retail purchases seen in Kentucky. However, by tying the law to the use of stategrown agricultural products, the economic effects of distillery tourism have 28 distiller multiplied across New York’s agricultural sector and a number of supporting industries. Christopher Williams, chief distiller, blender and distillery manager for Coppersea Distilling, explained that when he started, there was no way to buy New York-grown and malted barley. In response, Williams worked with a local farmer to grow the type of barley and rye needed for his whiskeys, and then he malted it himself. That local farmer is now one of the largest suppliers of New York-grown barley used by brewers and distillers in the state. Instead of growing low-quality grains for animal feed, which has a low market value, the farmer can charge a premium for high-quality grain used by brewers and distillers.

Coppersea, ever committed to using local and sustainable practices in the creation of their spirits, has even partnered with a New York cooperage to  create barrels from New York-grown white oak. By including a mandate for the use of New York-grown agricultural products, the state has fostered an environment that has spawned dozens of new businesses, which in turn have created a new pool of good paying jobs, for workers who pay taxes and recirculate their earnings in the local economy.

In 2014, the farm distillery law was amended to allow farm distilleries to serve full pours of their spirits as well as cocktails. The state also increased the total allowable production to 75,000 gallons annually and increased the mandate
for state-grown produce from 50 to 75%. These new amendments will allow New York farm distillers to increase their profitability from distillery tourism, and multiply its effects through increased demand for state-grown agricultural products, locally produced malt and even New York-coopered barrels.

Seeing the increase in economic activity and tax revenue from profitable craft distilleries, a number of states are starting to adopt laws that encourage distillery tourism. About a dozen states now allow craft distilleries to open one or more satellite tasting rooms from which they can sample their spirits, serve cocktails, and even sell their spirits by the bottle for off premise consumption. Such tasting rooms increase a distillery’s exposure and allow consumers to taste spirits in the way most people are used to, as  cocktails. The increased exposure not only improves profitability of a distillery, but a satellite tasting room can bring vitality to a new neighborhood as well as added jobs with all of the associated benefits.
In New Mexico, craft distillers such as Santa Fe Spirits are allowed to operate
two satellite tasting rooms. Even though their distillery is located on the far west side of town, Santa Fe Spirits is able to have a lovely tasting room downtown that sells individual samples, flights of samples, cocktails and bottles for customers to take home. This location also has a back room that can be rented out for private tasting events and seminars where groups can learn about the products that Santa Fe Spirits makes. Molly Norton, the  former tasting room manager at Santa Fe Spirits, explained that they were allowed to serve and sell any New Mexico-produced spirit, which increased the variety of cocktails they could serve and helped promote the entire local industry.

Despite the advantages states have garnered from promoting their local distilling industry, a number of states, including California, have been slow to act, resulting in a number of negative consequences. Until recently, distilleries in California were not allowed to have tasting rooms or to charge for samples. St. George Spirits found an expensive workaround by partnering with separate on-site companies to operate a bar to serve their spirits and a liquor store to sell bottles. However, most distilleries don’t have the space or level of customer interest to entice another company to invest in expensive liquor licenses to sell a single brand. On January 1, 2014, California enacted legislation that allows distilleries to conduct paid on-site tastings. While that increased the opportunity for promotion, the sale of six ¼ oz samples proved to be small victory.

Currently before the California state legislature is AB 1295, which would allow small California distillers to serve cocktails and sell up to three bottles per person per day. Distilleries would even gain the ability to operate a full-service restaurant selling their spirits. This bill has the potential to put California’s small-scale distillers fully back into competition with other states with robust laws encouraging distillery tourism.

Until then, California, Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota all prohibit direct bottle sales and, in general, have some of the most restrictive laws for small-scale distillers. This restrictiveness does nothing to protect public safety or limit the abuse of alcohol. Instead, these laws work against the states’ interests to create jobs, generate tax revenue, and support local agriculture. Meanwhile, states including Kentucky, New York and New Mexico have demonstrated that, by enacting laws that promote distillery tourism, there are clear economic benefits and no increase in the social ills commonly used as excuses to limit the production, sale and consumption of alcohol. 

Originally published in Distiller Magazine (Fall 2015): 27-28