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American Craft Spirits Celebrates The Uniqueness Of Place

Matt Colglazier turned a passion for spirits into something more with American Craft Spirits website. He takes us on a tour of some small American distilleries.

pouring whiskey into a glass and Matt Colglazier

Photo: Sarah Kaiser/WFIU

Matt Colglazier has been passionate about craft spirits for years but he just recently turned his hobby into something more serious with his website American Craft Spirits.

Matt Colglazier wanted to turn his passion for craft spirits into something more serious, and in July 2010, he found himself itching for a summer project. He started the website American Craft Spirits, where he publishes reviews of liquors made by small producers and conducts interviews with the folks at the heart of this new movement. In the beginning, he had to do the leg work to get samples to taste. Now, he has producers knocking on his door to review their spirits.

The Beginning Of A Movement

The microdistill movement is gaining popularity across the country, just like the microbrew movement of the 1970′s. Being labeled a craft distillery means they are using 100 gallon or smaller stills, and many of these small producers are making spirits with local corn, grain and fruit.

Since the movement is so young, Colglazier is reluctant to stick to one hard and fast definition. “I don’t want to create a definition that’s going to exclude people before the movement has even taken off.”

This kind of open-minded thinking has led him to try samples of spirits sent to him in test tubes labeled with a Sharpie. And he doesn’t think twice about it. In fact, he likes that there is no marketing intermediary between the customers and the producers. “This is the level at which a lot of them are working on a day-to-day basis. They’re filling bottles and they’re testing to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Pleasure Of The Experience

bottles of liquor and glasses on a table

Photo: Sarah Kaiser/WFIU

Matt Colglazier's basement holds hundreds of bottle of craft spirits, including Cane and Abe Freshwater Rum, from Old Sugar Distillery in Madison, Wisconsin.

Colglazier tastes all the spirits straight up, not on ice, because he assumes the producers want him to taste their product at proof, as it comes from the distillery. “It’s just like your body; if you get cold, everything comes in closer and you tense up. Spirits are the same way.”

However, some spirits like absinthe, require some extra love. In the traditional ritual of preparing absinthe, a sugar cube is placed on a perforated spoon over top of the liquor. Cold water is dripped onto the sugar cube, dissolving it into the liquor. The sugar cuts the bitterness of the absinthe, and the water turns the liquor a milky green.

Colglazier sampled the Vieux Carré Absinthe Supérieure from Philadelphia Distilling. The initial anise flavor can be off-putting for someone not a fan of a liquorish taste, but his palate finds a multitude of additional flavors: “mint (think julep) and lemon, light loam just barely touched by warm rain, which on the finish pulls in like wind after April storms.”

It’s this idea of going to a deeper level with the alcohol that draws him into craft spirits. “To me, the pleasure of it is not the alcohol being delivered into my body. I want there to be an experience there.”

Vodka With A Twist

Vodka is an attractive spirit for craft distilleries to make because it doesn’t have to age; it doesn’t have to sit in a barrel for up to three years not making money. So, as soon as it runs off the still, it can be bottled, shipped and sold.

But, vodka made with maple syrup?

Only in Vermont!

“Legally speaking,” Colglazier explains, “vodka is supposed to be odorless, colorless, and flavorless, but everybody knows that’s not true.” This is especially not true with Vermont Spirits Gold. The sugar source they make the distillate out of is maple syrup, and it is evident in the nose and the taste.

Personalizing The Spirits

Applejack Whiskey and a glass

Photo: Sarah Kaiser/WFIU

This whiskey is from the Hudson Valley in New York, where they certainly have a lot of apples.

Drinking locally was very common a couple hundred years ago, as there used to be thousands of stills producing bourbon all over the country. “Anyone who was involved with grain,” Colglazier says, “if you had an excess, it was easier to turn that into a spirit and carry it and sell it than it was to have it rotting in a silo somewhere.”

Harvest Spirits’ Applejack Whiskey is made from New York apples. It is aged in oak barrels, which gives it a caramel flavor. That, in addition to the pronounced apple taste, would make this spirit nice with a slice of apple pie.

“With whiskey,” he says, “you have more of a hand after you’ve messed with the grain to create flavor.” It’s this sort of personal touch that Colglazier believes draws people into distilling. “They want to make something, and I think that desire never goes away for people.”

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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