What Is a Craft Distillery? +History of Craft Liquor Distilling

What Is a Craft Distillery? +History of Craft Liquor Distilling
March 5, 2020 Levi Olmstead

Many alcohol consumers, especially millennials, have moved away from big-name beer and liquor producers toward more niche and craft options in recent years. People today want a variety of options and they like to make informed buying decisions.

What we’ll cover in this craft distilling guide:

By now, most of us are familiar with craft beer and breweries, but the focus on transparency, quality, and personality that we see from this industry isn’t limited to beer. Craft distilled liquors are also surging in popularity. But what exactly does that mean?To start, let’s define distillation or distilling.

What is Distillation?

Distillation is the process of taking a fermented alcohol base and making it ‘harder’. During fermentation, yeast takes sugar and separates it into alcohol at CO2, but at a certain point, the yeast can’t survive very high amounts of alcohol. So, to make a hard liquor or spirit, a second step is necessary. Distilling takes it to that next level, separating additional alcohol out with evaporation and condensation.


What Is Craft Distilling?

So, what makes distilling ‘craft’? This word typically describes a  food or drink which is made by a small company or an individual in a traditional or non-mechanized way.

Generally, to be considered a craft liquor, it should have at least a few of the following characteristics: smaller batch size, produced by a small independent business, high-quality products, associated with authentic values, and produced through relatively traditional methodologies.


Above: The craft liquor lineup from Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington, Indiana.

There is no federal definition for production limits for a distilled liquor to be considered craft, so guidelines are mostly determined by the state a given distillery is located in. Much of the time, the distribution of a given craft liquor is also limited to a certain geographic area.

What Is the History of Craft Distilleries?

The art and science of distilling itself go back way further than you might think. At the very beginning is evidence for very basic distilled liquors made in Asia from things like Rice and Milk. Later, knowledge of early distilling made its way to Greece, and then really kicked into high gear when it reached Persia. 

Alembic Distilling 

Alembic, the name of the pot used in this type of distilling, is the oldest known method of distilling as we know it today. This process dates back to about the 8th century and is widely attributed to the Arabic Alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan.

In Alembic distillation, the already-fermented base liquid is heated up until the ethanol in that liquid evaporates and is routed into a separate vessel.


Above: Example of the Alembic Distilling process.

Column Distilling

By the 19th century, column distilling evolved out of a desire for a quicker method. In this process, the fermented base is continuously injected into a tall column to be met with rising steam.

The temperature of the steam is controlled precisely to separate out the alcohol and undesirable compounds. column distilling does not require cleaning between batches and its continuous nature allows for repeated distilling, making the entire process much more efficient.


Above: A visualization of how a column still works.

Craft Distilling Today

The development of column distilling eventually led to the rise of commercial distilling, and later, to the renaissance of small-scale spirit distillation. This rise hasn’t looked much like the craft brewing boom, though. A couple of big reasons for this are that it’s still illegal to home-brew liquor and that startup costs are significantly higher than for breweries. 

Today, craft distilling is an exciting, growing industry with new businesses popping up all over the place. With so many eager to latch onto the trend, some companies are more loyal to the ideals of craft production than others. For instance, some companies market their products as if they were produced grain-to-glass even when their products might be better described as ‘blended’, with the spirit being industrially produced and then infused or otherwise altered prior to sale. Many larger distilleries have also created “craft” entities and branches.

To keep things in check amidst all this excitement, groups like the American Distilling Institute and the American Craft Spirits association have formed. They have come up with their own definitions for what makes a craft liquor, including production limits as well as company values, and award certifications to producers that apply and meet the requirements.

10 Examples of Popular Craft Liquors in 2020


1. Clear Creek Distillery

Location: Portland, OR

Producing high-quality spirits made from local fruits, Clear Creek Distillery opened its doors in 1985. This distillery makes traditional European Brandy as well as liqueurs and single malt whiskey.


2. Koval Distillery

Location: Chicago, IL

Koval Distillery is a couple-owned business that produces organic whiskey, liqueurs, and specialty spirit that prides itself on producing its spirits from grain to bottle.


3. Death’s Door Spirits

Location: Middleton, WI

This distillery’s mission is to work with local farmers to produce Death’s Door Spirits including Gin, Vodka, Whiskey, and Wondermint.


4. Few Spirits

Location: Evanston, IL

Few Spirits is the first distillery ever to open in Evanston, IL, which was the birthplace of the Temperance movement and a dry city for nearly a century. Named for suffragist and prohibitionist, Frances Elizabeth Willard, they produce grain-to-bottle bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey, and gin.


5. 619 Vodka

Location: San Diego, CA

This award-winning vodka distillery is San Diego’s first-ever craft distillery. 619 Vodka also has a tasting room and restaurant which are open to the public.


6. Ironroot Republic Distillery

Location: Dennison, TX

Since 2014, Ironroot Republic Distillery has produced whiskey, gin, vodka, and moonshine on-site. They pride themselves on their local, high-quality, and non-GMO ingredients.


7. St. George’s Spirits

Location: Alameda, CA

Since 1982, St. George’s Spirits has been producing single malt whiskey and absinthe in addition to gins, vodkas, brandies, and liqueurs in California. This craft liquor producer was born of its German founder’s desire to make Brandy through artisanal methods he brought with him from the Black Forest.


8. Wicked Dolphin Distillery

Location: Cape Coral, FL

This Florida-based rum distillery was founded in 2012. Wicked Dolphin Distillery also makes its rum with local ingredients in an American copper pot still.


9. Long Road Distillers

Location: Grand Rapids, MI

This distillery produces vodka, brandy, and whiskey in addition to other liqueurs and botanicals with ingredients sourced from West Michigan. Long Road Distillers have three locations in Michigan with full kitchens as well, providing visitors with a deliciously well-rounded experience.

Great Women Spirits Logo

10. Great Women Spirits

Location: Geyersville, CA

A branch of the Coppola family produces these spirits with water from their Napa Valley Estate. Each of their liquors is crafted to honor the character of different women trailblazers.

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