Over the last decade, the United States has welcomed a renaissance in the craft distilling world. There are now over 2,000 craft distillers across the nation, each turning out top-quality spirits made by passionate producers. These bottles are highlighting local terroir; making whiskeys out of native grains, gins out of foraged berries and brandies from California grapes.
But what bottles are the best?
This year’s New York International Spirits Competition cataloged the best spirit in every state. The competition is judged by a panel of working trade professionals.
Looking at each state’s award-winners, in California, Cutwater Spirits was awarded the Golden States’s Distillery of the Year. Cutwater Spirits had a good showing in the blind-tasting awards: they also took home Double Gold in the agave/tequila category (one of the few non-Mexican distilleries to do so) and in the rum category. Their ginger beer was awarded a Double Gold in the Mixers: Carbonated category.
The innovative San Diego distillery recently started making waves in the canned cocktail world with award-winning releases like a Long Island Iced Tea. Unsurprising, considering the brand is backed by beer brewing giant Anheuser-Busch.
10th Street Distillery was awarded California’s Whiskey Distillery of the Year and Colt Spirits, the Gin Distillery of the Year.
In New York, Hudson is New York’s Whiskey Distillery of the Year, and High Peaks Distilling is New York’s American Single Malt Distillery of the Year.
Italian-inspired, New York-born aperitivo brand Faccia Brutto took home New York’s Best Liqueur category. The brand launched in March 2020; a bold move in the midst of a global pandemic. But the quirky distiller’s playful branding, sustainable positioning and selections of carefully-crafted amari are positioning the brand as the next New York’s next craft distilling darling.
While these distilleries (and more top distilleries by state are detailed below) should be proud of their achievement, it’s hard to acknowledge these awards without looking into the current state of American distilling.
The Covid-19 pandemic has delivered crushing blows to the industry. With on-premise consumption stopped, craft distilleries are struggling.
A startling new study from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) showed that 41% of craft distillery sales have evaporated. American craft distillers have lost over $700 million in sales because of the pandemic.
With bars, restaurants and many liquor stores completely shuttered over the pandemic period, 40% of craft distillers lost 25% of their wholesale business.
11% said their wholesale sales are now nonexistent.
While the New York International Spirits Awards announcement is enough to drive drinkers to get their hands on these American-made bottles, these statistics should act as a just cause to drink local.
In other big distilling states, Tennessee’s Distillery of the Year is Sevier Distilling Company, a company behind a portfolio of rums, moonshines and honey-distilled spirits. Sugarlands Distilling took home top rye distillery nods, and Albertsons Tennessee Whiskey, noted as the overall Tennessee Whiskey of the Year.
Over in Colorado, Breckenridge Distillery is the Colorado Blended Whiskey Distillery of the Year. Lee Spirits is the top RTD Distillery of the Year and Laws Whiskey House, taking home the Rye category. Whiskey Distillery 291 is the Best Small-Batch Bourbon Distillery in Colorado, and Old Elk Distillery, the Best Wheat Whiskey in the state.
How do you host a spirits competition in this day and age? Generally, these competitions bring in a host of expert judges to run through thousands of blind samples together. But with social distancing rules in place, the New York International Spirits Competition poured the sample bottles into two-ounce containers and sent them to the house-bound judges across the state.
The competition pulled 1,200 spirits from around the world. Around 85-100 spirits to judges were delivered per panel.
Moving into other results across the country: Hawaii’s Rum Distillery of the Year is Koloa Rum; Idaho’s Distillery of the Year is Warfield Distillery & Brewery; Iowa has Templeton; Maryland is home to McClintock Distillery; Massachusetts’ Gin Distillery of the Year is Murr-ma Distilling Co.
Michigan’s whiskey distillery choice is Eastern Kille Distillery while Missouri’s Distillery of the Year is Restless Spirits. Florida’s Distillery of the Year is Kozuba & Sons, while Connecticut’s is Litchfield Distillery.
Nevada’s Distillery of the Year is Bently Heritage Estate; New Hampshire’s distillery winner is Djinn Spirits; New Jersey’s is Milk Street Distillery; Ohio’s is Cleveland Whiskey; and Oregon’s is Gatsby Spirits. North Carolina has both a vodka of the year—End of Days Distillery—and a Whiskey of the Year, from Lonerider Spirits. Bacardi championed the Puerto Rican distillery scene. (A full list of states can be found here.)
But stellar American spirits like these aren’t reaching the audience they should. Since the EU’s retaliatory tariffs were enacted on June 22, 2018 as part of a trade dispute with the European Union, American Whiskey has seen a 33% drop in exports to the EU. With the looming 50% tariff increase in 2021 the EU has scheduled, American craft spirits could reach even fewer drinkers.
Also piled on American craft distillers is the looming tax increase. In January of 2021, the Federal Excise Tax will increase 400%.
Furthering this concern, all of the above distilleries have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Most of the country’s craft distilleries are small businesses: 55% of craft distilleries employ between one and five workers and 45% of craft distillers only operate in their state—only 12% of craft distillers are able to scale up to operate in more than 10 states.
While awards like these shine a light on the excellence of the country’s distillers, without further government support, 2020 may mark the end for many distillers—never has there been a better excuse to drink local.