It's easy to take the massive selection of artisan spirits at today's bars and liquor shops for granted, but not long ago it was a different story. "When our organization was founded in 2003," says Bill Owens, president of the craft-oriented American Distilling Institute (ADI), "there were about 60 distilling plants in the United States," "Today we have 240 members and we expect that to grow to 400-450 by the end of 2015."
With this explosive growth has come a newfound passion for inventiveness among spirit makers. Gone are the days when a small distiller would make a standard vodka or gin to pay the bills while waiting for what was essentially a Jack Daniels rip off to mature in a barrel. Today's artful craft distillers are the kind of people that wake up in the night with wild fantasies of what uncharted ingredient they can add to the still—all in the quest to create the next great and deliciously unique spirit.
Below are eight new spirits that perfectly represent distilling's creative ferment. They all incorporate unusual (at least in the spirit-making world) ingredients without sacrificing the high quality you'd expect from top-shelf distillers.
Apple Gin (pictured above; top left)
Distiller: Tuthilltown Spirits
Spirit: Half Moon Orchard Gin
Launched: Spring 2013
Where to get it: Distributed nationally.
What's wild about it: If the world gives you lemons, make lemonade. But if it gives you apples, make gin or vodka. Unlike apple-flavored gins, Half Moon is apple-made gin, the product of freshly picked apples, a fruit widely grown in New York's Hudson River Valley where Tuthilltown brews these smoother, rounder batches.
Ideal in: An apple vodkatini.
Punk Rock Whisky (pictured above; top right)
Distiller: Compass Box Whisky Company
Launched: August 2013
Where to get it: At Delilah's punk whiskey bar in Chicago and in select markets nationally.
What's wild about it: For Delilah's 20th anniversary, owner Mike Miller teamed up with British small-lot Scotch blender Compass Box to create a whisky that would pair well with beer. "Mike wanted a Scotch whisky blend that, in his words, 'thinks it's a bourbon," says whisky maker John Glaser, who chose a combo of single-malt and single-grain whiskies aged in new American oak barrels and in rejuvenated oak hogshead casks. "So you get lovely, intense richness, vanilla character, and sweetness," Glaser says. "It's an unusual style for a Scotch whisky."
Ideal in: Shot and a beer, preferably a craft beer such as Chicago's Off Color Troublesome.
Rhubarb Amaro (pictured above; bottom left)
Distiller: broVo Spirits
Spirit: Amaro No. 04
Launched: July 2013
Where to get it: Woodinville, Washington-based broVo will continue its national rollout of Amaro No. 04 through the end of the year.
What's wild about it: Amaro is a traditional Italian bittersweet herbal liqueur that's so difficult to make well few distillers even try. BroVo's Mhairi Voelsgen says she was trying to add to the company's line of herbal liqueurs when a test batch of rhubarb spirit bombed. "It was not at all good," she admits. So broVo decided to enlist bartenders to use the failed liqueur as a base for amaro, which turned out so well that three of them—including Amaro No. 04, co-created by Seattle mixologist Patrick Haight—are being distributed nationally.
Ideal in: A Manhattan as a replacement for the Vermouth and bitters.
Old Bay Seasoned Vodka (pictured above; bottom right)
Distiller: Philadelphia Distilling
Spirit: Bay Vodka
Launched: March 2013
Where to get it: Eastern seaboard states.
What's wild about it: Philadelphia Distilling infuses its Bay Vodka with a proprietary blend of traditional spices from the shellfish-crazy Chesapeake Bay region, including celery seed, peppers, cardamom, nutmeg and, of course, sea salt. According to Philadelphia Distilling proprietor Andrew Auwerda, "Bay Vodka is perfect for whiling away sunny seaside days in deck shoes, shorts, and polo shirts kissed with the scent of sunscreen."
Ideal in: A Bloody Mary with an extra squeeze of lemon.
Barrel-Aged Cocktail (pictured; top left)
Distiller: High West Distillery & Saloon
Spirit: Barreled Boulevardier
Launched: May 2013
Where to get it: Nationally distributed—or drop in at High West in Park City, Utah.
What's wild about it: Barrel aging has become popular among bartenders who like their creations to mature under the bar before they pour them into a glass. Now High West is mixing, aging for four months, and bottling theirs for retail sale. "Barrel aging adds a rich mouth feel and mellows the ingredients," says proprietor David Perkins. The Boulevardier is a drink created almost a century ago by Erskine Gwynne, nephew of railroad tycoon Alfred Vanderbilt. "Gwynne made his cocktail with one-part Campari, one-part Italian vermouth, and one-part Bourbon," Perkins says. "Ours is a little more whiskey-forward."
Ideal in: On the rocks or shaken and poured in a martini glass with a twist of lemon or orange.
Ginger Gin (pictured; top right)
Distiller: Craft Distillers
Spirit: Russell Henry Hawaiian Ginger Gin
Launched: Spring 2013
Where to get it: Northern California, selected stores nationwide, and online through Caddell & Williams.
What's wild about it: Usually gin is flavored with an assortment of herbs and spices, with juniper being the dominant taste. But there's nothing usual about this ginger gin. Russell Henry gins employ a Cognac pot still and are then distilled a second time in a different still. In this case, the gin is infused with organic white ginger from Kauai to produce an even more complex and flavorful drink.
Ideal in: Make a Sunrise by pouring an ounce of ginger gin, two tablespoons of Aperol, and two ounces of sweet Champagne over a glass of ice. Top with fresh berries and a flower.
Hopped Whiskey (pictured; bottom left)
Distiller: Corsair Artisan Distillery
Spirit: Rasputin American Malt Whiskey
Launches: January 2014
Where to get it: Available nationally.
What's wild about it: Corsair owner Darek Bell likes to add malts and hops common in beer to his whiskies, often firing up his Carter-Head gin still to get more intense flavors. Rasputin malt whiskey starts with Russian imperial stout "first created in Britain to impress the Russian czar," Bell says. Three types of hops—Chinook, East Kent Golding, and Liberty—are added during distillation and then aged six months. "When we distill, we pass the new whiskey vapors through the hops, adding spicy floral notes to the big malt and chocolate flavors of the stout," Bell says."
Ideal in: Rasputin Old Fashioned with simple syrup and grapefruit bitters.
New Jersey Seasonal Fruit Rums (pictured; bottom right)
Distiller: Jersey Artisan Distilling
Spirit: Busted Fruit Rums
Launches: Summer 2014
Where to get it: New Jersey, but expanding quickly to other Northeast states.
What's wild about it: While flavored rums are nothing new, this distillery plans to flavor its dark and silver rum rums with real Jersey-grown fresh-fruit infusions—from strawberries to cherries to figs—instead of processed flavorings.
Ideal in: Rum coolers.