Beer Brewers Getting into the Liquor Game

When you think of craft breweries like Sweetwater, Dogfish Head, Oskar Blues and the rest, chances are good you’re picturing beer and not much else. That’s what they do, right? They’re breweries. What else is there for them to do? Actually, a number of small breweries are taking things a step further and getting into the distilling business as well. There are plenty of reasons for this, and for many breweries it makes a great deal of sense. Are the spirits produced actually worth your time and money, though?

Why Would a Brewery Start a Distillery?

There are plenty of reasons to get into distilling, depending on the brewery in question. One of the most obvious is that it provides another creative challenge that’s at least somewhat aligned with the brewery’s primary purpose. And make no mistake, that creative challenge aspect is a huge consideration. Craft brewers are almost by their very definition driven to create new and interesting things. They’re not iterating – they’re inventing. They’re going above and beyond what American beer drinkers are used to and many of them would love to do the same thing for spirits that they’ve done for beer.

There are other reasons that a brewery might start distilling their own spirits beyond the creative challenge. For one, distilling liquor is actually a lot easier than brewing beer. Beer has a much lower ABV, which means that it takes less to make a batch go south (think unwanted bacteria, mold, etc.). With a much higher alcohol content, spirits are almost bulletproof, at least against external threats. There’s also not as much worry about sanitation here, either. In brewing beer, microbes can easily turn a batch of beer skunky, but with liquor, the alcohol kills most of those baddies off. That means several things – first, brewers have less effort involved. Second, it means that they have reduced costs.

Yet another benefit here is that most of the equipment needed for brewing beer can also pull double duty in distilling spirits. This includes most of the obvious equipment like fermenters and cask facilities, but it goes deeper than that. For example, yeast facilities and research labs help to create a superior product, which is important. A low-quality liquor from a well-known craft brewery could do significant damage to a successful brand.

All of those factors have encouraged a number of breweries to make the leap, including Dogfish Head, New Holland, Rogue and more.

The Breweries and Their Spirits

We’ll start the discussion with Dogfish Head, as they’re the one with the most recent announcement concerning a new line of spirits. To be clear, this isn’t a new venture for Sam and Co. In fact, their efforts here date all the way back to 2007 and before. Originally, they worked with Mike Gerhart to create rums and vodkas, all of which were produced in small batches with only limited availability. However, the brewery announced in September 2015 they were offering a new line of spirits. They’d whittled and reimagined things down to just three offerings:

  • Dogfish Head Analog Vodka: This vodka is actually made with brewer’s malt, as well as the company’s own yeast (Doggie). According to the website, it’s “a sipping vodka for whiskey drinkers.”
  • Dogfish Head Compelling Gin: This gin bears so little relationship to what’s gone before it’s almost funny. It’s made with both the flesh and rind of citrus fruits, as well as a host of different spices, including the required juniper, as well as cinnamon. 
  • Dogfish Head Whole Leaf Gin: This gin actually ties neatly into Dogfish Head’s roots as a craft brewery. The “Whole Leaf” part of the name comes from the fact that they use whole leaf hops in the distilling process, creating a unique gin that brings hoppy floral notes to the table.

Next up is New Holland. The company’s known for a wide range of different beer styles, including at least one superb stout. However, they also have a whole range of different whiskies on offer. These range from single-malt options to bourbon to wheat whiskey and rye to name just a few. They’ve also got a rum, a vodka and an orange liqueur on offer, as well. 

However, as in so many other things, it was Anchor Brewing that really got this started. They’re probably most famous as the brewery that helped to spur the growth of the craft beer industry as a whole, but they’re also the first craft brewery to start making their own spirts. They’ve been doing it for almost 20 years now, too. Their first offering was a rye whiskey, and they’ve now branched out into several other options, all made in their in-house distillery (which they constructed back in 1993, before many of today’s craft breweries were even in operation). Gin and vodka have also joined the list of spirits distilled by Anchor.

There are plenty of other examples out there. Ballast Point Brewing has their own distilling operation, and more are getting into the act every day. 

Only Drinkers Will Tell…

Will distilling become the norm for craft breweries once they reach a certain size or have the right equipment? Probably not. Not all brewers have a desire to get into liquor distillation. There’s also the varying complexity of liquor laws from one state to another. Finally, there’s the market to consider. In fact, it’s the tastes of drinkers themselves that will determine whether or not many brewers get into distilling (assuming the brewer wants to make the move). 

What about you? Would you buy a liquor from a craft brewer? What breweries would you like to see get into the act, and what types of liquor would you prefer to see made?