Suburban bourbon boom part of growing trend
Small batches of gin, bourbon and other spirits are leading a business growth spurt in Illinois.
Craft distillery licenses have about doubled in Illinois in the past year, and Copper Fiddle Distillery's planned debut in Lake Zurich this week is the latest example of the industry's expansion.
Illinois is part of a national craft distillery boom, which experts say is occurring because of changes in state laws more favorable toward the industry and drinkers wanting something different.
American Craft Distillers Association Executive Director Penn Jensen compares the artisan hard liquor producers to when the craft beer movement was in its early stages.
"I think the first thing (with small distilleries), as with craft beer, it's an expansion of tastes, an expansion of your palate," Jensen said.
Despite the enthusiasm about craft distilleries, Chicago-based whiskey expert Charles K. Cowdery said it's not an easy business, particularly for those who want to make a living at it. He said distillers must be visitor-friendly in location, layout and employees.
"Be hyperlocal. People like the idea of supporting their neighborhood booze-maker. Cultivate that like crazy and don't worry too much about conquering the world," said Cowdery, whose latest book is "Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey."
Hawthorn Woods residents Jose Hernandez and Fred Robinson, with the help of their families, plan to offer gin and bourbon different from the major brands when Copper Fiddle Distillery emerges on the craft landscape Saturday, March 15, on Route 22 in Lake Zurich.
Similar to other small-scale distillers, Copper Fiddle will have a tasting and retail area. Hernandez and Robinson also intend to place their two kinds of gin and bourbon on local retailers' shelves and in Lake Zurich-area restaurants.
Hernandez, 59, who still works as an architect and has immersed himself in small-batch distillery research, said only Midwest grain and barrels are used for Copper Fiddle's products. He said he views the craft distillery business as a last piece in the locavore trend.
"We're going back to doing what people were doing for hundreds of years," Hernandez said. "We're just doing it small and local as opposed to conglomerate and international."
Illinois had 10 or so licensed craft distilleries about a year ago. The most recently available records from the Illinois Liquor Control Commission show there are now 19 licensed craft distilleries, with seven of them in suburban Cook and Lake counties and six in Chicago.
State law limits the small producers to 30,000 gallons of distilled spirits per year. Five craft distilleries were licensed in 2011, a year after a law made the industry possible and allowed on-site direct sales to the public, according to the liquor control commission.
Nationwide, the American Craft Distillers Association projects the number to jump from about 320 to 1,000 licensed operations by the end of 2015. Fewer than 60 craft distilleries existed in the United States in the early 2000s, according to the association.
Florida and Indiana enacted new laws last year that craft distillery proponents said make it easier to open and sell directly to consumers.
"The states are just beginning to realize Prohibition is over," Jensen said.
Although the concept of supporting a local distiller may seem noble, the businesses won't survive unless they offer something different and the products taste good, industry insiders said.
Jeff Walsh is about to seek federal labeling approval for an "American dry" gin he plans to produce for his Windy City Distilling in Wheeling, which isn't yet open to the public. He said the small-scale distillers need creativity because the big spirits companies haven't been sitting still.
"If it's another bourbon like Maker's Mark, then I'd rather buy Maker's Mark," Walsh said.
Jensen said small producers also can try to revive long-dormant recipes, which is the case at a Kentucky craft distillery making Old Pogue bourbon as it tasted more than 100 years ago.
Copper Fiddle's Tom gin will be an example of how a small distillery can offer an uncommon product, the co-owners said. Made with various botanicals, the gin is briefly stored in once-used whiskey barrels to soak up the wood's flavor and color.
Robinson, 62, a golf professional, said he's enthusiastic about his bourbon's potential based on taste-testing results. It's distilled in an old-fashioned copper still from Arkansas in the rear of the 2,100-square-foot storefront in Lake Zurich.
Mirroring Cowdery's advice to not trust the people "who love you and will tell you whatever you do is great," Robinson said the positive feedback he received about the bourbon included independent tasters and a master craft distiller from Michigan.
"This is just my experience, but if I hand it to 30 people and I let 30 people taste the bourbon, 29 of them tell me, 'That is really smooth,'" Robinson said.