The craft spirits movement is rolling along at full force with whiskey at its fore, and so far, everyone from sot to snob has had a chance to weigh in on its merits. Isn’t it about time we heard what whiskey had to say for itself? The short film I, Whiskey: The Human Spirit was created to tell the story of this indomitable spirit from inside the barrel out by detailing the intricate network of skilled people whose work goes into making, as the film’s title suggests, “the human spirit”.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a “free market” group who advocates and creates marketing plans for the public policy proposals that support “the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty”. They are perhaps best known for the advocacy they have done in opposition to regulations meant to curb global warming.
The point of “I, Pencil” was to describe through the production of a pencil the unavoidable and beneficial “interconnectivity of the global marketplace”, which allows for complex production to occur with a so-called “invisible hand”. The pencil itself marvels at “the absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being.”
I, Whiskey quickly abandons the first person narrative of I, Pencil and its focus on market interconnectivity to instead expound upon the recent growth of craft spirits through the relatively new “free market” in the distilling world, which is available because of state by state deregulation.
Until very recently, due to cost and burdensome over-regulation that is still a fallout from Prohibtion, it was extremely difficult for a person to open a small-scale, local distillery. In the past fifteen years or so, most states across the country have loosened their laws to allow for different types of distilling licenses which are less complex and more affordable to the small businessman.
I, Whiskey also doesn’t linger on the idea from I, Pencil, that there’s an invisible hand at work in the production of whiskey. In fact, it highlights one of the leading hands in the craft spirits movement, Rick Wasmund, owner and Master Distiller at Copper Fox distillery in Sperryville, Virginia, one of the oldest of the recent boom of whiskey makers in the U.S.
Wasmund is passionate and charismatic about his chosen trade. In 2000, his passion brought him to Scotland where he interned at Bowmore distillery. He brought the knowledge of distilling and malting he learned at Bowmore back home where he began an approach to distilling, according to his website, with a “combination of innovation and tradition to produce a whiskey that is truly unique”. He malts his own barley. But instead of flavoring the grain with smoked peat like they do in Scotland, he flavors his with smoked applewood and cherrywood. This is but one great example of innovative whiskies that are being produced all over America.
These innovations were unheard of in the whiskey world 20 years ago. Through Wasmund the film demonstrates the freedom to innovate that has become available to small producers out of the necessity to differentiate themselves from big whiskey producers. This has a direct impact on the consumer by providing a wider choice of products than ever before available. One could even argue that the innovations being successfully launched by the small producers like Wasmund are having a real influence on the big whiskey manufacturers too who are reacting to the sudden desire for choice by releasing new, more innovative products themselves.
The film also shows the effect the newly opened market in production has had on enterprise throughout the economy by featuring the famed Washington D.C. whiskey mecca Jack Rose Dining Saloon, a bar which features no fewer than 2,687 different whiskies at the time of publication.
The owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon is Bill Thomas, an avid whiskey collector with booze business in his blood. He says, “My family opened up their first bar here around the turn of the century and I grew up on the stories of them setting up whiskey bottles at the end of the casket.”
Thomas has enthusiastically reacted to the new market for craft spirits by embracing all the market has to offer and passing his enthusiasm on to the consumer. He has personally witnessed the effect the more open market has had on the taste of the whiskey drinker. He says, “the customers… come in here… looking for the next great whiskey and that just fuels the need to have every whiskey on the shelf.” How he describes the craft distilling world in the film is even more promising: “It really is a race to see who can create the most different whiskey right now and it’s exciting.”
I, Whiskey may veer off quite a bit from the format and the focus of I, Pencil but that doesn’t mean the case it’s making is wrong. The craft spirits industry is growing every year from top to bottom. And that’s directly the result of the easing of state regulations. While in the year 2000 there were only 24 craft distilleries in the country, today there are nearly 800. And they are producing whiskey more than three times as much as any other spirit.
I, Whiskey: The Human Spirit debuts Oct. 12. To find out more, visit iwhiskeymovie.org.
Chris Wertz is a veteran of the beverage business for more than 20 years. He is author of Brooklyn Spirits: Craft Distilling and Cocktails from the World's Hippest Borough, and co-founder of the amaro consulting company bitter.wine.