Now, top craft brewers are selling their own liquor

August 15, 2015, 2:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of Dogfish

Craft brewer Dogfish Head has made its reputation by coming up with beers that burst through traditional style expectations. So, in hindsight, it’s not surprising that when the brewer launched a spirits division 13 years ago, it blazed new paths – using ingredients like local honey in its rum and hops in its gin.

For the entirety of the history of Dogfish Head Spirits, if you wanted to try the company’s offerings, you had to visit Delaware – and usually its Rehoboth Beach brew pub.

Starting next year, though, the company is branching out.

Dogfish Head has moved the production facility for its distilling operations – which include Wit Spiced Rum and Jin (a gin distilled with juniper berries, coriander seed, cucumbers and hops) – to its production brewery. That means instead of making just thousands of cases per year, it will be able to produce tens of thousands, and could go as high as 100,000.

The new line will launch in Delaware in October. In early 2016, the company plans to expand distribution to the mid-Atlantic, followed by the eastern seaboard and then finally, the mid-west and Western states. (Also in the works? An “amplification” to the wood-aged spirits line, giving fans hope that a Dogfish Head whiskey will finally be born.)

“We don’t have any expectation that our distillery revenue will eclipse that of our brewery at any point in the future, but we’re confident that with the growth of the craft distilling market – and with our attention to innovation – that we can be successful,” says Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head.

While beer remains the star of the show for craft brewers, several operations, including many well-known names, are also dabbling in the up and coming field of craft distilling.

It all started at Anchor Brewing, where a small distilling operation sits tucked away in the back corner of the brewery makes spirits like gin and vodka. Dogfish Head was next. Today, both smaller brewers (like Reno, NV’s The Depot and San Diego’s Twisted Manzanita) and larger craft names (including Rogue and Ballast Point) are all involved in the spirits game.

Brewers note that there’s at least a dotted line between brewing beer and distilling spirits. The beer and whiskey making processes are related (beer is the base for whiskey, notes Brett Joyce, president Rogue Brewing) – but the similarities end there.

“I think it’s a misnomer to think if you can brew beer you can distill,” says Joyce. “We thought fermentation was fermentation. But the more we did, the more we learned it’s quite different. There’s so much nuance to distilling – from the different products, to the barrel aging, to the type of still you have.”

Yuseff Cherney, chief operating officer and head brewer/distiller at Ballast Point, says the learning curve there was a short one, though. Founded in 2008, the distillery operations won a gold medal in 2010 for its Devils Share Single Malt Whiskey.

Ballast Point, he says, distills its 13 products differently than many other spirits makers, using high quality malted barley instead of distiller’s grain and the proprietary yeast that is used in its beers. It also distills at a temperature closer to that used for beer.

And, of course, it never hurts to have a well-known, well-respected name on the label.

“Having a great name in the brewing industry definitely helps push the name of the spirits to the forefront – and we’ve had a lot of comments when were about to release a product from people who say ‘if this spirit is anything like the beer that Ballast Point makes, I’m going to purchase it’,” says Cherney.

Like Calagione, none of the craft beer brewers who also distill spirits have any ambition to shift the primary focus of their businesses. Craft beer, after all, is still a much bigger industry than craft spirits. And with most dedicated craft distillers losing money at present, the fight for shelf space could be even harder than the one they currently wage against macro beer companies.

“It’s easy to dabble, but if you really want to make it, you have to dedicate resources to this business specifically,” says Joyce. “You have to have someone who lives and breaths the spirits business dedicated to it … because your competitors are living and breathing this. If you’re doing it in the 5% of the time when you re not making beer, you’re not going to make it.”

While the spirits from craft brewers are virtually impossible to come by if you don’t live near the brewery, many of their beers are widespread. Here are a few worthy of your time.

Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin – One of my all-time favorite IPAs on the market, this American-style IPA takes Ballast Point’s well-known (and well-respected) IPA and somehow improves it. The grapefruit, of course, adds an extra burst of citrus, but it’s not overpowering. Instead, it complements the citrus notes in the hops, blending well with the mango, pineapple and lemon of its base beer. Best of all, you don’t have to like grapefruit to enjoy this beer. (Personally, I can’t stand the fruit in any other context.) It can be a bit expensive, but it’s a beer that’s absolutely worth the price. (ABV: 7%)

Rogue Dead Guy Ale – The flagship beer of Rogue, this Maibock/Helles Bock is a sweet, rich concoction that brings molasses and caramel to mind, but it’s not cloying. There’s spice and a nice amount of fruit. And the strong malt backbone blends well with the hops, which add a floral note. It could be an especially good choice for fans of brown ales. (ABV: 6.5%)

Dogfish Head Black & Blue – The blackberry in this Belgian-style golden ale are much more predominant than the blueberries, but those blueberries do a terrific job of softening the tart sourness of the beer. It’s thick with an enticing aroma, especially if you enjoy fruit beers. The fruit masks the high alcohol content quite well and is remarkably smooth on the finish. (ABV: 10%)

Anchor Summer Wheat – A nice, refreshing sessionable beer for the dog days. You’ll get hints of lemon along with the earthy, bready-like notes. It’s highly carbonated, which helps it go down fast, but it has a nice thickness that some other wheat beers can lack. It’s not an especially complex beer and it’s absolutely best when served cold, but on a grueling day, this is a fine choice. (ABV: 4.5%)