Halfway through his interview for a job as head distiller, Brian Sprance surreptitiously Googled the words “column still.” For the uninitiated, this would be the equivalent of a pilot Googling “747” or Alex Jones Googling “conspiracy theory.” Sprance, then a brewing supervisor at Sam Adams, had been cramming in advance of his interview at New Riff, a startup whiskey distillery in Newport, Kentucky. “I had zero experience in distilling,” says Sprance, “so I was reading books on pot stills and how to make cuts, thinking we’d just be making some barrels here and there.” But when he walked through the construction site with Ken Lewis, New Riff’s founder, and saw where the 60-foot column stills were slated to go, Sprance felt a surge of panic. “I looked at Ken and said, ‘Sir, I am so sorry for wasting your time. I don’t even know what a column still is.’”
As it would turn out, Lewis was less focused on what Sprance didn’t know and more focused on what he did—brewing. Whiskey is essentially beer that is distilled and barrel-aged, and Lewis saw the value in Sprance’s skill set. He got the job. Sprance now oversees a production team of five that turns out a range of whiskeys, including the flagship New Riff bottled in bond Kentucky bourbon, and he’s one of a growing number of brewers who are bringing their expertise to the world of whiskey.
"The future of American craft whiskey lies solely in the hands of brewers,” asserts Brandon Howard, co-founder of Amalga Distillery in Juneau, Alaska. Howard, a scientist by trade, began homebrewing at 20 (“Um, I mean 21,” he corrects), experimenting with spontaneous fermentation and quirky sours. When he started thinking about how he wanted to produce Amalga’s single malt, which will be ready for consumption in a couple of years, he called upon his beer background. “Single malt whiskey benefits greatly from a slight secondary bacterial fermentation,” Howard says. “In Scotland, the fermentation tanks—the wash backs—were traditionally open wooden vessels. So all these spontaneous fermentation beers that I was doing were great training wheels for learning how to brew for whiskey. Coming from my background, open fermentation didn't freak me out much.”
With his more corporate pedigree, Sprance had to unlearn some of his brewing habits. His time at the Boston Beer Company was spent solving for consistency, eliminating variables. During his first technical interview, New Riff’s consulting distiller asked Sprance how he felt about contamination. “To me, that’s the cardinal sin of brewing,” says Sprance. “Brewers are glorified janitors. Ninety percent of brewing is cleaning.” Grateful for the softball question, he replied with confidence, “Contamination is unacceptable.” When he was told that a certain amount of contamination was indeed desirable in a distillery, Sprance says, “It was like an alien had landed a spaceship on my front lawn. I’ve had to learn to become comfortable with controlled chaos.”
That controlled chaos—the courting of wild yeast and bacteria that are specific to a given environment—has long been the sandbox of craft brewers. “The creativity of craft brewing has brought such value to the customer,” says Amalga’s Howard. “There are so many options—all these hazy IPAs and crazy barrel-aged stouts. And now craft single malt in the United States is chasing on the heels of craft brewing. You're seeing exciting barrel choices, exciting yeast choices.”
Fermentation is complicated. Distillation is complicated too, but less so.”
You’re also seeing startup whiskey brands outsourcing the production of their distiller’s wash to established craft breweries. Seattle’s Copperworks gets its beer from a number of local partners, including Elysian Brewing Company. In Oregon, Bendistillery is collaborating with Deschutes Brewery. Howard calls that out as a savvy move but thinks it’s only a matter of time before more breweries take the next step and start distilling themselves—like Aberdeen’s BrewDog, which releases spirits under its distilling arm Lone Wolf.
“Having a brewing background is way more valuable than having a distilling background,” Howard contends. “Fermentation is complicated. Distillation is complicated too, but less so. You can mechanize the distillation process and get decent results if you're working with a great still. But making the wash and sourcing barrels, those are the skill sets that I think are the most essential. If you’re not making a great-quality wash, then you're not going to end up with the best product.”
By that measure, the future of American craft whiskey looks bright. “A lot of the smartest brewers I know have moved into the distilling world,” says Sprance. As for Howard, he hopes that the grassroots, anything-goes ethic of the craft brewing community will continue to bleed into the world of whiskey, a spirit category that relies heavily on tradition and heritage. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hearkening back to history,” says Howard, “but at the same time, I’m more excited about looking forward and creating something new. That’s what craft beer does.”