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Made in the USA: Celebrating Whiskey, the 'Water of Life'

The American whiskey industry, which dates back to colonial times, is flourishing today. A look at some of the small distilleries that would make even Mark Twain proud.

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Whiskey rebellion: Kings County Distillery is one of several upstart whiskeymakers across the nation.The word whiskey, traced back to its Gaelic origins, comes from "usquebaugh" (later "usky"), which means "water of life." That water flows freely in these here United States, giving life to all manners of distilleries run by all kinds of entrepreneurs. Fitting, considering whiskey has been a central part of American life since George Washington was making his own rye. (Perhaps the Tea Party should rebrand; the Boston Harbor protest had nothing on the three-year long Pennsylvania tax clash better known as the Whiskey Rebellion.)

With Thanksgiving upon us, it's worth considering that whiskey is more American than apple pie. The dessert predates the country's settlements, unlike bourbon, which grew out of the farmlands of colonial Kentucky.

But enough with the civics lesson. History is for books -- whiskey is for drinking. Fortunately, America is in the midst of a craft artisanal whiskey boom carrying on the nation's long tradition of making killer sauce. According to Bill Owens, president of the American Distillery Institute, more than 200 distilleries have opened in the past eight years. In 2010, the industry has seen 20 percent growth, with a dozen or so producing nothing but the "water of life." Even a recipe from the first President of the United States has been resurrected. "Whiskey is the final loop in the renaissance America has had with food, beer and wine," Owens says. "The future is in the green, local, handcrafted production led by people who get into it to change the world by making great whiskey."

With that in mind, we wanted to take a closer look at three whiskeymakers, each at varying stages in the distillery's aging process. A glass from any of these will do your turkey dinner right, but don't take it from us. As another great American, Mark Twain, noted, "Too much of anything is bad, but too much of a good whiskey is barely enough."

Bottoms up.

The Under-1-Year-Old: Kings County Moonshine, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Moonshine holds a special place in American lore with the tales of bootleggers running "white lightning" along the backroads of Prohibition. Today, that outlaw spirit lives on at Kings County Distillery. The moonshine Colin Spoelman and David Haskell produce is legal, but what's more rebellious than starting up in a distillery in the heart of industrial Brooklyn?

Both men have a bit of booze background. Haskell's great-grandfather made "basement bourbon" during Prohibition and Spoelman comes from Eastern Kentucky. Like many a backyard distiller, Spoelman started making whiskey as a hobby, but only after he realized it had a bit of New York City cachet. He bought and served moonshine at a wrap party for Underground, a movie about five friends who get trapped in a cave that Spoelman directed in his native Kentucky. Most of the cast and crew was from back east. "The moonshine became a hit at parties, although I never had designs on turning it into a business," he says.

It's a good thing Spoelman ultimately decided to go the legit route. Technically, he was an outlaw, running afoul of the Nelson Van Alden's of the world, as it is illegal to make spirits in New York City. When he and Haskell, a friend from Yale, got serious, they had to learn all the ins-and-outs of state liquor laws while also raising "buying a car's worth of money" to start the distillery. They found space in a converted warehouse, bought supplies like stills, hotplates, barrels (pricey at $150 per), organic corn from near Buffalo, N.Y. (a red tape requirement -- in-state ingredients) and old-timey medicine bottles. Production began in April and by late summer, Kings County had the distinction of being the oldest operating legal distillery in New York City.

Haskell says there have been little issues along the way, niggling details like what to do with spent corn or a leaking floor, but so far, the big question of whether there's a market for legal moonshine has been answered. Since August, Kings County has sold some 3,500 bottles to 20 New York City booze purveyors like the well-trafficked Astor Wines & Spirits. Bottles run roughly $20 a pop and the whiskey has been discovered by mixologists, used in cocktails like the "White Manhattan" at hip Brooklyn foodie favorite Marlow & Sons.

Corn whiskey is unaged, so it's serving as the Kings County introduction to the marketplace. "It was a big gamble that we could sell enough cases of moonshine to get the company off the ground, but it worked," Haskell says. "Liquor stores are now tracking us down."

Moonshine is great marketing, but it has limited appeal. Whether Kings County can grow and become a thriving distillery depends on how the bourbon is received when it's released next spring. Spoelman says a recent taste test gave him plenty of confidence. "It's the quality of the whiskey that goes into a barrel, not how long it sits in there," he says.

Bourbon is the next step, but both owners envision Kings County being home to experimentation, which will carry its own headaches. "We'd love to try using sweet potatoes," Spoelman says. "But by law, whiskey has to be 51 percent grain by volume, so I don't even know what we'd call it."

For now, there are more pressing concerns, such as getting a tasting room ready for the first weekend in December when Kings County will open its small Brooklyn space to moonshine aficionados. So come in out of the cold, have a sip of corn whiskey, buy a flask and tuck it in your UGGs.

Cheers! You, too, are a modern-day bootlegger.

Thanksgiving imbibery: The Kings County corn whiskey is sweet and smooth. Serve it with pumpkin or pecan pie, or as dessert itself.

The 3-Year-Old: McCarthy's Single Malt, Portland, Ore.

The idiom "when it rains, it pours" implies negative outcomes. Occasionally, however, the skies open up and inspiration falls to Earth. And whiskey. Delicious single malt whiskey.

In 1993, just such a scenario befell Stephen McCarthy, founder and owner of Clear Creek Distillery. His fishing vacation in western Ireland got rained out, so he did what people have been known to do on the Emerald Isle. He drank. And drank. "I was stuck at a hotel in rural Ireland that had a wonderful Scotch collection, so I made my way through all kinds of good stuff I hadn't tried had before," McCarthy says. "I never tried the peaty single malts and I loved them, particularly the Lagavulin 16-year-old. I decided to go home and make it myself."

McCarthy was no dilettante. In 1985, he began producing Eaux de Vie with fruit from his family's 100-plus-year-old orchards in the Hood River Valley. The idea was to offset bad years by making a value-added product, Eaux de Vie (fruit brandy), that was unique and not being manufactured in America. When McCarthy bought four stills and made his first batch of pear, he says, "It was very good from the first drop." A quarter-century later, Clear Creek Distillery has an impressive line of Eaux de Vie, in flavors such as Framboise (raspberry), Kirschwasser (cherry) and Douglas Fir (yes, the tree). The 20,000-square-foot distillery will go through a million pounds of fruit this year in the production of some 7,000 cases, ringing up $1.5 million in sales.

"Stephen McCarthy is one of the fathers of the American craft spirits industry," Owens says. "He showed what could be done with passion and great regional ingredients."

Passion project best describes McCarthy's reason for getting into whiskey, but it wasn't his specialty, so there was a learning curve. His initial plan was to set up a small microbrewery, but it was cost prohibitive, and then he couldn't find anyone to make his "wash" (basically, unhopped beer is lower alcohol, pre-distillation whiskey). He finally hooked up with Oregon craft brewer extraordinaire Kurt Widmer and made his first wash. McCarthy created whiskey using Scottish raw materials, barley malted over peat, and then waited as it aged some old sherry barrels for three to four years.

The aging process makes early return-on-investment impossible, so whiskeymakers need a winner right out of the barrel when the time is right. McCarthy's Single Malt -- can't be called it Scotch unless it's made in Scotland -- was one-of-a-kind and caused quite a stir. "All hell broke loose in the late '90s and we've never caught up," McCarthy says. Every year, he has designs on aging some of the whiskey in Oregon white oak barrels for longer than three years, but every bottle goes out the door. McCarthy's Single Malt retails for around $50, and its reputation was cemented in 2004 when Jim Murray of the influential Whisky Bible gave it a score of 94 (upped to 96 in 2008), labeling it "Best Small Batch Whiskey" in the world.

There are still only a handful of American distillers making single malt whiskeys, but McCarthy says the "Made in the USA" tag is no longer a negative. He's a pioneer, both in the type of spirits he produces, and in helping lead a change in what's possible for whiskey baron wannabes across the country.

"It's funny, in America we don't seem to make anything anymore, but I look around and there are all these terrific artisanal distilleries," McCarthy says. "It tells me there's a place for small stand-alone operations, which is great because whiskey people are good people."

Thanksgiving imbibery: McCarthy's Single Malt is a peaty smoky whiskey with a lot of character and a clean finish. Save it for a "no more eating" nightcap in front of the fireplace.

The 23-Year-Old: Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve, Louisville, Ky.

Last month, Wine & Spirits named Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old bourbon the "Spirit of the Year" -- just another trophy to put on the liquor shelf. When making a product this well-respected, expanding the customer base and grabbing market share boils down to one task. "All we have to do is get 'em to try it. It's as simple as that," says Julian P. Van Winkle III, 61, president of the distillery that bears his family name.

It's a familiar name in the whiskey world. Julian's grandfather, "Pappy" Van Winkle, founded the original Louisville distillery in 1935. The old school brands included Rebel Yell and Old Fitzgerald, but in 1972 -- a few years after Pappy died -- shareholders forced the company to sell the distillery. They kept one pre-Prohibition label, Old Rip Van Winkle, which was brought by back to life by Julian, Jr., in the mid-1970s with whiskey from the family's reserve stock, and the distillery has been producing bourbon ever since.

In 1981, Julian III took over after his father's passing and today, the Van Winkle line consists of nine bourbons. The family recipe is made from corn (by law, bourbon requires at least 51 percent), barley and wheat, which gives the bourbons a sweeter, softer taste than those made with rye. What's nice, production-wise, is that the recipe is the same for all the whiskeys, but the prices go up as the bourbon ages. Selections run from the $30 10-year-old to the $225 23-year-old, with various stops along the way.

What's not so great, sales-wise, is that "our business plan is 23 years long, and every year we only have 500 to 1,000 cases of the Pappy Van Winkle," Julian III says with a laugh, "We sell it all and I don't see any drop in demand." This year, like most years, Van Winkle will have revenue of more than $1 million, with little inventory leftover.

In 2002, the Van Winkles entered into a partnership with Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., so all the production is handled outside the home office in Louisville. That suits Julian III and his next-in-line, son Preston, just fine. They can get out to tastings, whiskey events and restaurants promoting the family bourbon because it's what's in the glass that counts. "Bartenders that know their whiskey are unpaid ambassadors," Julian III says. "They get can a dozen people to try Van Winkle from one bottle, which steers them to our unique family history, and people come away impressed."

Pappy would drink to that.

Thanksgiving imbibery: The most American of holidays should start with the most American of whiskeys. Have a flavorful Van Winkle before sitting down to dinner.

Patrick Sauer is a contributor for AOL Small Business and a freelance writer for Fast Company, ESPN, Popular Science, Smith and Huffington Post Humor. He is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the American Presidents. Originally from Billings, Mont., he now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. For more from Patrick, follow him on Twitter (@pjsauer), or visit www.patricksauer.com.

Tags: American Distillery Institute, bourbon, Clear Creek Distillery, Kentucky bourbon, Kings County Distillery, Made in the USA, McCarthys Single Malt, Pappy Van Winkle, unique business ideas, whiskey, whiskey distilleries, whiskey makers

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