Darek Bell, owner of Corsair Artisan Distillery in Nashville, Tenn.

Independent Spirits

Unique offerings from independent spirit distillers

By Michael Kaplan

Paralleling the craft beer boom, innovative indie distillers are creating fresh takes on your favorite spirits in small batches. These five burgeoning producers' newly released elixirs deserve a place on your bar shelf.

Click here to view more photos from the distilleries.

Corsair Artisan Distillery


Back story: Darek Bell started working in his family's Tennessee-based construction business in 2002, but turned fermentation into an obsessive hobby. As he puts it, "Anything you can ferment, I made." That included beer, wine, even kombucha tea. At one point, he began producing biodiesel for an old Mercedes, which somehow led him to distilling whiskey, a beverage for which he has long harbored a serious passion. 

In order to compete in the marketplace, Bell knew he couldn't go up against the Macallans of the world on an even playing field. So, in 2008, he decided to do things differently, creating whiskeys from alternative grains, unusual peats, and even beer. Recognizing he can't beat his competitors by aging his whiskeys, he instead ratchets up the smokiness - which, by taste alone, can more than compensate for years in the barrel. 

Bell says he develops 100 new whiskeys each year, enters them into spirits competitions, and launches his winners commercially. The approach has yielded 97 awards, plus craft distiller of the year recognition from Whisky Magazine.

Newest pour: Hop Monster ($45), made with three types of hops and a beer base, has an intense hops aromatic while still tasting every bit like a whiskey.

Philosophy: "There is a new generation of consumers coming online and they want to drink differently from how their parents did," Bell says. "My father was a big Jim Beam drinker. I don't want to drink Jim Beam. We embrace things for being individual and unusual. We're about experimenting on every level."

If it's not in your local shop: Order online from binnys.com

More info: corsairartisan.com

from Corsair's in-house mixologist Austin J. Rees
1-1/2 ounces Hop Monste
1-1/2 ounces Dolin blanc vermouth
Combine spirits in a mixing glass with ice, and stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with grapefruit peel.

Mezcal El Silencio

Los Angeles

Back story: Fausto Zapata grew up in Mexico City, and the agave-based liquor known as mezcal all but courses through his veins. A serial entrepreneur and private real estate developer and investor, Zapata believed his favorite spirit never really got its due. Too many people misunderstood it as hangover-inducing swill with a worm in the bottom of the bottle. 

But Zapata had been exposed to high-end mezcal. He knew it could be every bit as smoky and complex as a single-malt scotch. So when the opportunity arose to put on a fundraiser for a friend's charitable foundation in May 2013, Zapata and his business partner, Vicente Cisneros, also from Mexico City, decided to focus the event on mezcal. With attendees paying $1,000 per ticket, the partners wanted to feature a new distillation at the event. 

In the course of producing it, they connected with Pedro Hernandez, a ninth-generation mezcal distiller. Through more than a dozen iterations, they homed in on the flavor profile of their dreams. The party was a hit, friends kept requesting bottles, and the idea of bringing El Silencio to market began to seem like the next logical step.

Newest pour: The mildly smoked mezcal ($75) with layers of dried fruit and sun-dried vegetables has touches of vanilla, citrus, and chili.

Philosophy: "Through the course of blending the agave, Pedro told us it is the second sip of mezcal where the flavors explode," Zapata says. "The first sip opens the taste buds, so when you take that second sip, there should be nothing around you but the flavors of mezcal and absolute silence."

If it's not in your local shop: Order online from wallywine.com

More info: mezcalelsilencio.com

Smoke in Silence
from LA mixologist Aidan Demarest

2 ounces El Silencio
2-3 cucumber slices
6-8 lime wedges
2-3 dashes Mexican hot sauce
3/4 ounce simple syrup
Muddle, shake, and strain over rocks. Sprinkle chili salt on top.

New York Distilling Co.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Back story: New York Distilling already boasted a pair of highly regarded gins - Dorothy Parker and Perry's Tot - when spirits writer/historian David Wondrich approached the company's partners, Allen Katz and Tom and Bill Potter, in 2012 with an interesting find: an 18th-century recipe for something called "resemblance of Holland gin."

Katz recalls that the recipe laid out instructions for producing a liquor designed to mimic the gin that Dutch settlers drank in their homeland. Considering the recipe called for rye, which Katz and company have an abundance of since they're in the process of barrel-aging rye for future use, this seemed like a perfect undertaking for all parties concerned. As Katz remembers, "No one could have known for sure what it was supposed to taste like. But we know what genever [the Dutch version of gin] is like and we had an idea of what we wanted. Very simply, its focal point is a rye distillate rather than a grain spirit. So it's a whiskey/gin hybrid."

Newest pour: Christened Chief Gowanus New-Netherland Gin ($30), the Wondrich-discovered spirit emits a surprising taste of whiskey on the front, followed by a fruit quality via juniper berries, the key flavor component of gin. A small amount of hops kicks off a vegetal finish.

Philosophy: "We come up with botanical recipes that are ours alone," Katz says, "and that allows us to create something wholly original that's still in the confines of gin."

If it's not in your local shop: Order online from drinkupny.com

More info: nydistilling.com

The Superfund
from writer/historian David Wondrich

2 ounces Chief Gowanus New-Netherland Gin
1 teaspoon simple syrup
1 teaspoon Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curacao
2 dashes Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged bitters
1 dash absinthe
Stir ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.


Los Angeles

Back story: During eight years spent scooting around South and Central America, Marc Gold discovered the glories of rum and touted it to his brother, Seth, back home in the States. Together, they began checking out the more flavorful, obscure brands of rum, getting into different styles. In South America, they focused particularly on ultrasmooth Havana Club - made in Cuba and illegal in the United States but not elsewhere. Teaming up with Seth's brother-in-law Robert Herzig and pop star Bruno Mars, a fellow rum aficionado whose manager had gone to day camp with Seth, they pooled money and put together a business plan in 2010.

After disappointing trips to meet with distillers in Guatemala and California, the partners locked into a seemingly insane idea: Track down 75-year-old Francisco "Don Pancho" Fernandez, a master blender who had created the Havana Club that they loved. Don Pancho, however, had exiled himself to a jungle distillery in Panama, where he selectively produced small batches for high-end clients. Once found, he was intrigued by the challenge of making white and flavored rum fine enough to sip on the rocks.

Over the course of several trips, the partners worked with Don Pancho to distill two rums that pay homage to the Cuban masterpieces he had previously created. Others, apparently, appreciate the effort. Selvarey's cacao rum snagged the chairman's trophy at this year's Ultimate Spirits Challenge, and Tasting Panel magazine gave the white rum a 94 and the cacao iteration a 95.

Newest pours: The white rum ($25) gives off citrus flavors, grassy notes, and a nice undercurrent of vanilla caramel that comes from barrels in which the rum has been aged. From the cacao rum ($29), there's cocoa, chocolate, and a hint of bourbon, courtesy of whiskey barrels used in aging.

Philosophy: "From the outset, our benchmark was to create a white rum that you could easily sip on the rocks and really enjoy," says Seth Gold. "But the reality is that hardly anybody orders rum on the rocks. So it also has to work with Coca-Cola and in a mojito. The idea was that, for starters, people could upgrade the rum they drink in their cocktails. From there, we'll get them to try sipping it on the rocks."

If it's not in your local shop: Order online from hitimewine.net

More info: selvarey.com

Grilled Pineapple Daiquiri
from LA mixologist Aidan Demarest

Begin by grilling chunks of pineapple until they develop a crystallized char on the outside. Soak the charred pineapple in a carafe of Selvarey white rum for 24 to 48 hours. The rum will turn a brownish shade and the pineapple, once removed from the liquor, will be delicious to munch on.
1-1/2 ounces pineapple-infused white rum
3/4 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Pour over ice and stir.

Woody Creek Distillers

Basalt, Colo.

Back story: For Mark Kleckner and his partners, Pat and Mary Scanlan, getting into independent distilling was as much a business play as a passion play. In 2010, Kleckner had just exited a New York City private equity business and was anticipating chilling out in Aspen, Colo., when Pat, a longtime friend, suggested they look into microdistilling. The segment was heating up and they saw it as a business opportunity. Only later, in the spring of 2011, after taking distilling courses at Michigan State and Cornell universities, did Kleckner recognize the possibility of dramatically improving his tipple of choice. Most often, he and Pat drank Chopin, a highly regarded vodka, and they became inspired to do it one better. 

By equipping themselves with the best stills on the market and finding the highest quality ingredients available, both men agreed they could do something really special. After discovering that most makers of potato vodka distill with cellared spuds, Kleckner and the Scanlans vowed to find the freshest potatoes. They settled on Rio Grande potatoes, which are grown nearby, and decided to dilute their alcohol with locally sourced Aspen Valley water. Finally, all three recognized the importance of producing their vodka in small batches, which allows them to imbue it with real potato taste.

The attention to detail has paid off. Wine Enthusiast magazine gave Woody Creek a 93, the vodka snagged a gold medal at the Denver International Spirits Competition, and it earned a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Newest pour: Woody Creek Vodka ($35) has a creamy feel and earthy potato taste, finishing with a touch of sweetness.

Philosophy: "We want a vodka that has flavor and mouthfeel," Kleckner says. "The whole vodka market, in the last 20 years, migrated away from a classic spirit to one that is loaded with crazy syrups. It lost its way from the classic spirit that it had once been. We're bringing back the whole farm-to-bottle approach." 

If it's not in your local shop: Order online from applejack.com

More info: woodycreekdistillers.com

Basalt Twist
from Woody Creek food and beverage director Tracey Snow

2 ounces Woody Creek Vodka
3 sprigs fresh thyme plus 1 more for garnish
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 ounce grenadine or pomegranate syrup
splash of club soda
Muddle vodka, thyme, and lemon juice. Add grenadine and ice. Shake. Strain into a rocks glass over ice. Top with a splash of club soda. Garnish with a thyme sprig.

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