Innovator Brands Disrupt Malt Whiskey Category

From a recent article in the New York Times Food & Wine section:

“It’s part of the pioneer spirit to try to do something by putting your own signature on it,” he said. “I’m not trying to make someone else’s product.”
Those words, which perfectly capture the ethos of what I call "Innovator Brands," were spoken by an American craft distiller, Richard Stabile, one of a new generation of whiskey makers who are disrupting the "Quo Brands," staid, old-guard companies that have been doing the same thing for so long, they've forgotten what the word "innovation" means. Chip Tate, another of these rogue master distillers, puts it this way:

 “A lot of what we do is riffing on old traditions in new ways,” Mr. Tate said. “It’s like fusion cooking.”

It's actually much more like category disruption in the new tradition of Silicon Valley. 

Pretty much forever in the world of brands, malt whiskeys have been the exclusive province of Scotland. Names like Macallan, Laphroig, the Balvenie, and Glenfiddich, to name just a few, have become brands that evoke manliness, stoicism, and the verdant hills of Scotland. They've also become some of the most valuable and coveted spirits brands in the world.

But the Highlands of Scotland is far cry from rural Salinas, California, home to Lost Spirits Distillery, or Speery Hills, Virginia, where an American single malt includes the innovative addition of apple wood chips to the aging barrels. But those out-of-the-way places are where the Innovator Brands in this category are choosing to set up still.

The most recent winner of the Best in Glass whiskey competition was Balcones, a spirit from Waco (yes, Waco), Texas. In a repeat of the famed Judgement of Paris, when California wines fooled French tasters in a blind competition, the Whiskey from Waco (yes, Waco) convinced a similarly hostile panel of Scotsmen, leaving them with their kilts all a-kilter.

Because of an odd law from 1938 that requires American malt whiskey to be aged in new oak barrels, which tends to overpower delicate flavors. To compensate, Balcones starts with a more flavorful mash and is aged for a shorter time in the heat of Texas summers. 

Pine Barrens Single Malt, from Long Island Spirits in Baiting Hollow, NY, starts as beer, and then is aged in oak casks after distilling. The taste is "hoppy and bready," hardly the flavor of peat smoke and sherry casks that pervades classic Scotch.

It just goes to show that there is always room for innovation, and by extension Innovator Brands, in almost every category and industry. Just look for the telltale dust left by the Quo Brands, and you'll know you're on fertile ground for disruption.


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