Does “Craft” Exist in Spirits Anymore?

Six years ago, Todd Leopold told me a secret. He was building a time machine. In the quiet of his Denver distillery’s tasting room, Todd presented facsimiles of cryptic blueprints he’d exhumed while researching the arcana of his trade. What they depicted were exacting instructions for a three-chamber still, the kind that was used in the 19th century to make rye whiskey. Looking like something out of a Jules Verne novel, the contraption promised the impossible: to transport a distiller or a drinker to a bygone era when domestic whiskey was categorically different. Though its low yield had rendered it outmoded in an ever-industrializing market, Todd was gripped by his vision, insisting it would exude juice of a quality that contemporary drinkers couldn’t imagine. He swore me to silence.

After 15 years of furtive measures, Leopold Bros.’ Three Chamber Rye has arrived at last. With a deceptively simple mash bill of American malted barley and a forgotten strain of rye called Abruzzi, Three Chamber is nothing short of a game-changer. Drinkers accustomed to the output of more widely known whiskey makers, who produce in a week what Leopold Bros. does in a year and label their offerings as “small batch,” may be awestruck. There’s simply no going back after tasting a potion like this one.

Recently, someone asked me what “craft” meant anymore in the context of distilling. I quickly answered to myself, “Not much,” which wasn’t entirely fair. Good people remain committed to the designation of “craft” as a signifier of transparency and mindful production apart from larger producers and mercenary conglomerates that invest more in apocryphal marketing than in actual spirit-making. As advocates for craft distilling, like the American Craft Spirits Association or the American Distilling Institute, have not been particularly bold in denominating the category, opportunists have been free to co-opt the language of craft, saturating the market with fanciful and obfuscating origin stories like the old chestnut about the lost bourbon recipe found under a mattress in an antebellum prison, the myth of the revived 250-year-old distillery that’s been producing for three years yet offers 15-year-old whiskey, the story of the hardened mezcalero whose grandchildren are the first to wear shoes in the region thanks to a brand’s intervention, and the one about the hyper-regional single malt made from Eastern European grain malted in a facility resembling the Death Star.

While I may have discarded the epithet “craft” a decade ago, consigning it to the obsolescence of other words like “sustainable” or “artisanal,” I remain uncynical in pursuing what those terms have hoped to embody, and Three Chamber does exactly that.

Like a master carpenter, Todd Leopold began by building his own tools, namely his Victorian time machine, which appears an arresting, luminous copper shaft with three discreet portal windows, crafted by Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Kentucky. For now, it is the only still of its kind, but this will likely change once the world tastes its issue. Prior to this release, I had two opportunities to test the whiskey: once, fresh from the tap, and on a subsequent visit when Todd shared a barrel sample at around a year old. Even as a newborn and a toddler, the whiskey was prodigious.

“While I may have discarded the epithet 'craft' a decade ago, consigning it to the obsolescence of other words like 'sustainable' or 'artisanal,' I remain uncynical in pursuing what those terms have hoped to embody.”

Formerly a brewer, Todd honors his raw materials and the fermentation process. His barley is malted on the distillery’s premises, remarkable considering that even in Scotland, less than 10 percent of the country’s approximately 200 Scotch-making outfits do their own malting. At times, its mash bill makes this whiskey feel like two folded into one: both the cultivated, floral rye we’d expect and an elegant Scotch that could have been made in Campbeltown. A devotee of Springbank, Todd pays it unwitting tribute, using his malted barley to weave in golden filaments of high-toned flavor.

Fans of this distillery’s Maryland Rye will be pleased that Todd has again included Abruzzi, a strain he’d rescued from disuse. Due to its low starch content, which requires distillers to use more grain to achieve desired alcohol by volume, the strain had fallen out of favor. Delicate, floral but possessing the requisite zest of a good rye, the Abruzzi, in this manifestation, has an added dimension of flavor I’d never have guessed was missing from its predecessor. This evolution is doubtless a consequence of each batch’s odyssey through the three-chamber still, which ultimately imposes on the batch three separate distillations at three different temperatures. On the palate, this development is not unlike moving from black and white to color.  Delivered in an envelope of new American oak, Three Chamber will please purists but also those who love to taste the piquant origins of the spirit as well as the vessel in which it was aged.

Of course, I am partial. Leopold Bros. has long been a lodestar for me, helping to navigate the bewildering terrain of domestic distilling. One of a few close relationships on which I’ve relied heavily in the last 20 years to guide my taste and view of spirit-making, they are joined by the likes of the passionate and scientific team at St. George Spirits in Alameda, as well as biodynamic distiller Marian Farms, both in California. Overseas I have worked with vigneron producers like Camut, Dudognon, Ravignan, Michel Huard, Pellehaut and Château de Briat, which make beautiful brandies from grape, apple and pear. To the south, my love affair with wild fermentation has led to friendships with small producers across Oaxaca and Jamaica.

As a retailer of single-origin spirits, I visit distillers to see for myself how these products are made, but how should an interested drinker outside the trade discern what is true craft and what is not? Third-party certifications like Demeter, USDA Organic, Fair Trade and Vigneron can hold labels accountable to some extent, but I encourage you to begin your own investigation: Does the producer recognize their product as an agricultural one? Do they source accordingly, or grow their own material? Does the producer understand fermentation as a miracle of nature and a means to living flavor as opposed to a simple conversion of sugar to salable alcohol? Similarly, did they deploy a still designed to extract the essence of the base ingredients or a massive column that favors yield? Does the producer age in real wood and eschew caramel and glycerin? Sadly, few bottles check all of these boxes, but if we gravitate toward distillers and retailers who are willing and able to answer questions like these, we will continue to change the market.

Certainly, the cost and risk of producing Three Chamber is prodigious. Confronted with the strategy of malting, brewing and distilling particularly expensive grain in a still no one else in our lifetime has seen, Scott Leopold, Todd’s brother and the distillery’s accountant, might have taken a knee. Instead, he was game. At each stage, Leopold Bros. has prioritized beauty over economy. Yes, some of this cost is passed on to the consumer, but if this whiskey seems expensive, I encourage you to compare its production to that of similarly priced spirits. This spirit that makes no compromises is representative of the labor and imagination required to make something true and real. I assure you, the Leopolds aren’t getting rich off of their deeply personal Three Chamber project, but you can bet the folks who make the affordable, industrial stuff are.

After decades of pouring thousands of drinks for thousands of people, I know from experience that liquids made from real ingredients dreamed up by real minds are more stimulating to anyone who tries them. Taste is democratic that way. The sensations registered by the tongue and nose liberate us, conjuring impressions that are beyond language, beyond race and class and gender and time. Taste unites us with each other and our most ancient selves—like art, like music. I am sure that what the Leopold brothers have accomplished is art, but Todd Leopold, perpetually tinkering with his machinery, forever clad in Carhartt coveralls, would never call himself an artist. And perhaps this is why we need the word “craft.”

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