There are more distilleries across the USA than ever before, and that's no mere exaggeration or talking point. According to the Craft Spirits Data Project from the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA), there are approximately 1,600 active craft distilleries as of fall, up more than 20% in a single year.
For consumers, the growth offers endless variety, and for distillers, it's important to stand out from the crowd. One of the best ways to do so is to embrace the surrounding region and state by using local ingredients in spirits. This provides a distillery with authentic roots and products that truly reflect origins.
At Seattle's Westland Distillery, Matt Hofmann references two sources of local influence— the land and the people. "The meeting point of these two gives us not only an amazing whiskey, but also something entirely unique and absolutely authentic," he says. "It's not about trying to run a business to ride a trend, but to build something real from the Pacific Northwest for the long term. That is what Westland is, and has always been, committed to doing."
One of the many projects underway at Westland is the creation of entirely local whiskey, made with barley grown in the region, which is dried and smoked with Washington state peat, then aged in barrels made from oak harvested here, including the unique native species of Garryana oak.
Different grains, or varieties of the same grain, flourish in different parts of the country, and as with wine grapes, can reflect terroir and a sense of place. A region's environment further affects the maturation process, while water sources provide varying qualities, such as the famed minerality of Kentucky's limestone water. All of these are factors that can help distinguish a spirit as truly local.
"I think we're going to see further categories created within the craft spirits realm, but what really excites me is the development of regional whiskey within the U.S.," says Mike Swanson, co-founder of Minnesota's Far North Spirits. "Craft distillers are exploring techniques and ingredients that are unique to their regions, and as this evolves you're going to see distinct regional styles emerge. And I don't think there could be a better time for this to happen. "
Far North Spirits does more than use local ingredients — as a true farm and estate distillery, the maker grows its own grains. This offers the distillery an intricate level of hands-on control and the ability to experiment and fine-tune processes. "I'm also a proponent of data... I want to know why all of these things create a unique flavor profile," Swanson says. "I'm not satisfied to simply observe that they do."
His distillery is conducting a study of rye varietals, "a big first step in identifying the origins of the 'Northern' style of whiskey."
Westland and Far North are just two examples of the many great distilleries in the USA that are hard at work in the creation of authentically local spirits. View the photo gallery above to find one in every state, plus D.C., for a coast-to-coast look at local craft spirits and distilleries.
Plus, see more from our 50 states series below.