Can American Craft Spirits Continue To Grow?

Bartenders and Education

With so many brands now contending for consumer attention, education and sampling are more critical than ever. That’s why distillers rely so much on tastings and education.

The mixology movement has more bartenders working with craft spirits. Educating them on craft spirits is important, so that they can pass on the knowledge (and pour the product) for customers who put themselves in the hands of bartenders when ordering a drink.

Still, Ellison says, Death’s Door sales are 70/30 off/on-premise. In-store samplings remain essential.


Willis agrees. “When we do in-store tastings, we talk a lot about what we do, how it’s different,” he says. “A lot of the time it’s just about education. For instance, people look at our white rum like they’ve never seen it before, even though white rum has been around forever.”

“We hand out recipe booklets for that reason,” he adds. “There’s a learning curve. You have to show people how to use these products or they’ll sit on the shelves and be one-time buys.”


“Consumers today are actively seeking out education on craft spirits,” Robbat says. “We want to feed their new curiosity and passion to learn more. We really believe it sets us apart.”

This same curiosity has helped spark the ongoing mixology movement, she adds. Consumers interested in retro cocktails have brought back these classics, many of which require a higher quality of spirit to taste their best.

Death’s Door Spirits of Middleton, WI, focuses on the global market rather than regional sales.

Evolved Palates, Evolved Spirits

So why are consumers so curious all of a sudden about what they drink? Robbat believes that trend began in food. People first became conscious about what they were eating. Was it fresh? Nutritious? Local?

This attitude then spread throughout consumer activity. “When you put it all together, people today have a dedication to eat better, drink better and shop better,” Robbat explains.

Drinking better means preferring spirits made from fresh, quality, local ingredients — and also those that display greater levels of creativity. Just how drinkers got into craft beer through IPAs and then branched out through the many modern beer styles, consumers who sip spirits are happy to try new and exciting takes.

In response to consumer experimentation, distillers have created craft spirits that were unthinkable a decade ago. Like Westland Distillery, distributed by Anchor, which makes American single malts.

In response, distillers have created craft spirits that were unthinkable a decade ago. Like Westland Distillery, distributed by Anchor, which makes American single malts. “They’ve studied traditional techniques and gone further to see what they could mean in America,” Robbat says.

This includes using Washington barley and Oregon oak in crafting their single-malts. “I love that balance of tradition and American spirit,” Robbat says.

Spirit of the Future

Which brands and categories emerge strong from this swell in U.S. craft spirits will depend on a number of factors. Willis believes that sales and quality are critical.

“People are spending too much time in the distillery and not enough time out selling,” Willis says. “You need boots on the ground. It’s not enough to rely on the distributor.”

“The baseline is that you have to be making a quality product,” he adds. “It’s no longer enough just to be a craft brand.”

Ellison concurs. “Whenever tells me that they’re thinking of starting a new craft distillery, my response is always, ‘why? What are you offering that’s not already offered?’” he says. “None of what we make solves anyone’s problems. It’s not like we get calls from consumers saying they cannot find a good gin so can we please make it.”

“What we do is scratching a niche,” he adds. “So people have to make their product in a niche. Are you local or national? People who think they’re going to be local and national and have 12 products — they aren’t going to make it. They need to focus on one thing. Focus is the biggest problem in this industry.”

Kyle Swartz is associate editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at



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