WASHINGTON -- 'Tis the season for festive beverages, and revelers increasingly are enjoying locally made spirits as a new generation embraces drinks made from recipes dating to the days of Prohibition.
The craft distilled-spirits business is taking off all over the country -- often with tours and tasting rooms -- in urban and suburban areas from Washington, D.C., to North Carolina, Florida, Texas, California and Washington state, where Seattle is something of a ground zero for the market's explosive growth.
In an industrial area on the border of Manatee and Sarasota counties, Drum Circle Distilling is making a prize-winning rum -- Siesta Key Rum -- that has beat out major manufacturers and Caribbean distillers for its taste.
The family owned distillery, opened in 2007, is one of a handful in Florida where craft distillers have organized to tout their wares and watch legislation in Tallahassee.
Troy Roberts, founder, chief executive officer and distiller for Siesta Key Rum, decided to get into distilling after leaving the software industry. He sold several Internet sites he had started and was looking for something in manufacturing.
Roberts, who grew up in Sarasota, said he noticed a growing trend of craft distillers and decided to jump into the rum business. Today his brand is selling in 14 states mostly along the east and west coasts of the United States.
"I love the business," Roberts said. "It's tangible and creative. There's an artistic side to it and there's a business and marketing side. It's not a bad way to work."
It took just six years for the company to become profitable even though Roberts started from scratch, without knowing a lot about distilling.
When he started, most people thought it was weird, he said.
"People thought it would be a tourist product. Now they really like it," he said.
For good reason. Siesta Key Rum has won international awards and accolades from business insiders and professional evaluators. The company has done so well, it is doubling the size of its Drum Circle Distilling plant. Even as he expands, Roberts does not plan on getting away from the craft -- it's the reason he got into the business in the first place.
"Getting bigger is more difficult, but as long as I
own a majority of the company it's not going to happen," he said.
Growing number of craft distillers
In an industrial area of Northeast Washington, D.C., the city's only distillery, New Columbia Distillers, is in a converted car-storage space. Open only two years, it's already about to get competition from a new distillery around the corner.
"We're the first in a hundred years," co-owner and distiller Michael Lowe, 65, said of his new D.C. venture.
He joined forces with his son-in-law, John Uselton, 41, and together they make rye whiskey and several gins under the Green Hat Gin label, named in honor of the bootlegger who provided Congress with illegal booze during Prohibition and always wore a green fedora.
A retired lawyer, Lowe looked into being a distiller because "I got bored being retired." And now? "It's a lot of fun."
The two started off studying the field, and after an apprenticeship, started making gin, which doesn't have to age. They're now also making whiskey, which needs to age in barrels for several years. The high-end products range from $36 to $39 for a 750-milliliter bottle, and Lowe said the business was already profitable.
Uselton said the local angle drew people to their tastings. "People want to be a part of something," he said.
Bar manager Brenden Mulder-Rosi, 32, has been buying the gin for the nearby Boundary Road restaurant since the distillery opened. "Since day one, we've been super fans," he said. "I think the old locavore works really well for distilling. But above all, it really is a question of taste."
It's mainly millennials who are driving the boom, as they discover the range of spirits and a bit of the romance of Prohibition, the period from 1920 to 1933 when the U.S. Constitution banned alcoholic beverages but people found ways around it.
Troy Turner, a co-founder and the chief operating officer of Seattle's Tatoosh Distillery, which makes bourbon whiskey and rye whiskey said, "All the recipes I have are from my great-great-grandfather in Louisiana. Now I'm doing it legally."
Asked about the quality of craft spirits, Esquire magazine's Drinks columnist, David Wondrich, said, "It varies so widely it's amazing." He sees the appeal of the way the products are made: "It's local, it's artisanal."
And it's struck a chord in the last few years.
Frank Coleman, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, said that when he'd started at the trade association in the early 2000s there were only a handful of craft distilleries. "There are now over 650," he said. "We're in the middle of a whiskey renaissance."
That's certainly the case in Fort Worth, Texas, where Leonard Firestone, a co-owner of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co., and his partner, Troy Robertson, founded a whiskey distillery in the southern part of the city.
"For Troy and myself, we were huge whiskey fans," he said. "We were interested in the process and intrigued by the romance of it all."
When he realized there was no Texas whiskey on the market, Firestone, who's related to the winery owners of the same name in California, saw an opening. Their TX blended whiskey, selling for $35 a bottle, has been so successful that the distillery is expanding to a second facility, a former country club in southeast Fort Worth.
"The tourism has been unlike anything we ever expected," said Firestone, who's rented the original space for four weddings and anticipates more events at the new location when it opens in two years.
The mechanics of the still are the same as 100 years ago: The grains -- corn, rye or wheat, depending on the product -- are ground, mixed with water, fermented and then put in the distiller to separate the alcohol and water. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water does and it vaporizes faster, allowing the collection of the condensed alcoholic liquid as the end product.
Gin gets its name from juniper berries and its distillers play with a mix of botanicals, which to Lowe means the mixing and recipes "give you a lot of creativity."
The regulations for start-up are a little more complicated than for other businesses because distilling is regulated by Uncle Sam. The federal government, through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the Department of the Treasury, approves and licenses distilleries and collects a tax of $13.50 per gallon on alcoholic beverages.
The Washington suburb of Rockville, Md., does not suggest tropical landscapes, but here -- in a converted car repair shop in an industrial zone -- Edgardo Zuniga is making rum. A former chef, the Costa Rican native decided he wanted to get into the spirits business and this year opened Twin Valley Distillers -- the first distillery in Montgomery County since Prohibition -- which also makes vodka and whiskey.
"Maryland had the best rye whiskey in the world during Prohibition," Zuniga said. "Millennials are returning to liquor, to the old things."