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Craft spirits and craft brewers compete for thirsty consumers

Maggie Mullen May 9, 2019
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A customer sips on a glass of craft beer at a California brewery.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s the job of Mike Moser, executive director of the Wyoming State Liquor Association, to know what people are drinking these days.

“In my father’s era, or my grandfather’s era, they started with a Schlitz in their hand and a bottle of Ten High whiskey. And they died with it in their hand,” Moser said. “That’s all they drank.”

Moser said younger generations might have favorite brands, but they also want to try out new things.

“Where the real drop is in premium beer categories — Budweiser, Coors, et cetera — they’ve been down, every year, for a while,” he explained.

In fact, the share of big name brand premium beers in the overall beer market is down by almost 10% since 2010, according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association. And while high-end craft beers and imports are growing, that growth is slowing. Enter the new kid on the block: craft spirits.

“Crafted,” in distilled spirits, typically means produced in smaller batches than bigger name brands, which are made in bulk. It’s the kind of spirit made by Chad Pollock, who, with his family, owns and operates Backwards Distilling in Casper, Wyoming.

Bottles of craft whiskey, made in Wyoming.
Backwards Distilling Company in Casper, Wyoming, introduced a barrel-aged craft whiskey earlier this year.

“When we first started it was kind of a novelty,” said Pollock. “And I think it’s becoming more of a thing that people generally accept as something they’re going to drink, as opposed to just being kind of cute and fun.”

A lot of Backwards’ liquor is circus themed. There’s a “Strongman Gin” that the company describes as having a bold, piney flavor and a “Contortionist Gin” that’s more botanical. Both go for about $40 a bottle. One of its more unusual creations is a cinnamon moonshine, selling for $30 a bottle.

In 2014, when Backwards Distilling started, Pollock said there were fewer than 300 craft spirit distilleries in the US. Today? There are more than 1,800.

“So we are I would say, like, fifteen years behind where craft beer is,” he said.

In Laramie, Wyoming, Front Street Tavern offers both craft beer on tap and cocktails made with craft liquor. Alicia Zuniga, 30, just got off work and was drinking one of the older labels: Pabst Blue Ribbon.

“When I come here I’m like, I need to choose between a cocktail or a beer,” she said. “Today, it was a beer.”

Still, Zuniga is just the type of customer both craft spirit and craft beer producers are after. That’s because she’s willing to try new drinks that are a little unusual. When asked about some of the concoctions out there, like say a neapolitan ice cream sour beer or ancho chile liqueur, she said she’d be up for one.

“Anytime I get to choose from a list of different drinks I’m like ‘Oh, which one is the best one? Oh, I don’t know, I want to try all of them,” she said.

And if she likes the way it tastes, she said, “Great — I’ll buy two!”

That’s the kind of customer response that keeps craft beer and liquor makers vying to create something new.

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