This past Saturday, I had the good pleasure to attend Proof, the annual tasting event sponsored by the Washington Distillers Guild. The event featured over forty distilleries – primarily from Washington but also with a few representatives from as far away as Montana – and was a tremendous success.
I love these events for several reasons. First, of course, is the fact that it gives me the chance to sample fantastic new product offerings. And since I am a creature of habit and occasionally fall into a rut, this prods me to try products I might not otherwise. Black Sam Distillery’s Vanilla Ice Cream Vodka, for example. Contrary to my expectations, I liked it very much. I consider this expansion of the horizons of my taste buds to be a real benefit.
Second, these events give me a great chance to interact with people who are passionate about their craft – and Proof was no exception. Truth be told, I may actually enjoy these conversations even more than the sampling. May. Well, it kind of depends on which product I’m sampling – some were really, really good. The Letterpress Distilling Limoncello, for example – amazing stuff.
In the course of these conversations (and in between samples), I asked most of the participants how their businesses were going, their current challenges, and the like. Most responded with the kind of entrepreneurial optimism that one might expect. But several also acknowledged the hard reality that it is very difficult to get traction as a startup distillery. Two factors were repeatedly cited as making the problem particularly difficult. First among these was the catch-22 of needing to grow big enough to achieve the economies of scale necessary to become more profitable (which requires distribution) but not being big enough to generate the kind of brand following which gets the attention of distributors and the market. Second, was the simple but daunting challenge of operating in a highly taxed, highly regulated industry. These are tough problems.
I should note that I did not hear anyone complain about their actual distributor relationships. In fact, the distilleries in attendance often spoke quite lovingly of those relationships. I did not, however, hear them speak quite so lovingly about the TTB, the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board, or essentially any other government agency.
The regulation issue brings me to the legal content of this post – which is to remind readers that our friends at the TTB remain behind the curve in terms of the current industry in several respects. One of those respects relates to the delicious bottle of Blackfish Spirits Distillery Gifford’s Barreled Gin that I’m holding in the photo at the top of the post (one of only a small number of bottles of new hooch I allowed myself to purchase at the event – all of which were exceptional).
The good folks at Blackfish didn’t complain of this (or anything) during our talk, but I’m sure that they would love to be able to share with the public information about the length that they age this astonishingly good (and quite strong) nectar, the barrels that are used, and any number of other interesting factoids about how the product is produced. But of course they really can’t. Current TTB regulations prohibit providing this type of information on a bottle of gin.
The TTB is aware of this problem (as well as others related to how spirits are labeled) and it has been reported that in a few months the agency will open an online forum allowing industry participants to share their views on these topics in advance of proposed rulemaking. So get your thoughts together and get ready to make your list of desired changes in labeling, the formula approval process, tax issues, or any TTB-related complaint you may have. And when the time comes, don’t be shy.