In the 1920s, Prohibition brought legal distillation to a screeching halt. Make no mistake—it still survived, illicitly, in some areas. But by the time the “Noble Experiment” ended in 1933, most family-run distilleries were long shuttered, and generations of spirits-making knowledge had been lost. Large conglomerates, most headquartered outside of the U.S., dominated the booze biz.
Despite these headwinds, a handful of intrepid pioneers sought to make quality small-batch spirits. In the 1980s—a time when white wine spritzers were the aperitif of choice—U.S. legislators began to adjust a patchwork of laws that would empower small distilleries. This created the first trickles of what would eventually become the American craft spirits movement. This is their story, as told (mostly) by those who experienced it firsthand.
The quotes that follow have been edited for length and clarity.
Saint Jörg/St. George
The post-Prohibition era of craft distilling begins with Jörg Rupf, who left behind a legal career in Germany to become a distiller in California, notably under the St. George brand. Rupf, now retired, spoke to us from his home in San Pancho, Mexico.
Jörg Rupf: It wasn’t really a well thought out business concept. It was a personal decision. I was an attorney before. I didn’t like the theoretical work. I wanted to do something practical. It came to my mind that distilling eau de vie was something I could do. I grew up with it. My family had a brewery in the Black Forest and did some distilling on the side.
I also noticed there were a lot of Bartlett pears grown in California, which is no longer true…It seemed so natural to [make eau de vie] with the amount and quality of fruit in the area.
I started to apply for [my license] in 1979, I believe, and I was the first distiller that they had [under the Distilled Spirits Tax Revision Act]. It took a year and half before I had my federal approval; I think that was 1982.
It was the worst time to start a business in spirits from the financial point of view. But I was excited about the product that I made, even though no one knew what I was doing. It was hard the first few years. The only product to compare to mine were imports from France.
Dan Farber, founder/distiller, Osocalis Distillery: Jörg was producing eau de vie, wonderful eau de vie. He brought in the first German stills, sold one to Steve [McCarthy], one to Randall Grahm [of Bonny Doon]. They were doing eau de vie. In Randall’s case, a lot of obscure grappas during those years.
Rupf: The first person who called me [to purchase a still and learn about making and selling spirits] was Steve McCarthy from Portland, Oregon, whose family had pear orchards in the Hood River Valley. He saw one of my pear brandies [and wanted to make eau de vie using Bartlett pears from his family farm].
Starting from Scratch
Even with Rupf’s guidance, the new wave of would-be distillers had a tough road ahead. Many headed to Europe to learn distillation techniques, adapting them for use at home. Quite a few advocated for policy changes at the state and national levels. Often, American consumers still weren’t sure what to make of the first craft spirits, and early sales were slow.
Steve McCarthy, who would go on to found Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery in 1985, learned about fruit brandies in Europe, where he traveled often while running his father’s manufacturing business.
Caitlin Bartlemay, head distiller Clear Creek/Hood River Distillers: We have a couple of [McCarthy’s] old books that are written in French, on the science of distillation. The technology they were basing these instructional books on was hundreds of years old. He had Jörg Rupf come up and train him. He was having to do a lot of guerrilla research to get where we are today…You couldn’t just go to a big bourbon house and learn.
He was literally trailblazing on essentially every front. He had to work with city and municipal codes to have a distillery in the city of Portland. And then all the sales and marketing and packaging—you name it. Every aspect of craft distilling was unknown, and he had to break that ground in order to become successful.
Farber: In the ’80s, no one could see it. There wasn’t a proven track record in terms of craft [distilling] being a viable business project. Nobody had done this…There was no real business model for this. Everybody was trying to produce the best damn thing they could, no matter what it took.
If any place embodied the ’80s craft spirits revolution, it was California—here an abundance of fruit inspired up-and-coming distillers. In addition to Rupf, Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale brought the Germain-Robin distillery to life (now part of Gallo); Dan Farber made brandy under the Osocalis label; Jaxon Keys Winery (Jepson Spirits) also made brandy. Miles Karakasevic (now retired) was inspired, not just by fruit, but by his Yugoslavian heritage when he founded Charbay in Ukiah.
Miles Karakasevic, Grand Master Distiller, Charbay: My family has been in winemaking and distilling since the 1700s. When I left Europe and came to the U.S., I continued with my profession. We made wines—Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. We were bonded for winemaking and distilling in 1983. The first distillate we did was brandy.
In the beginning—by the definition of craft spirits—these were small operations. Especially in those days, you had to produce the best possible spirits by having the best possible equipment and having money to get the best raw material. That was what separated you from the mass-produced, column-distilled [spirits] produced in the U.S., making millions of cases.
Farber: I started distilling because I had been a brewer. I got the notion, why don’t we have small distilleries in the U.S.? I didn’t know of any. I said, this is kind of fun.
My first business plan was to make what now would be called American single malt.
But when I started to poke around, I said, why do this? Scotch is so fantastic. At the time it seemed so contrived. I started to think: What is it that California has to offer the world of spirits that’s uniquely California? That was my thinking, anyway. I settled on fruit. The aging and maturation parts of brown spirits intrigued me from the beginning.
I met Hubert [Germain-Robin] in ’83. He became a great mentor and a good friend. He was the person who was most supportive. Back then, there were so few of us.
East Coast Movement
While the West Coast distillers focused on ways to turn fruit into brandies, at least one East Coast distiller turned his attention to grain—specifically corn. In Culpeper County, Virginia, Chuck Miller sought ways to keep his family farm afloat, and recalled his grandfather’s illicit moonshine business.
Chuck Miller, master distiller, Belmont Farm Distillery: I was farming here [in Culpeper]. I got out of the military, I had five kids, I had a lot of bills. I had to do something. There wasn’t a lot of money in farming at the time. The price of corn was too cheap back then.
I remembered what my grandfather did, [making whiskey]; it wasn’t legal. I said, I’ll do it, but do it legal…I called the BATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, now known as the TTB]. No small [business] had ever called before. It took about a year to figure out how to get our license. We were the first one in the U.S. making whiskey; that was about 1988.
I got some nice, old equipment; a 3,000-gallon copper pot still made in 1933, the year Prohibition ended. Virginia Lightning, a corn whiskey, was one of the first we produced. Then we made Virginia whiskey.
It was different. People weren’t interested in what I was doing. It was new, it was strange that these people on the farm made whiskey. I was the lone wolf—it was about five years until I had competition on the shelf. That’s when people started to look. It was a real business. I wasn’t an oddball anymore. I was part of a group.
The Next Generation
In the ’90s and 2000s, a new group of distilleries came on board. Vodka was the top-selling spirit—why not develop a craft version? St. George’s Rupf and Germain-Robin’s Ansley Coale teamed up to make a high-end flavored vodka and sold it nationwide. That became the basis for what is now Hangar One.
Meanwhile, a new generation of up-and-coming distillers across the country set their sights on craft whiskey, such as Tuthilltown (now part of William Grant), High West (now part of Constellation Brands) and Leopold Brothers.
Rupf: Once we started with flavored vodkas, we had to get a bottling line. Before we did it all by hand. Little things started to happen. We needed a bigger place. We went to a hangar that was so big we couldn’t see anything we had in there. And now, this place is too small to hold all the barrels. That’s how steep the curve was.
Farber: The second generation who came in—they said screw brandy, we’re going to make whiskey. They saw that this brandy stuff wasn’t really going anywhere…Today, the craft spirits’ movement is dominated by whiskey. It’s like, if you’re not a whiskey producer, you’re not a serious craft spirits producer.
The second generation was so much more successful—their story is the one we know.
Though not a complete, comprehensive list of those who made craft spirits in the 1980s and early 1990s—there are several we wish we could have included—these are the key players speaking with us in these pages.
- Dan Farber, founder and distiller, Osocalis Distillery: An obsession with barrel-aged spirits led Farber to make exquisite small-batch brandies, using California fruit.
- Miles Karakasevic, Grand Master Distiller, Charbay: Karakasevic brought traditions from his Yugoslavian heritage to build Charbay in Ukiah, California. Now retired, his son Marko runs the family’s distillery.
- Steve McCarthy, founder, Clear Creek Distillery: After learning about fruit brandies in Europe, McCarthy returned home to Oregon and pioneered a wide range of American-made brandies. Note: McCarthy died in January 2023; Caitlin Bartlemay, head distiller, Clear Creek/Hood River Distillers shared some reminiscences on McCarthy’s behalf.
- Chuck Miller, master distiller, Belmont Farm Distillery: Recalling his grandfather’s Prohibition-era moonshine business, Miller founded a legal distillery in Culpeper County, Virginia that makes unaged corn whiskey. It was the first registered craft distillery in the county.
- Jörg Rupf, founder, St. George Spirits: Rupf, an early pioneer in the U.S. craft distillery movement (now retired), started out making eau de vie in California and went on to found St. George. He’s also credited with inspiring and mentoring countless other craft distillers.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!