On The Road Again: Midwest Edition

It’s hard to believe that it has already been a year since we left New York City and started exploring the United States on our Great Whiskey Road Trip. The year has flown by. The craziest thing is, even though we spent a full eight months on the road, we barely covered half the country--and even that not as comprehensively as we would have liked. There are just so many distilleries now doing interesting things, in so many different places--some of them quite far-flung. We just couldn’t do everything, not in individual states nor across the whole country. 

Luckily, The Great Whiskey Road Trip wasn’t the end of our travels and adventures, but just the beginning. And we always knew we’d have to hit the road again to hit the regions we missed. We wandered the West Coast and the Southwest pretty thoroughly, and did the best we could in the Mountain West when we weren’t thwarted by blizzards, bomb cyclones, and other natural phenomena. But we spent almost no time in the Midwest or in the South, besides a very brief visit to Kentucky. 

Well, more than a year after we got started and only four months after we got back to the Northeast, we’re hitting the road again. Are we going to do the whole rest of the country this time? We wish! Nope, but this time we’re focusing on one region of the country pretty much exclusively: the Midwest.

We’re only going to be on the road for three weeks this time, but we’re really going to pack it in. Starting from Vermont, we’re cutting across New York State and southern Ontario to get to Michigan--one of the hotbeds of American craft brewing, and home to a goodly number of pretty large, pretty established craft distilleries that we honestly don’t know that much about. That’s actually a theme throughout the Midwest… with a few exceptions, the big names in craft distilling in the Midwest just don’t get the same kind of attention that the flagship craft producers of the West Coast do. We don’t know why that is, although we have theories (including that the Midwesterners drink it all before it can make it to the coasts!). But we’ve observed it consistently, and it’s all the more reason for us to dive deep into the region’s distilleries.

Over the three weeks to come, we’re going to wander through Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. We’ll visit around twenty distilleries, including some of the biggest names and promising places that we’ve never even tried before. We’ll miss lots of others we wish we had more time to hit--we won’t make it to Minnesota this time, or back to Iowa, or to the interesting triangle of distilleries in southern Indiana. Because this won’t be our last trip either--we’re already in the early stages of planning another trip that will cover America’s traditional whiskey heartland, as well as the up-and-coming Southeast. 

But for now, we’re all about the Midwest. And the whiskey is the big draw, but we’re still excited for everything else we’ll enjoy along the way. Cheese, sausages, deep dish “pizza,” Canadian wine, Michigan wine, the elusive Lake Superior. We’ll do some hiking and boat-riding and falls-watching and more. And we’ll taste some really great whiskey along the way!

Which Craft Distilleries Get Bought Out?

Firestone & Robertson Whiskey Ranch in Fort Worth, Texas (Photo: Rachel Ayotte)

Firestone & Robertson Whiskey Ranch in Fort Worth, Texas (Photo: Rachel Ayotte)

The big drinks companies are investing in craft distilleries pretty regularly these days, both with outright acquisitions and smaller minority investments. The latest is Texas-based Firestone & Robertson, the makers of TX Whiskey. There’s a reasonably comprehensive list of these investments and acquisitions over at Whisky Advocate, and it’s worth checking out. But let’s do a deeper dive and look into the types of distilleries that get bought. 

What Kinds of Distilleries Get Bought?

There are almost 2,000 craft distilleries in the United States now, with more coming every year, and probably about half of them are making them whiskey. So let’s say that’s 800 or 900 craft whiskey distilleries. Of these, major drinks companies have invested in around… twenty. That’s a very select group, and that’s no surprise. With so many options out there, the big companies can certainly afford to shop around. And it’s clear that one particular type of whiskey company appeals to them more than the rest: distilleries that source whiskey from elsewhere while also making their own whiskey.

A large proportion of the distilleries that have partnered with a bigger drinks company fit into this model. High West, acquired by Constellation in 2016, is the biggest and most obvious example. They are making their own whiskey and starting to use it in their blends, but the backbone of their brand is blending whiskey from multiple different sources. They were a natural acquisition target: they already had a strong brand, a great tasting room in a unique location that attracts a lot of tourists, and perhaps most importantly, strong relationships with the companies they were sourcing from. 

(A quick aside on sourcing: It’s really easy to source whiskey from MGP in Indiana. They have no shortage, and their entire business model is based around selling whiskey. Just about anyone can source from MGP directly. There’s a form right on their website! Buying casks from Dickel in Tennessee or various Kentucky distilleries, usually unnamed, is only slightly harder, although if you don’t have pre-existing relationships or a lot of money you’ll be going through a barrel broker. 

But buying aged whiskey--especially whiskey that’s more than around 4 years old--is a different story. Sure, barrel brokers often have a handful of older barrels of Dickel, but buying older whiskey in quantity is a totally different story… unless you’ve been contracting with a producing distillery for years already. That’s why some of these acquisitions are so valuable: the distilleries have access both to a lot of sourced whiskey and to occasional lots of older stock.)

Many of the other big distillery acquisitions fall into this category, including Firestone & Robertson and Rabbit Hole, both bought by Pernod Ricard; Smooth Ambler, which sold a majority stake to Pernod Ricard; Angel’s Envy, now part of Bacardi; Limestone Branch, half-owned by Luxco; Nelson’s Green Brier and (on the brandy side) Copper & Kings in the Constellation portfolio; Woodinville Whiskey Co. (Moët Hennessy); and others. Some of them focus on relatively affordable sourced whiskeys; Firestone in particular is pretty mass-market by craft whiskey standards. Others, like Smooth Ambler, skew strongly toward the high end. But all of them built their businesses primarily on sourcing from Kentucky/Tennessee/Indiana while also developing a pipeline for their own whiskies. It’s a good business model, after all!

(Another aside: There’s nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey… as long as you’re transparent about it! That’s what we’re doing at Lost Lantern as well, although we’re not buying whiskey from any of the traditional sources. Of course, not everyone actually is transparent about sourcing, and that’s still a major issue in the industry.)

Distilleries That Make Their Own Whiskey

The lion’s share of the companies that have been acquired so far fall into the preceding category. Investments in distilleries that actually focus exclusively on making their own whiskey have been much less common, and for good reason--distilling is a really capital-intensive and cash-flow intensive business, especially in the start-up phase when you have to wait for your whiskey to mature. 

That said, there have been a few investments in distilleries that don’t source… and most of those acquisitions have been pretty high-profile names. Hudson (Tuthilltown) was the first (or at least first with any profile); Scotch producer William Grant invested in them way back in 2010. Proximo (the U.S. arm of Cuervo) purchased Colorado single malt producer Stranahan’s; Rémy Cointreau jumped into Washington single malt with Westland; Edrington invested in Wyoming Whiskey; Diageo took a piece of Westward (formerly House Spirits) and Constellation took stakes in Catoctin Creek and Black Button, as well as Bardstown Bourbon Co.--which is a bit of an oddball in that it is primarily making whiskey to sell to others, a sort of Kentucky MGP.  

That’s a markedly shorter list, but most of those distilleries have one thing in common--they’re big by craft whiskey standards. I’m not sure about Black Button or Hudson, but Stranahan’s, Westland and Westward are probably all in the top five single malt producers in the United States, and Wyoming is one of the largest Bourbon distilleries outside of KY/TN/IN. These distilleries are all making over a thousand barrels a year, sometimes a lot more than that. 

And most craft distilleries are way, way smaller than that. Most of the places we visited on our eight-month road trip across the country were making around 50 to 300 barrels a year, and many more (including most of the places we skipped) are doing just one or two dozen. There certainly are other craft distilleries making thousands of barrels, but they are the exception, not the rule. But I guarantee you, even if the big drinks companies haven’t invested in them yet, they’ve come poking around to ask questions (of course, not every place is a fit, and not every craft distillery would sell, even given the opportunity).

The short version is this: the craft distilleries that are getting bought fall into two clear categories: most of them are releasing a lot of sourced whiskey while making their own, and a few, generally quite large, are entirely making their own stuff. But the former category is absolutely predominant so far.

California, Here We Come

Right back where we started from!

The sun setting in Sea Ranch

The sun setting in Sea Ranch

It’s been an extremely busy few months for Lost Lantern--after eight months on the road, we spent most of the spring and early summer in Vermont (minus a few side trips to New York City and southern New England). We used this time to begin to actualize everything we accomplished on the road. We had our connections, our warm leads on exciting single casks, the pieces that would become our first blend. Now, we had to execute… and we did. Our first blended craft whiskey is currently being slow-proofed at the distillery that’s helping us out with bottling. Our first seven or so single casks are already there as well, with more on the way, just waiting to be bottled later this year.

This is really happening. Our first whiskies will be released within the next… actually, I’d better not put a timeframe on it. Not all the pieces are in place yet. Most, but not all.

And that’s why we’re in California. 

We want to make sure our whiskey gets to the people who will really be excited by it, who will understand what we’re doing and want to explore the nuances of craft whiskey. We want to court the people who already love Scotch independent bottlers, and are intrigued by the idea of a company operating on a similar model but for American craft whiskey… as well as the people who already believe in American craft whiskey and are always seeking out unique new spirits.   

So we’re out in California talking to distributors, introducing ourselves to whiskey bars and retail stores, and explaining what we’re up to and talking about our first few releases. It’s one of the last few steps in actually getting our whiskey out to market.

And we’re excited to say that people out here, at least in the Bay Area where we’ve been spending our time, really do GET IT. So far, just about everyone we’ve talked to is excited both about our model and about the actual whiskies we’re pouring for them--both our first blend and some of the single casks. We’re thrilled. We always knew that Lost Lantern would have a pretty specific market of high-end whiskey drinkers, but it’s great to get the validation from the people who sell to those drinkers that they also believe there’s a genuine thirst out there for what we’re doing. 

We don’t have any firm news yet, but we can say that our time out here has been very productive and bodes well for Lost Lantern in California. 

One of the great things about our nearly constant travels is that we can usually set aside a little bit of time for enjoying the wonders of nature wherever we end up. We haven’t made it to any National Parks this time, but we did do some hiking around Mt. Tam on a very foggy day and have spent several days working right on the coast in far northern Sonoma. California is a spectacular place, both its cities and its wildernesses, and we’re excited that it looks like we’ll be out here at least a few times a year. 

We’re Back East!

Beaver Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park

Beaver Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park

Well, after eight months on the road, we’re officially back East and comfortably settled down just outside Middlebury, Vermont, which will be our home base for the summer. Our last few weeks were quite busy--we made it back from Colorado to Vermont in less than two weeks, even while hitting up a number of distilleries and two national parks along the way.

After the ADI conference, where I had the pleasure of being a speaker, we spent some time visiting distilleries in Denver and Boulder. Then we took a rare weekend for ourselves to explore the still-pretty-wintry Rocky Mountain National Park. After a few days getting work done in Fort Collins, we started our journey back East: first in one long haul to Omaha, Nebraska, where we found a speakeasy, had lots of steak, and stopped by the single malt distillery Cut Spike; then to Iowa and Cedar Ridge, one of the prettiest distilleries we’ve seen. We headed further south in the Great Plains to Kansas City, where we visited distilleries on both the Kansas and Missouri sides of the border. Then it was onward into Appalachia: first, we cut through Kentucky (we’ll be back later, for longer!) and stopped by New Riff, one of the new wave of Kentucky distilleries, then into West Virginia (surprisingly beautiful!) for an extremely fun visit at Smooth Ambler, and lastly western Virginia, where we finally found spring. We spent a day in Charlottesville, stopped by and saw our friends at Virginia Distillery Co., then closed out our adventure with two days in Shenandoah National Park. After that, it was an easy half-day drive back to Albany for a few days, then to Vermont. What a whirlwind!

Now that we’re back, it’s full steam ahead on Lost Lantern, as we move into the really nitty-gritty details of the process: We’ve already sourced casks and developed our first blend (more on that relatively soon!), but now we get to actually put it together. We’re buying bottles, ordering labels, submitting COLA approvals, talking to distributors--all that fun stuff that will make Lost Lantern an actual whiskey, on an actual shelf, that you can actually buy. And we’re moving very fast! After months of working on the road with whatever spare hours we can get, having actual uninterrupted time allows us to be even more efficient.

Just yesterday, we finalized our release plan through 2020, including both our first blend and our first lineup of single casks, sourced from craft distilleries across the country. I’m incredibly excited to share the details, but the time isn’t quite ripe yet. Soon, though. Soon.

In the meantime, we’re actually still traveling a fair amount in the next few months. Next week we head to our old stomping grounds in Brooklyn for a wedding, and (of course) a bunch of meetings. Afterwards, we’re taking a short tour of the New England coast to visit some distilleries there, and then we’ll probably be heading back down South within a month or so. See? It’s like I said before: Even though our long journey is over, the fun is just beginning.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park


Total miles driven so far, as of April 18th: 23,000

States we've been in since last update: Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont (probably a record!)

States we’ve been in, cumulative: 32!!!! (New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Nevada, New Hampshire, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland)

States we've spent the night in since the last update: 9 (Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, New York, Vermont)

Most beautiful drive: Up to Estes Park, into Rocky Mountain National Park, and down from Estes Park to Fort Collins

Most beautiful single spot: Beaver Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park (so many mountains, everywhere!)

Number of National Parks visited since last update: 2 (Rocky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah)

National Parks visited, cumulative: 20 (Badlands, Wind Cave, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Crater Lake, Redwood, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Joshua Tree, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Saguaro, Carlsbad Caverns, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah)

National Parks we most want to go back to: Yosemite, Sequoia, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Rocky Mountain

National Parks we’re saddest to have missed: Glacier, Death Valley, Arches

Most harrowing experience of the whole trip: Having about half an hour to flee Sequioa National Park when a snowstorm arrived 12 hours early, and we had a flight to catch, and we had no idea how to put our tire chains on, and the roads almost closed

Animals we saw: Mule deer, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, hawks, and, back in Vermont, a robertcat

Top animal sightings of the whole trip: BUFFALO!!!! in South Dakota and Wyoming; Moose in Grand Teton; black and grizzly bears in Wyoming; a whale in Oregon; Bigfoot in Washington; elephant seals in California; bighorn sheep in Utah

Favorite places of the whole trip: Custer State Park in South Dakota; Yosemite and Sequoia in the Sierra Nevada; southern Utah

Number of distilleries visited so far (cumulative): 50! (actually probably slightly more)

State we spent the most time in this month: Colorado

State we spent the most time in overall: California

State we spent the least time in this month and overall: Maryland, which we drove through for 11 miles

Places we’re looking forward to visiting later this year: New England, Kentucky for more than a day, Tennessee, coastal California this summer--and generally everywhere we missed!

Miles to Wall Drug: 1,734

March Update


Hello from Taos, New Mexico! It has been a whirlwind ride since our last update at the end of January, and we’ve been extremely busy as work for Lost Lantern has started to ramp up. After months of talking with distilleries, pitching them on our vision for an independent bottler for craft whiskey, and tasting lots and lots of barrel samples, our final plan for our first set of releases has come together. Now, we’re in the process of actually making that happen--and as a result, we suddenly have a hugely increased amount of work to do, even while we’re on the road.

It’s crazy to think that we’ve been on the road for half a year--and we’ve only covered about half the country! We’ve visited dozens and dozens of great distilleries now, but there are lots of innovative whiskeymakers in the middle of the country and on the East Coast too. However, after six months living out of suitcases, Nora and I are just about ready to be back in one place where we can focus on building Lost Lantern. So we’ve made the tactical decision to return to Vermont early in April and take shorter trips later this spring and summer to the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, Appalachia, South, and New England. We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover, but we’ll be able to strike out for a week or so at a time from a single home base.

As for the last month and a half--we’ve had a truly exciting time. We encountered nearly perfect weather in the stunning Zion National Park for Nora’s birthday (and, with the shuttles shut down for the season and the government shutdown ending only the day before we got there, we had the park basically to ourselves), but we only got a tease of Bryce Canyon--at 9,000 feet elevation, the amphitheatre was beautiful, but covered in snow. No hiking there. Our national park weather luck finally turned bad at the Grand Canyon, where we were caught in several successive blizzards. Thankfully, on the last day, we were finally able to see the canyon in all its glory! After a few days catching up with friends and visiting distilleries in Phoenix, we flew to Minneapolis for the annual ACSA conference, which was hugely successful. After flying back, we made our way to Tucson, where our good friends at Hamilton Distillers graciously hosted us and showed off their city (special shout-out to all the cactuses at Saguaro National Park--keep living your perfect life!). Then, we made our way to Texas via southern New Mexico (with a stopover at the unbelievable White Sands). Texas has so many great distilleries that we couldn’t hit them all, but we made time for our favorites and met some new friends as well. But we’ll definitely have to come back to hit some of the ones we missed. After Texas, we headed back west to northern New Mexico, and have spent the last few days exploring the whiskey scene in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos.

Today, we head into Colorado, the last Western state we’ll spend a lot of time in, and then in two weeks we’ll start heading back east. It has truly been an adventure, and we are simultaneously so thrilled with everything we’ve seen, and ready to just be home again for a while. Our next update will probably be written from Vermont or Albany, but although the first part of our journey will be at an end, in many ways it will just be the beginning.


Total miles driven so far, as of March 9th: 18,000

States we've been in since last update: California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, New Mexico again

States we’ve been in, cumulative: 23 (New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Nevada, New Hampshire, Arizona, New Mexico)

States we've spent the night in since the last update: 6 (California, Utah, Arizona, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas)

Most beautiful drive: Pretty much everything in Utah

Most beautiful single spot: probably Bryce Canyon

Number of National Parks visited since last update: 5 (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Saguaro, Carlsbad Caverns) (Special shout-outs as well to Mojave National Preserve and White Sands National Monument)

Sunset over the White Sands

Sunset over the White Sands

Number of National Parks visited, cumulative: 18 (Badlands, Wind Cave, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Crater Lake, Redwood, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Joshua Tree, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Saguaro, Carlsbad Caverns)

Number of National Parks missed along our route so far: 9 (Lassen, Pinnacles, Channel Islands, and Death Valley in California; Great Basin in Nevada; Canyonlands and Capitol Reef in Utah; Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend in Texas. Sadly lots more to come in Colorado because it’s still winter there)

National Parks we really, really want to go back to: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Saguaro

National Parks we definitely didn’t need to spend four days at: Grand Canyon (it’s pretty, but far from our favorite spot, and all the hikes are extremely easy or impossibly hard - especially in winter)

Most harrowing experience: When we hit a whiteout blizzard entirely without warning in southern New Mexico

Animals we saw: BIGHORN SHEEP! Also, a gray fox, and lots of mule deer, and maybe some goats, which look a lot like sheep

A bighorn sheep in Zion

A bighorn sheep in Zion

Favorite places this month: Zion, Bryce Canyon, the White Sands, that one barbecue place we went to in Dallas

Place we’re saddest to have missed: The McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains

Number of distilleries visited so far (cumulative): around 45, but we aren’t really keeping close track anymore

State we spent the most time in: Arizona, which is MUCH more geographically diverse than East Coasters like us ever imagined

State we spent the least time in: Nevada

Thing we miss the most: Staying in one place for more than three days at a time; cooking for ourselves more than once a week

Trip highlights since last update: getting incredibly fortunate weather in Zion; the White Sands; the ACSA conference, how easy it was to find Weller in Texas

Things we’re looking forward to on our way back: My first trip to Colorado!, the great distilleries of the Great Plains, states you can drive across in less than a day, Kansas City barbecue, the Blue Ridge Mountains

Miles to Wall Drug: variable

Road Trip, Part II

Farewell to the endless sprawl and sunny weather of Los Angeles!

Farewell to the endless sprawl and sunny weather of Los Angeles!

Today we hit the road again! After a month-long stay in Los Angeles, where we were able to focus exclusively on building Lost Lantern, we’re heading northeast, to southern Utah’s red rock canyons, and then down into Arizona in February to start exploring the unique whiskies of the Southwest. Today, we start what’s effectively the second half of our road trip.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been in California for two and a half months, fully half the time since we left New York City. But it’s an incredibly big state, and it has no shortage of either great distilleries or stunning national parks--the main professional and personal focal points of our road trip. We visited half a dozen distilleries in wine country alone, as well as lots of breweries and wineries, and have criss-crossed the state from the redwoods in the north to Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada to Palm Springs and Los Angeles in the south (sorry, San Diego--next time!). And we decamped in L.A. for all of January explicitly so we could keep Lost Lantern moving forward on a strategic level. We can keep the gears turning day-to-day while we’re on the road visiting distilleries and meeting new potential partners, but the work of contracts, fundraising, logo design, and product development is tough to squeeze in for an hour a day between long drives and distillery visits.

From that sense, January has been very successful, and it was also a great way to recharge our batteries after months of constant travel. We both have lots of friends here and met with some great people in the extended world of the booze biz, and--as longtime New Yorkers--swiftly fell back into the rhythms of life in a big city (that said, I really disliked a lot about L.A., from the traffic to the constant blinding sunlight, but we certainly enjoyed the warm temperatures and lack of a polar vortex).

I couldn’t be more excited about the second part of our road trip. We spent the first few months on the West Coast for a reason--both to outrun the cold weather and because all three West Coast states are home to a huge array of craft distilleries, many of them quite established, a lot of them loudly and proudly influenced by Scottish tradition. In fact there were so many West Coast distilleries that even in four months we were only able to visit a handful of the best and brightest.

The next regions of the country we’ll pass through are different. The whiskies of Arizona and New Mexico, at least the ones that I’ve tried, are extremely distinctive and reflective of where they come from, but there just aren’t as many distilleries there yet. Texas and Colorado are both craft whiskey hotbeds in their own right, and have intense regional pride and unique approaches of their own--not to mention climates that are very different from either Scotland or Kentucky. I’ve never been to Colorado and have barely been to Texas, and can’t wait to visit the distilleries there firsthand.

Beyond that lie the Great Plains, which is where our trip planning will get really interesting. Although all 50 states have distilleries now, some states only have a few,  and not all of those are making whiskey. As we slowly head back east, we’ll sometimes venture into states solely to visit a single distillery. We’ll always do the research to see if there are newer up-and-comers worth a visit, but even if we visit two or three places, our journey will feel very different from the West Coast, where we struggled even to hit all of our must-visits. In some ways, this lower concentration gives us more flexibility. We don’t have to schedule a week in Arkansas or Nebraska; we can pop in for a day or two, visit Rock Town and Cut Spike when it’s convenient for them, pop by an up-and-coming farm distillery, go for a hike in the Ozarks and wherever they have for hiking in Nebraska, and then move on.

Don’t get me wrong--even places that don’t have many distilleries are making great whiskey. The Great Plains are the corn capital of the entire world, so it only makes sense that distilleries there are embracing bourbon. Estate distilleries revive the farming ethos that motivated distilleries way back in the 18th century. But for a wide variety of reasons, ultimately driven by the area’s lower population, the industry just isn’t as densely established yet.

And beyond the Great Plains lie the Midwest, the coastal South, Kentucky and Tennessee, the mid-Atlantic, and of course our own backyard of New York and New England. Even though we’ve been on the road for four months and visited dozens of distilleries, we’re just scratching the surface of American whiskey and the emerging regionality of craft. There are so many more exciting adventures to come.

American Craft Whiskey Is Good NOW

Craft whiskey deserves a place on the top shelf, and that’s right where we found it at K&L Wine Merchants in Hollywood.

Craft whiskey deserves a place on the top shelf, and that’s right where we found it at K&L Wine Merchants in Hollywood.

A lot of whiskey writers have the habit of talking about American craft whiskey in the future tense. They write enthusiastically about what new distilleries are working on and producing, and look forward to the day, years from now, when that whiskey "reaches its full potential." I've fallen into this trap myself; when distillers are doing something unique and different, it's easy to get excited about it and yearn for the far-off day when that whiskey will actually be in bottle.

Others in the whiskey world are harsher, and argue that American craft whiskey can't hold a candle to the established traditional producers in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana. They say that craft whiskies are no good because they aren't aged long enough, or because they're aged in small barrels, or because they're flawed in other ways. I'll be the first to admit all of these are real issues. The whiskey business is tough, and most new distilleries face huge pressure to release whiskey as soon as they can. Around 90% of the distilleries in the United States opened in the last ten years. Waiting for whiskey to reach a certain age and flavor profile requires more than just patience; it requires money, which is usually in short supply for a new distillery. Many do end up releasing whiskey that has not yet reached "its full potential," even in the eyes of the distillers themselves.

But that's not the whole story. It's true that many craft distilleries don't (yet) offer the same complexity and quality as their traditional counterparts, and will continue to improve over time. But there are also a large number of craft distilleries with truly excellent whiskies that you can buy and enjoy now. Whiskies you can sip, on their own or in a cocktail, and you won't think to yourself, "Well, this whiskey has potential someday," but simply "Wow, this tastes delicious. More please!" There are more and more of these distilleries every year. Of course, not every distillery will appeal to every palate, but if you look, you can find an American craft whiskey that will appeal to yours.

Here are, just off the top of my head, eleven American whiskies that are amazing right now. None of them are sourced, and most are under $60.

  • Westland Peated Single Malt (Washington)

  • Balcones Brimstone (Texas)

  • Ragtime Rye (New York)

  • Cedar Ridge Bourbon (Iowa)

  • FEW Rye (Illinois)

  • Peerless Rye (Kentucky)

  • Sea Fog Single Malt (Rhode Island)

  • McCarthy's Single Malt (Oregon)

  • Whiskey Del Bac Dorado Mesquite-Smoked Single Malt (Arizona)

  • Colkegan Mesquite-Smoked Single Malt (New Mexico)

  • St. George Baller Single Malt (California)

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Honestly, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I could add another dozen names to the list just from other distilleries we’ve visited, and there are many more great whiskies out there that aren’t as widely known.

Stop thinking about American craft whiskey only in the future tense. American craft whiskey DOES have huge potential, and it will be even better five years from now. But American craft whiskey is also good RIGHT NOW. You don't have to wait any longer. You just have to know where to look.


Why We Started Lost Lantern With A Road Trip

The Lost Lantern team at Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol, California

The Lost Lantern team at Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol, California

Nora and I have been traveling around the country for more than three months now, and although we’ve visited 13 national parks along the way and are having lots of adventures, our road trip is decidedly not a vacation. In fact, we see our journey as an essential and fundamental part of our vision for what Lost Lantern will become.

Craft whiskey is a national phenomenon. Until quite recently, just about all of America’s serious whiskey distilleries were in the three adjacent states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana (a handful of others, like the old Pennsylvania incarnation of Michter’s, held out for a long time after Prohibition and the world wars but ultimately closed long before my time).

That’s not true anymore. Now, there are distilleries in every state of the country, many of them reviving lost techniques or exploring unique ways of making whiskey influenced by their local environment. Some of these distilleries are relatively large and established; some are laying down a lot of whiskey but waiting years until they feel that it’s ready; others are quite small and only sell in their local area.

That’s why Nora and I hit the road to launch Lost Lantern--why we essentially had to. In my former position at Whisky Advocate, I had the good fortune to meet many of the top craft distillers from around the country and get to know their whiskeys. But there are over 1,600 distilleries now, and many of them don’t have the time, resources, or sometimes even the desire to come to New York and introduce themselves to the media. Of course, these smaller distilleries can make great whiskey too. We’re traveling, in part, to find these distilleries that aren’t well-known nationally.

We want Lost Lantern to be an independent bottler of great American craft whiskey--and not just American craft whiskey that already has national name recognition. We love most of those big names too (“big” being a very relative term in craft whiskey) and absolutely want to showcase some of the unique whiskeys they make. But we also want to introduce whiskey lovers to distilleries they don’t already know.

Beyond that, Nora and I believe very strongly in transparency, and that extends to the partners we work with. We’re choosing to travel the country and visit these distilleries in person so we can see how they operate, and so they can see how we operate. Nobody has done something quite like Lost Lantern before, not with craft whiskey, and we want to share our vision for the company directly with the founders and distillers we hope to work with. Maybe we could have launched Lost Lantern without ever leaving New York, explaining our mission and requesting barrel samples by email. But that’s not how we wanted to present ourselves to the community of distillers… nor would it help us advance our own knowledge and palates. We learn so much from every distillery we visit--about production, about maturation, about business, about the weird web of laws that vary dramatically state-to-state. Nora and I have been in the industry in various ways for a long time, but now, having visited dozens of distilleries in dozens of states in just a few months, we’re in the thick of it more than ever before.

And we’re only halfway done!

January Update!


Happy New Year, and greetings from sunny Los Angeles! We’re so excited for 2019, which will be a big year for Lost Lantern and a big year for us personally as we continue and eventually conclude our road trip and start to roll out our plans for the business and the next stage of our lives.

As of January 4th, we’ve arrived in Los Angeles, where we’ll be spending just about the whole month--quite a nice, warm way to ride out the depths of winter. We spent much of December exploring the sheer breadth of California, starting from the Sierra Nevada and making our way to the Mendocino coast, then to Napa and Sonoma wine country, then briefly down to San Francisco. We spent over a week back east, split between New York City, Albany, Vermont, and Massachusetts for Christmas. Then we flew back to California and made our way down the coast, through Monterey and Big Sur, then over to Palm Springs for New Year’s Eve.

We’ll stay in Los Angeles until the end of the month, when we’ll head to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon (assuming the government shutdown is over by then). Then we’ll start exploring the great cities of the Southwest, which are home to some of our favorite whiskies in the country. We can’t wait! Best of all--it will be warm there too!


Total miles driven so far, as of Jan. 4th: 12,750

States we've been in since last update: Nevada, California, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts

States we’ve been in, cumulative: 22 (New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Nevada, New Hampshire)

States we've spent the night in since the last update: 5 (Nevada, California, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts)

Most beautiful drive: Big Sur; Joshua Tree; Appalachian Gap and Mad River Valley in Vermont

Most beautiful single spot: Somewhere along the coast in Big Sur or Mendocino

Place we’re saddest to have missed: Pinnacles National Park, Santa Barbara

Number of National Parks visited since last update: 1 (Joshua Tree)

Number of National Parks visited, cumulative: 13 (Badlands, Wind Cave, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Crater Lake, Redwood, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Joshua Tree)

Number of National Parks missed along our route so far: 2 (Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California because of wildfires; Pinnacles National Park south of S.F. because of government shutdown)

Park we went to anyway despite the government shutdown: Joshua Tree, and everyone was very well behaved, at least while we were there… it has gotten a lot worse since the first days of the shutdown.

Animals we saw: Elephant seals and lots of ‘em

Number of days we stayed in Sonoma: three

Number of times we visited Russian River Brewing Co. while in Sonoma: four

Favorite places this month: Mendocino coast; wine country; the Mad River Valley in Vermont; Joshua Tree and the desert in general

Temperature differential, in degrees Fahrenheit, between the beach we walked on in Ipswich, Mass on Christmas Day and the beach in Santa Cruz, California we walked on two days later: 35

Number of distilleries visited this month: 6

Number of distilleries visited so far (cumulative): 23

State we spent the most time in: California (which has now passed Washington and Wyoming as the state we spent the longest amount of time in overall)

State we spent the least time in: New Hampshire

Thing we miss the most: Longer days

Miles to Wall Drug: variable

Trip highlights of the month: Returning to old haunts in the Northeast; several Christmases; getting to L.A. for a solid month of work in one place

Third Month Stats


Hello from Tahoe, where Nora and I are thoroughly snowed in—giving me time to write a longer update!

As of December 4th, we are now exactly three months into our road trip and fully settled into life on the road! November was a very successful month from both a work and personal perspective, and although we visited fewer distilleries this month, our meetings were generally very productive and promising. We also were able to spend some time catching up on more strategic work in the beautiful Willamette Valley in Oregon at the beginning of the month and again now in Tahoe. In between our work, we saw some truly incredible sights in November—probably our most scenic month so far. And, even though we’ve only been in three states all month, we’ve seen a huge variety of terrain, from the wet, rolling hills of the Willamette Valley to the High Desert of Bend, Oregon, from the coastal redwoods and Central Valley of California to the Sierra Nevada and the Great Basin. It has really driven home how diverse the West Coast can be. Of course, a special highlight of this month was Thanksgiving, which we celebrated with parts of both our families in San Francisco.

We’ve also started to have our first experiences with winter weather—and other more unexpected conditions, such as the heavy smoke and debilitatingly poor air quality in much of California (thanks, wildfires!). We spent much of the last two weeks in or near the Sierra Nevada, and for most of that time we had incredibly beautiful weather, far nicer than the mountains usually get this late in the fall. But the weather finally caught up with us as we left Sequoia National Park, when a major snowstorm arrived twelve hours early and nearly trapped us in the park just as we left. Only a serious scramble, and a very helpful park attendant who put on our tire chains, allowed us to flee down from the mountains at a hearty pace of 5 miles per hour. 

Our next stop was supposed to be Tahoe City and a visit to Nora’s cousin Will, but the same snowstorm thwarted our plans by dumping over a foot of snow on the mountain passes. Instead, we stayed in an 1850s hotel in Gold Rush country. The following day, the storm ended in the morning—just enough time for us to cross the high Sierra and make it to Reno before another storm arrived that night. The next day, after a great meeting at a farm distillery in Nevada, we had to try our luck again and make it to South Lake Tahoe. The journey proved surprisingly hairy as yet more snow arrived, but with a little good fortune and a lot of cursing, we made it to Lake Tahoe. We have a stunning view of the lake and mountains in our Airbnb, and don’t mind being snowed in for a few days. 

The rest of December will be a busy month. After Tahoe, we head to California wine country, also home to a number of impressive distilleries. Then we’ll spend a few days in San Francisco for business and pleasure before returning to the East Coast through Christmas. We are, as ever, very busy, often very tired, but always very excited about Lost Lantern and the many wonderful places our adventure is taking us.

Total miles driven so far, as of Dec. 4th: 10,500
States we've been in since last update: Oregon, California, Nevada
States we’ve been in, cumulative: 20 (New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Nevada)
States we've spent the night in since the last update: 3 (Oregon, California, Nevada)
Most beautiful drive: Honestly too many to count
Most beautiful single spot: The Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park
Group consensus on giant trees: The coastal redwoods make you feel like you’re in Jurassic Park. The giant sequoias of Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove were a little disappointing. But the much larger, much denser sequoias in Sequoia National Park are nearly unreal, difficult to comprehend and incredibly moving.
Proportion of giant trees that are named after presidents, generals, other army officers, or wealthy businessmen [sic]: Like basically all of them
Places we’re saddest to have missed: Tahoe City; Muir Woods National Monument, closed due to dangerous air quality from the wildfires
Place we didn’t plan to go to, didn’t plan to like, but actually enjoyed a great deal: Reno
Amount AP won at roulette, then immediately lost at video poker: $20
Amount NGR won at roulette after already winning a bunch at video poker: $20
Flights taken: zero, thank goodness
Number of National Parks visited since last update: 5 (Crater Lake, Redwood, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia)
Number of National Parks visited, cumulative: 12 (Badlands, Wind Cave, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Crater Lake, Redwood, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia) (for those keeping score at home, there are 60 National Parks overall, so we've only scratched the surface!)
Number of National Parks missed along our route so far: one (Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California)
Animals we saw (this category is back by popular demand!): Seals (several times!), a whale (!!!!!!!!), lots of hawks, turkeys, Bigfoot, mule deer, elk, big fearless crows, lots of boring things like humans and pigeons and dogs
Times we saw elk in national parks, forests, or other wilderness places: zero
Times we saw elk in the middle of the street in broad daylight in downtown Bend, Oregon: two
Number of Bigfoot-themed roadside attractions we've visited: one
Number of times we’ve gone to In N Out Burger: two
Number of secret Bible verses hidden on In N Out Burger containers Nora has noticed: zero

Favorite places this month: Crater Lake, the coastal redwood forests, the Sonoma coast, pretty much everything about the Sierra Nevada
Number of times my mom said "wow" at some beautiful sight: Uncountable
Number of times we’ve had to put on tire chains: two
Number of times putting on tire chains was harrowing and nerve-wracking: two
Number of times we had to pay people to help us put on the tire chains: two
Number of people on this road trip who are still wimpy city folk at heart: two
Number of distilleries visited this month: 6
Number of distilleries visited so far (cumulative): 17
State we spent the most time in: California
State we spent the least time in: Nevada
Number of places that smelled like rotten eggs: None, freakin’ finally
Maximum number of seasons experienced in a single day: three, when crossing the Sierra Nevada from fall to winter to summer
Thing we miss the most: States that don't have insane wildfires
Highest elevation we stayed at: 7,200' (Wuksachi Lodge, Sequoia National Park)
Miles to Wall Drug: variable
Trip highlights of the month: Bringing our families together for Thanksgiving; giant trees; climbing Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park

Until next time!