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updated: 10/10/2017 6:29 AM

Bourbon leads the way in the craft spirits boom

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  • Co-Owner Jose Hernandez labels bourbon bottles at the Copper Fiddle Distillery in Lake Zurich.

    Co-Owner Jose Hernandez labels bourbon bottles at the Copper Fiddle Distillery in Lake Zurich.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Bourbon is becoming popular in the suburbs.

    Bourbon is becoming popular in the suburbs.
    AP Photo/Larry Crowe

  • AP FIle Photo


Unless you've been hunkered down in a cave, you're well aware of the craft beer explosion of recent years.

Lesser known, but gaining momentum, is the craft liquor movement -- with bourbon leading the way.

That's well illustrated by the Copper Fiddle Distillery in Lake Zurich. It makes six products, including three gins. But bourbon accounts for 50 percent of its sales -- on site and through its tasting room and with the bottles it supplies to more than 50 retailers and about 200 bars and restaurants. "It's really quite amazing," says Jose Hernandez, a Copper Fiddle owner and master distiller. When Copper Fiddle received state approval in 2014, it secured license No. 11. Today, there are three times as many distilleries.

Of course, that pales in comparison to the volume of breweries. In fact, the Chicago area is tops in the nation with more than 200 breweries, according to CoStar Group, a commercial real estate data provider.

"Just the way the beer industry has branched out with a huge amount of craft beer, the spirit industry is the same way -- but about 20, 25 years behind," Hernandez says.

And that's a good thing, he says. Yes, there are scores of federal government standards that must be met, but all craft products offer a variety of tastes. "We all make it a different way," Hernandez said. "It's not better or worse -- it's different."

And in explaining bourbon's popularity, he notes that it's a "uniquely American drink," with corn as its principal grain. In fact, one of those federal guidelines requires that bourbon be made with at least 51 percent corn, one of the most American of crops.

It's popular abroad, too: Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey exports have topped $1 billion for several consecutive years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

The Copper Fiddle is growing, too. Its distribution initially was limited to the Chicago area, but it expanded to include the rest of Illinois. Not far behind are portions of California, Delaware, Maryland and New York. Distilleries in Illinois are a recent phenomenon; the first opened locally in Green Oaks in 2004. A key change in state law came in 2013. It allowed distilleries to have bars and on-site packaged sales. That prompted Hernandez and his partner Fred Robinson to turn a hobby into a business.

Copper Fiddle took a tack different from other distilleries: "We were heavy on the retail and lighter on distribution," Hernandez says. That shows in the time and attention put into the tasting room, where roughly 40 percent of his patrons prefer a straight pour; the remainder are into cocktails. There are the standard bourbon cocktails, such as Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, but "mixologists" devise special drinks every weekend.

And sometimes the booze begets the drink. Copper Fiddle invented what it believes to be the only spicy gin, called fyren gin (Get it: fire engine?). To make it, they hand roast the serrano peppers that go into it. Makes a killer Bloody Mary, Hernandez says.