The Struggle For American Whiskey Independence

Scotch or bourbon whiskey (or whisky) being poured into a glass with dramatic studio lighting and a black background.
Scotch or bourbon whiskey (or whisky) being poured into a glass with dramatic studio lighting and a black background.

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In the past year, we've seen big spirits companies gobble up smaller whiskey brands. The latest is Seattle's Westland Distillery, which last week announced it sold to Remy Martin for an undisclosed amount.

Founded in 2010, Westland embodied the Pacific Northwest spirit. Founders Emerson Lamb and Matt Hoffman were smart, different and innovative. They reminded me of other bright Seattle minds who invented the cell phone and built computers that changed the world.

What Westland did in six years is amazing. They implemented an American peat bog, helped establish Oregon oak barrels and worked with Washington State University to create new breeds of barley. Their ideas were fresh, raw and pure. Many of us not only believed their hype, we rooted for them to succeed.

I made the mistake of believing them when the owners said they'd remain independent.

They sold. And there's nothing wrong with that. Most business plans have buyout rationale, and I hope Remy paid Westland handsomely.

But as an enthusiast, I want to support truly independent distilleries. If they keep selling, we will lose the bravado and innovation that comes with craft whiskey. And no brand was more magical than Westland.

Their independence is gone. No matter what happens to the existing staff and facilities, Westland is now Remy's, who will do what they want. I hope they continue the path Lamb and Hoffman set them on and further study American peat, barley and wood. But they will do what's best for their business. The one positive is Remy owns Mount Gay, a rum distillery that's been left in the hands of the Barbados locals and not drastically interfered with. So, there's hope new ownership will respect Westland's young heritage.

As for the independence in American whiskey, well, cherish it while you can, because history shows that the successful brands will be purchased. (In Bourbon, you can study the period in which the Big Four purchased smaller brands and found themselves under federal investigations.) No doubt, this strategy has already helped Angel's Envy, who sold to Bacardi; George Remus, recently acquired by MGP Ingredients; and High West, which received $160 million from Constellation Brands. Others have sold for less and more in the past few years.

Our greatest independent American whiskey-only distillery left is Willett in Bardstown, Ky. (Heaven Hill is technically an independent family-owned company, but they're in a league of their own and make more than whiskey.)

Willett remains all in the family.

Let's hope it stays that way.

If Willett sold, whiskey geeks around the world will need Prozac.