The American Distilling Institute’s 2016 Spirits Conference and Vendor Expo landed this year on the beautiful city of San Diego, CA, for an intense six days of educational exchange and networking. More than 1,500 members of the distilling community attended this year’s event, coming together to advance the art and science of spirit craft and to celebrate the bonds that make this industry unique.

“The ADI conference, with 16 hands-on workshops and 75 breakout sessions, is about education,” said ADI President Bill Owens. “It is also about networking… the expo floor had 146 vendors ranging from cork suppliers to still manufacturers. You could ‘meet the maker’ of barrels, stainless steel fermentation tanks and bottling lines. The conference is a must-attend event for the craft distiller.”

The earliest stirrings of the conference commenced Saturday, April 2, with a three-day, Hands-on Whiskey Distilling Workshop at Old Harbor Distilling, taught by Donald Snyder of Whiskey Resources. By Monday morning, eight workshops were in full swing around San Diego County, including a Hands-on Gin Workshop hosted by Kill Devil Spirit Co. and taught by U.K. gin experts David T. Smith of Summer Fruit Cup and Anne Brock of Jensen’s Gin. Also, a number of bus tours were running loops that day for visitors keen to explore seven local distilleries. Monday night brought together members of the distilling community who hadn’t seen each other in a year at a variety of receptions, including the launch of a “Slow Distillation and Maturation Movement,” inspired by Hubert Germain-Robin, with promises of newly elevated standards of quality.

Regarding setting standards that distillers and consumers can easily understand, Germain-Robin said, “If we follow the right methods of production recognized to be the best, if we aspire to the search of perfection, which is the goal and dream of any artist: We can imagine the future for the next generations.”

The conference took full stride Tuesday morning with the general session, featuring a roster of speakers that included industry analysts and key members of the distilling community. Keynote speaker Yuseff Cherney, CEO of Ballast Point Brewing and Distilling, held up his copy of Bill Owens’s How to Build a Small Brewery to the delight of the breakfast crowd. Cherney credits Owens’s classic book with initiating his penchant for homebrewing, which eventually led to his position as Ballast Point’s founding brewer—a career that culminated in the sale last year of Ballast Point Brewing for the heady sum of $1 billion. Cherney also credited a gold medal from ADI’s 2010 Judging of Craft Spirits in helping him persuade the brewery’s owners into buying a Vendome still and to ramp up spirits production at Ballast Point. (The spirits brands were held out of the brewery sale and will reappear through a new venture, Cutwater Spirits, by Cherney and Ballast Point founder
Jack White.)

In his annual state of the industry address, research economist Michael Kinstlick presented the results of ADI’s 2015 year-end survey: The market for craft spirits is consistently growing by 35% annually, and the number of operating craft distilleries continues to double about every three years. As Kinstlick finished his presentation, concluding that 962 craft distilleries were operating at the end of 2015 and that the total number was nearing 1,000, ADI President Bill Owens stepped to the podium—sporting a tricorn hat—to announce the 1,000th craft distillery that ADI has recognized: Mingo Creek Distillers, of Pennsylvania.

After introducing Mingo Creek, Owens declared the conference officially open, and the morning crowd flooded the expo floor. The two days that followed included 75 breakout sessions on a myriad of topics from international distribution to proper use of a spectrophotometer, a charity auction, the awards gala and a luncheon for women in distilling.

“ADI continues to provide value to exhibitors like us,” said Kevin Dunbar of Tapi USA. “Once again this year the interest we received from conference attendees was terrific. There was a constant stream of attendees in the exhibitor’s area, a tribute to
the efforts of the ADI staff and the organization of the conference.”

The main event of any ADI Conference is of course the awards gala. And on Tuesday night, this year’s gala opened with a moving tribute to the victims and families involved in the 2015 explosion and fire at Silver Trail Distillery in Hardin, KY. ADI presented a check for $9,000—50% of the proceeds from this year’s auction—to “Lifting Spirits: Jay and Kyle Rogers Support Fund,” administered by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. Jay Rogers took to the podium to accept the contribution and delivered a memorable and touching impromptu speech. Rather than focusing on the accident and tragic loss of his cousin Kyle, he expressed a message of overwhelming gratitude to the distilling community for their unfailing material and emotional help and support.

“One of the best things about all of it is—if you can imagine something good—the love that I have felt and have seen toward myself, my family, friends, Mr. [Silver Trail Distillery owner Spencer] Balentine,” said Rogers. “It has restored my faith in humanity because I do know that there’s good people out there. And the distilling families: They are the ones that were out there… kept the doctors and the nurses fed… They fed the families that had children in the burn unit with me. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association: They circled the wagons around all of us. If anybody needed anything, they just obtained it. That’s my family.”

His acknowledgment of the continuing love and generosity in the greater distilled spirits community brought the crowd to tears, and also to their feet for two standing ovations. The next day Rogers presented a conference session detailing his harrowing experience and the causes of the explosion, and pitched the attending distillers on ideas for improving safety in hopes of preventing similar tragedies.

At the banquet, ADI recognized the spirits that earned medals in the 10th Annual Judging of Craft Spirits. Of the 645 spirits entered from craft distilleries as far away as Finland and South Africa, ADI recognized 13 double gold, 48 gold, 111 silver and 110 bronze medals. The distillery garnering the most awards was Heritage Distilling Company, of Gig Harbor, WA, with a whopping 20 awards, including seven gold, six best-of-category and two best-of-class awards. The next big winners were Turin Vermouth, of Italy, and Tattersall Distilling, of Minneapolis, MN, with eight awards each, and Ballast Point Brewing and Distilling, which earned six.

The Bubble Cap Award for “Distillery of the Year” went to Colin Spoelman’s Kings County Distillery.

“Craft distilling is… a movement that depends entirely on distilleries working together and learning from each other,” said Spoelman. “ADI is the forum for that discussion, and to me the Bubble Cap Award represents what our distillery has done to advance that discussion, both in terms of the whiskeys we make and the way in which we participate in the conversation. It’s the highest honor a craft distillery can get, and with previous Bubble Cap Award winners like Corsair, Dry Fly, and Leopold Brothers, we get to join a small group of nationally recognized craft distillers that are contributing to the excellence of American craft spirits.”

A previous Bubble Cap Award winner, Karen Hoskin of Montanya Distillers, led several panel discussions at the conference, ranging from avoiding pitfalls in business partnerships to the sourcing of non-GMO ingredients. Hoskin also introduced the Ladies of American Distilling, or LOAD, at the Women in Distilling Networking Luncheon, with approximately 150 attendees.

Hoskin said, “Women face barriers—they have to work harder for access to work experience, capital and financing, equal pay, and quite honestly, respect. So if we can make the industry a more inviting place for women, it is a small step and everyone wins.”

This conference solidified ADI’s place at the heart of the distilling community and, with more than 650 distillery representatives in attendance, continued ADI’s long-standing run as the largest trade gathering of licensed distillers in
the country.