I was actually just doing a simple Google search of "artisanal," so I had a working dictionary definition to go off of when writing this piece, when I found this fantastic article by food writer Josh Ozersky: the word "artisanal" is now offically meaningless.
It appears that someone already beat me to the punch with this idea. Oh well. It was obvious anyway.
According to the dictionary, an artisan is a person or company that makes a high-quality, distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand and using traditional methods. Therefore, "artisanal" would be the adjective describing something made by an artisan. Over the last few years, the spirits industry has experienced a major shot in the arm, partially boosted by the current interest in "hand-crafted" or "artisanal" spirits from small distilleries. While the initial releases were very interesting, the movement in my opinion is now beginning to lose steam. Looking up at the definition, I'm realizing that most new products I taste in the store definitely have the "distinctive," "small quantities," and "by hand" qualities on their checklist, but they seem to have forgotten the "high-quality" part. For that reason, when it comes to most new spirits Ozersky is quite correct. The word "artisanal" is officially meaningless because it's being applied to every small batch product regardless of whether it's of a "high quality.
In his article about food, Ozersky writes:
It's obvious to everyone, of course, that “artisan,” when applied to Dunkin’ Donuts bagels or Tostitos chips or Domino’s pizzas, is a laughably transparent ploy — a shameless buzzword used by marketers in their endless, desperate lather to sell more bad products..... But the truth is that artisanality has almost nothing to do with quality and everything to do with delivery. It’s the transaction that matters. Did you ever have an artisanal cola? Was it as good as a Mexican Coke? I bet it wasn’t.
One could easily apply the same analogy to Bourbon. How many "artisanal," "hand-crafted" Bourbons are as good as Old Weller Antique? More importantly, how many can come anywhere close to matching its price? It's obvious that "artisanal" is now just a marketing tool for companies looking to capitalize on the current food fad, but is that also the case with spirits? I don't think it's quite the same. That's not to say there's no sales advantage to presenting a company as an "artisan" spirits producer, it's just that these producers usually have to be sought out. They're not participating in marketing campaigns like Domino's or Tostitos, they're simply seen as cooler than other "mass-produced" products because you have to know about them.
For spirits drinkers, it seems like choosing to drink "artisanal" signifies something about us as people. I fully understand it if a customer doesn't want to support a giant, corporate-owned brand. I fully understand it when a customer wants to support local businesses. These are two good reasons to support the many artisanal products we carry in our our stores. However, the craft spirits movement has violently shifted from a group of independent producers, outside the fold of major distribution, to any Joe Schmoe who thinks it would be cool to have his own distillery. The popularity, or cool factor, in making one's own "hand-crafted" spirit seems to be more important than the product actually tasting good.
Taste, however, became less important than "organic" in the Bay Area many moons ago. I can't tell you how many times I've eaten "all organic" food from a restaurant that didn't know how to cook it. When it comes to the booze and restaurant world, it's not large companies who are co-opting the "artisanal" banner - it's people who don't know what the heck they are doing. I'm all for organic food if it tastes better (which it often does). I'm all for "artisanal" booze if it tastes better (see Steve McCarthy, Todd Leopold, Lance Winter, Dave Smith, or Davorin Kuchan if you need help). The point is - it needs to taste better! Remember, the definition of an artisan states that the product must be both distinctive and of a high quality.
Some people will do anything if it's cool and, right now, it's definitely cool to drink and/or make "artisanal" spirits. One thing about "cool" that has always been the case is that it's never been cool to try so hard. The people trying the hardest to fit in are always seen as the least cool. Using every inch of Facebook and Twitter to tell everyone how "artisanal" your product is probably isn't making your product cooler. It's never been cool to talk about how cool you are. It's definitely not cool to talk about how "artisanal" your booze is. Just like cool people, the true artisans don't talk about being one - they just are.