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Friday
May242013

Defining Craft

I had dinner with John Glaser on Wednesday night and he said something that has stuck with me over the past few days. He said that the point of "craft" spirits was simply to make better spirits, not to give us more options. That's what the term "craft" means: using smaller production, hands-on techniques that result in higher quality products. For example, "craft fashion," if there was such a term, should refer to hand-stitched, hand-measured, and perfectly-fitted clothing. Any profession using the term "craft" should be taking an assembly-line process and scaling it down to a micro-managed operation. The idea is that one perfectly "crafted" product should be of a higher quality than a product being pumped out quickly to maximize profitability. The result should be noticable, otherwise it's probably not worth doing.

If the final product is actually higher in quality, then it should be more expensive. I think everyone is on board with that. The better the booze, the more it will cost. My question, however, is: how many craft spirits producers are actually giving us "craft" spirits?

I do think craft spirits exist, but maybe not in the way that we think they do. For example, I think craft gins are absolutely a reality, but not because of the distillation. Craft gins exist because of the time and thought put into the sourcing of botanicals. Our most recent batch of Faultline Gin, for example, was a small batch of gin macerated with freshly-smoked citrus peels. We did that by hand and in small amounts to make sure it tasted right. It wasn't something we would have been able to produce continually on a large scale, but since we were only making one batch it wasn't a problem.

I think craft fruit liqueurs and eau-de-vies exist. There are simply some fruits that are too expensive and delicate to distill on a large, profitable scale. Some liqueurs use actual fresh fruit rather than artificial flavors and coloring to create a cassis or framboise. That takes time and attention.

I think craft tequila is real. There are simply different ways of shredding the agave into a fermentable pulp. The distilleries that use machines and shred in large quantities have pulp that oxidizes faster. Those using mortar and pestal with manual or horse-drawn labor have more control over each crush, much like a winery pressing its grapes. That ultimately affects the freshness of the spirit. The same could be said for rum made from fresh sugarcane juice.

What about whisk(e)y, however? Does craft whisk(e)y exist? Has anyone proven that the type of grain used is actually important? I think Bruichladdich has, but do many people consider Bruichladdich to be a "craft" distillery?

The blending side of production is what makes John Glaser's Compass Box a "craft" whisky company. He marries whiskies on a much smaller scale, creating more finessed flavors that might not have been possible with larger amounts of barrels. However, do people consider Compass Box a "craft" whisky producer?

It's the size of the distillery that seems to decide who's "craft" and who isn't these days. But does the scale of distillation matter when it comes to whisk(e)y? I don't think so. I think what ultimately matters is which cuts and which distillates are used in the final product. If you distill pot still whisky on a large scale it's probably going to taste as good as a smaller scale operation, as long as both are using the finest heart cuts. Kilchoman comes to mind as a producer that uses a very focused percentage of their actual heart and the result is amazing. If you're talking about column still American whiskey, however, then I'm not sure if it even matters. Yet, we're hearing about new "craft" American whiskey distilleries all the time. Are they distilling micro amounts of whiskey that tastes better than Jim Beam?

The problem with making craft whiskey is that it takes time to find out the answers to these questions. Time is money, however, and most small distilleries cannot afford to use small percentages of their distillates or work slowly in the name of quality. They consider themselves "craft" because they are small, not because they're better. This is ultimately going to tarnish the "craft" whisk(e)y industry because the term will become ironic.

Have you tasted a "craft" whisk(e)y before?

Yes! It was terrible!

Shouldn't it be the opposite?

-David Driscoll