Defining Craft (Part II)

I sat down to write an article called "Defining Craft" this morning, only to realize that I've already written this article. It's getting to the point where I've written so many posts that I'm forgetting about what I've discussed and what I haven't. In any case, the gist of the subject I felt like tackling is already spelled out in the previous post from last May (which is great because now I only have to type half of what I had planned). However, seeing that the American Distilling Institute has come up with a new distinction to determine "craft" distilling from "craft" blending, I think it's important to explain what's going on in the world of "craft" spirits in general - especially with the most recent edition of the Whisky Advocate dedicating its entire issue to "craft" whiskey (one of the most thorough and in-depth issues I've ever read of the publication, by the way). Part of the reason I feel compelled to write about this today is because of these recent additions to the "craft" discussion, but another is the way that the terms "hand-crafted" and "artisanal" are being used on the label to market these products .

As usual, John Hansell's opening editorial, "Thinking Small," sets the tone for the rest of the Whisky Advocate issue. In this most recent issue, he writes,  

"Much of the craft whiskey being produced is unaged, also known as white whiskey, largely for economic reasons: it costs money to wait for whiskey to age in barrels. Just ask the Scotch distillers. But this isn't what defines craft distilling. Perhaps more than anything else, it's the variety of the products and the creativity of the distillers. It's not just that there are so many of them, but that they are also making an incredible variety of whiskey."

Creativity and variety are the words Hansell uses to summarize what's going on with "craft" whiskey distillation. I don't disagree with that summation at all. It's entirely accurate. Let's also examine what ADI had to say recently:

The American Distilling Institute defines Craft Spirits as the product of an independently owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,500 cases, where the principal distiller defines the house style and oversees all aspects of production. CRAFT DISTILLED SPIRITS are the products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,500 cases where the product is distilled and bottled on site.

Size, scale, and independence are the main criteria for the ADI definition. These are important aspects to consider as well.

Are we missing one here, however?

What about quality? Shouldn't a distillery have to meet a certain qualitative level to be considered "craft" or "artisanal"? I understand that assessing the quality of a spirit can be a very subjective process (just ask anyone who has sampled the Lost Spirits single malts), but unless this issue is addressed within the "craft" spirits community the whole movement is going to lose credibility.....and fast. I say this because currently on my desk are over twenty samples from new, small, "craft" distilleries that definitely meet the criteria set up by the ADI definition. Not some, not half, not most, but all of these bottles say something along the lines of "hand-crafted, artisanal" on the label to help separate them from the pack of bulk-branded spirits. These smaller, "craft" spirit products want to be recognized for their "artisanal" production methods and their "hand-crafted" quality, which apparently the big boys are lacking. Yet, the Merriam-Webster definition of "craft" reads: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill. Does that definition not apply to Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, or Heaven Hill?

And what about the quality of these "hand-crafted" spirits? Is there a striking difference between the "artisanal" vodka on my desk and the bottle of Belvedere on our shelf? Is there a supremely superior aroma emanating from the bottle of "hand-crafted" white corn whiskey that is lacking in the standard Buffalo Trace white dog? I'm not so sure. And that's where I have a big problem, not so much as a fan or aficionado of spirits, but as a retailer. Let me further explain.

I'm all about the story when it comes to booze. I love a romantic tale about old-school production, years of tradition, coming up the hard way, all that stuff. Anyone who reads this blog and sees the way I market our products knows that. However, I'm only interested in that story if the product being described offers value and quality for our customers. Currently sitting in my email inbox are multiple responses from "craft" distillers whose products I have decided not to carry at K&L because I don't think they offer value and quality beyond what we already have. Most of them want me to reconsider the heritage, the story, and the intrigue of their brands. My problem, however, is that anything a customer purchases from K&L becomes my responsibility. I have to stand by our selection and believe in the quality of whatever it is that we're selling. How can I look someone in the face and say, "Yes, ma'am, I do believe that this 'craft' vodka is better than Grey Goose" if I don't really believe it?

While ADI wants to distinguish between "craft distilled" and "craft blended," there is no standard in the United States that prevents a producer from adding the words "hand-crafted" or "artisanal" to the label, regardless of which category they fall into and regardless of whether those words apply to the spirit inside the bottle or not. These descriptors can be very deceptive to the everyday spirits customer because there is a growing demand for quality in the spirits market and an even larger push to understand what defines it. In the case of wine or beer, smaller production measures that are "artisanal" or "craft" often do result in a higher quality product.  Therefore, when the same words are used to describe a spirit, they imply that the product is of a quality that exceeds the standards of non-craft distilled spirits. This is rarely the case, however, as it's often just a marketing gimmick catering to that type of consumer.  When the term "hand-crafted" is exploited for profit it ruins the credibility of all "craft" distilleries, not just the culprits looking to cash in. To me, this is a bigger problem than putting "Colorado whiskey" on a product that was distilled in Indiana.

To me, the term "craft" is slowly becoming the newest incarnation of "organic" - a buzzword that eventually becomes more important than taste or flavor. Is that apple "organic"? Is your milk "organic"? How can you tell? Oh, there, it says "ORGANIC" in gigantic, size 140 font right there on the label. My buddy Thad Vogler from Bar Agricole was recently quoted in an article about green spirits, saying, “I definitely shy away from people who are marketing their products as green. Either it’s a large company trying to fool you or a mediocre company trying to give you another reason to buy their product, other than quality.” I couldn't agree more. Usually the people trying the hardest to talk about how sustainable their spirits are have the worst-tasting booze, hence, why they're focusing so heavily on that one aspect. "Craft" spirits might be going down the same road. More people seem to be focusing on size and scale than actual quality.

There are plenty of small American distilleries that are making high-quality hooch deserving of the term "artisinal." St. George. Clear Creek. Osocalis. Anchor. Leopold Bros. But these guys aren't new to the party. St. George began distilling in 1982. Clear Creek in 1985. Osocalis in 1991. Anchor in 1993. Leopold Bros. began distilling their gin in 2002. These guys aren't giving you their mistakes, their experiments, their first-batches, or their trials and errors. They've been doing this for a decade or more and they've turned their craft into actual "craft" products. But what about the newer guys that are capitalizing on the "craft" spirits bandwagon? Are they all as deserving of the same praise? That question must be answered on a case-by-case basis and should be 100% based on the quality of the spirits being produced, not solely on the size, scale, ownership, or vision.

Here at K&L we only have one way of determining if a "craft" spirit offers both value and quality for our customers: our own opinion. While I respect the task that ADI is attempting to do in the name of the consumer, I don't think it's a problem that can be solved with a simple sticker or description. Ultimately, not one customer at K&L is going to care if a product is "craft" if they feel like that spirit doesn't offer value for the money. Once they've been burned by one "hand-crafted, artisanal" product, they're going to be skeptical of any bottle with those terms on the label. And they should be! I am too!

Hand-tailored suits should fit better and offer a quality beyond that of a suit taken off the rack. Hand-crafted furniture should be more solid and dependable than the mass-produced, flat-packed IKEA options. Both a tailored suit and a hand-crafted coffee table will cost you more for these reasons. By that logic, a hand-crafted spirit should cost more because it offers you something beyond what Diageo, Beam, or Pernod-Ricard are able to pump out. "Craft" spirits are giving us more creativity. They're giving us more diversity. They're definitely giving us more variety.

But are they giving us more quality? Or is the movement itself becoming crafty?

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll