The word “Craft” has become a bit of a “buzz word” in distilling marketing. It has also become a bit controversial as nobody really can agree on the meaning of the term “Craft Distilling”. The ADI states that once a distillery gets above a certain production level it is no longer a “craft distillery”. That is bull-crap in my opinion. Tiffany made thousands of glass lampshades in the same design but does that make them less “Crafted”? I think not. Just because a distillery is making a product in the hundreds of barrels per day does not mean there is any less craft involved. It is just a matter of scale of production.
Craft distilling should be judge by the quality of the finished product. “Craft” and “Hand Crafted” should be terms that represent quality not quantity or lack thereof. In the Middle Ages to become a “Master Craftsman” the person had to serve first as an Apprentice and then as a Journeyman for a Master of the craft. They would learn the craft for years and then after they felt they were ready make a product to be judged by the masters in their craft to see if the quality was good enough to become a “Master” of the craft. This would be their “Masterpiece”. It was all about quality. Once a person became a Master of their craft they would work to keep the quality at a high standard whether they made once item a day or one hundred items per day.
Modern distillers are practicing their craft and putting out high quality products so they should be able to use the word “Craft” or “Hand Crafted” in describing their products. The size of the still is not important as long as the person or persons running that still is in control and making a fine spirit. Unfortunately I have had some spirits from small “Craft Distillers” that did not meet my quality standards. I don’t like musty whiskey or whiskey with too much heads and or tails in the run. I have had products like that from many small operators. They have distillers that need to learn their craft, yet they can still use terms describing themselves as “Craft Distillers” and their product as “Hand Crafted” without anyone raising an eyebrow. After all everyone is using a still to make their spirits – some are just more sophisticated than others requiring less people to monitor them and control the production.
The term “Craft” in all of its present forms on labels has really become meaningless. There is no standard such was applied in the Middle Ages so the term meaning has devolved to its basic meaning of “exercise skill in making something”. You can craft something and do it poorly, but it is still “crafted” or even “Hand Crafted”. It is up to the marketplace to determine how good the product is with the consumers becoming repeat customers for products that are well made and the inferior producers going out of business. People will buy the first bottle out of curiosity but if they don’t like what they get or feel they over paid for the quality, they will not purchase the second bottle. Getting the repeat customer is vital to a distillery surviving and making money.
The question now comes back to the original question of “What is Craft Distilling?” The answer is all distilling being done in the basic meaning of the word. All distilleries are practicing their craft and making spirits. Some are exercising more skill than others. Marketers are correct when they use terms such as “Hand Crafted” on labels. It is up to the consumer to determine whether it is a superior example of the craft or not.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl