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
August 1, 2016 at 1:36 pm
Thanks for emphasizing the importance of quality over marketing jargon. Phrases like “local sourced’ and “celebrity chefs” flood the media and mean absolutely nothing standing alone. I almost always ask the company sending me press releases built on these claims to justify them.
August 1, 2016 at 2:54 pm
Michael, I think your article is right on. The words Craft might bring attention to a product but ultimately the quality will tell whether it is good of not. As mentioned, many products made by startup craft distilleries are terrible.
I think that the term “master distiller” is more loosely used than “craft” . What makes a master distiller. In your note you mentioned that in craft trades one entered as an apprentice, then a journeyman, then a master. It seems anyone can call themselves a master distiller. Seems to me that apprentice, journeyman, should be the first steps in any craft business. Of course, that would eliminate many of the distinguished people in this business from calling themselves master distiller. In other words, if you want to define “craft” you had better define “master distiller” first.
August 1, 2016 at 7:04 pm
As my friend Michael already knows, because we have been discussing this on Facebook, I have to disagree. This is a big-industy definition but the word “craft” belongs to the consumer. The consumer has defined craft and it basically boils down to two concepts; small size and owner-operated. The ADI definition is correct. While there is craftsmanship in the finely-crafted spirits made by the family-owned companies Brown Forman, Sazerac and Heaven Hill, they are not considered “craft spirits” by the people who matter — the consumers. There are some exemplary craft spirits that are raising the bar, and there are some craft products made by people who clearly need to improve their craftsmanship. The word “craft” should not be confused with “quality,” of which it is not a synonym. In the case of craft spirits, the word “craft” is more closely associated with “Arts and Crafts”. If you went to a “Crafts Fair” and found mass-produced goods (no matter the quality) you would feel hoodwinked. And so it is with faux-craft products from the legacy distilleries. Let’s celebrate an exemplary release by some of the legacy distilleries as quality — even finely crafted. But they are not craft.
I do, however, wholeheartedly agree on the overuse of the title “master distiller”… and let’s add “master blender.” Too many distillers are calling themselves master distillers simply because they are the master of their own house. This is a title that you do not award yourself. It is bestowed on you by others. It is earned not just through skill but with decades of experience.
August 11, 2016 at 6:18 pm
When it comes to the question of what is craft distilling, it becomes a matter of intent. What is trying to be accomplished, and does the outcome meet that intent?
Digging a little deeper, the question becomes ‘whose intent?’. The consumer’s, or the producer’s? If we’re talking about consumers, which consumers?
Some of us, when we choose craft, do so because we want to support small businesses engaged in local production, and we may even be willing to sacrifice some degree of quality in the finished product to achieve this intent. We place a higher value on the concepts of terroir and distributed capacity than we do on such subjective characterizations of Quality as drinkability and taste. This sentiment is the foundation for the definition of craft put forth by ADI and the principle that guides our own efforts here at MicroShiner. It’s the intent behind the outcome we expect to achieve when we put our money down on a craft label and why we take exception when contract and commodity distillers assume the mantle of craft.
This is not to say that many large scale producers are not masters of their craft, or that theirs are not the products highest in quality. They are. I wholly concur with the author’s interpretation of the etymology of the term craft, and I lament the demise of the master craftsman, both in principle and in practice. It’s why I created MicroShiner with the expressed purpose to promote and revive it.
The trouble with craft comes not from the term itself, but when one group or another attempts to co-opt it. What ADI is really getting at with their definition of craft is “micro”. But micro is a dirty word in business, because it inherently implies an aversion to scale, exactly why our name MicroShiner explicitly contains it. Instead of saying what they mean, ADI assumes the term craft, discrediting the many master craftsmen practicing at established distilleries in order to appease the needs of those distillery startups built around an exit strategy.
Better were we all to embrace our true intent, and let the chips fall where they may. There is room for everyone. Commodity distilleries don’t need to be craft when their business is based on providing decent product at the lowest price. Small producers don’t need to be craft when they are really expected to be independent and local. Every consumer has a goal in mind when they go in search of a product and someone to provide it, and it’s our responsibility to help them achieve this. It only hurts everyone when we use labels such as craft to deceive them.
As Mr. Veach points out, distilling is a craft, one that takes a lifetime of practice to master. It’s a process, not a product. It’s in our collective interest to honor the term, rather than demean it.
~ cheers ~
August 11, 2016 at 6:58 pm
This is an old question that was being argued one hundred years ago in the courts. Hand crafted” is a term being used in the 1800s and drawing fire from many people even back then. I am willing to bet that it will still be argued about a century from now. Thanks for the input to everyone who has made comments. Civilized debate is a good thing.
August 12, 2016 at 4:23 pm
Although I am in basic agreement with your ideas about quality and how being “craft” does not ensure a quality product, I take issue with the idea that “craft” is meaningless or should mean “quality.” Whether used to describe the creation of clothes, furniture, or – more on point – beer, “craft” exudes the idea that it was handmade from scratch by an artisan. (See Merriam-Webster).
The distilling industry is filled with distilleries large and small that buy GNS or whiskeys made by others and then claim they are using their “family recipe” or that their product is “craft.” They are not. And it is time the industry calls them out on that practice.
Let me make it clear. Being “craft” does not mean you are good. Being mass produced doesn’t mean you aren’t a quality product. However, I believe the term “craft” should be reserved for those distilleries that ferment, distill and bottle themselves.
November 21, 2017 at 1:33 pm
If you’re making gin, why should you make your own GNS? The skill and “craft” in making gin is all downstream of that: selecting the botanicals, infusing the spirit with them. Making GNS for a gin maker makes about as much sense as making your own bottles.
I take issue with the idea that an inexperienced, inept beginner who ferments, distills, and bottles a sub-standard product — and we’ve all tasted them — is somehow more worthy than someone who carefully selects and blends stock to make something that is new, unique, and delicious. It’s like the example of the apple dumpling. In the hands of a beginner, flour, sugar, apples, and spices can be combined in a way that is less valuable than the raw ingredients were to begin with. In the hands of a master baker, they can become something wonderful, and more valuable than the raw ingredients by far.
Craft, if it is to be useful, is about taking ingredients and making something more from them. The top independent bottlers in the Scotch whisky business have been recognized for centuries for making excellent whiskies from the stock of distillers, without ever distilling themselves.
November 22, 2017 at 12:36 am
Lew, I agree with what you are saying. That is why I don’t believe that the craft aide of distilling goes away just because they have grown to a certain size and produce a certain number of barrels. Distilling is a craft and when done right it is wonderful.
August 12, 2016 at 4:31 pm
Scott I would be happy if it was limited to those that simply distilled their own product except that does leave the contract distiller out in the cold. Is it any less craft if the craftsman uses another person’s tools?
August 12, 2016 at 4:44 pm
A contract distiller, by definition, is not marketing their own product so them being left in the cold is a moot point. Moreover, the person buying the contract distillers product should not be able to label it as “craft” since they didn’t make it themselves but, without fail, want to have consumers believe they did.
Moreover, I guess I have a brewers bias since I have owned my brewery for 20 years now, but I believe that fermentation is more than half of the skill of being a distiller. After all, distilling is simply segregating the desired alcohols…….the big question is how well the alcohol is actually made during fermentation. I believe that distillers who only distill and don’t ferment should not be able to claim “craft” status since they didn’t make it themselves from scratch.
Consequently, I will stand by my earlier definition and I call on my “grain to glass” and “farm to glass” brethren to join together to help consumers understand the difference.
August 12, 2016 at 6:29 pm
I don’t think your definition of contract distilling is valid. Contract distilling is when you go in with your own mash bill and distilling specs and have the product made with oversight. For example Renae made two barrels of Bourbon at Old Pogue. Her mash bill, Pogue’s yeast and equipment. She was there during fermentation and distilling determining when cuts were made, distillation and barrel entry proof. In my opinion that is still craft distillation. It is excellent whiskey and she is going to determine the age before bottling as well.
Michter’s has been doing this as well for several years before they opened their own distillery. Their mash bill, yeast distillation and entry proof. Someone else’s equipment but whole process overseen by Willie Pratt. Still craft in my opinion.
August 13, 2016 at 9:18 pm
Mike I agree with you. And Drew. Craft is in the eye of the beholder – the consumer. But the consumer clearly sees Jimmy Russel as a craftsman, sees 4 Roses as well crafted. We did a post on our Copper & Kings position a while little while ago. http://www.copperandkings.com/krftwerk/
The greatest quote is still from Lance Winters – trying to define craft is like trying to define art.
August 13, 2016 at 9:30 pm
Justice Potter Stewart said about porn “… I know it when I see it” can be applied here. I don’t know how to define craft but I know it when I see it. As Joe said it is a lot like defining art. Great discussion here.
April 12, 2017 at 7:13 pm
My experience in tasting, judging, selling and enjoying whisky tells me three main things about why consumers buy whisky (1) Consumers want quality – something they think tastes good. (2) They enjoy the story – whisky drinkers, in particular, are bonded together thru their experiences and enjoy telling their own stories. (3) Most enjoy getting good value for their money.
Real “craft” to me is a mastery of the elements of whisky making which ends up by meeting those consumer objectives. It has very little to do with how “big” or “small” you are, how broke or rich you are, being profit-averse or actually making money. Big and tiny producers succeed and fail on all three levels. I have some advice.
First, make “good juice”. Nobody wants to drink crap for very long no matter how cool or trendy it may be. My advice is to respect the traditions of the craft and make quality your first goal. That’s craft.
Second, Your message is terribly important but, please God, let the story be true. Tell the truth about what you do. Many small distillers have very exciting stories which held bring consumers to enjoy what they make. But, so do some of the “big boys” . Transparency is really important. What you do and how you do it are important parts of your story. Be honest and let consumers make up their own minds. Don’t ‘fake it ’til you make it’ or pretend to be something you’re not. Real and truth, too, is also craft.
Most distillers I know have a passion for what they do. Big or small, I honor that as craft.
Thirdly, remember that it is consumers we serve and who will be the final judges of what we do. When they like what we make, can believe what we say and do and feel that they are receiving value for their money, we are all better for it. “The rising tide will float all boats” is a mantra for the whisky business.
Having said all that, I am a huge fan of “artisan” distillers. They are the true artists, entrepreneurs, start-ups, the little guys. I love their passion when it is indeed passion (Sometimes it’s OCD.) I would prefer “artisanal” over “craft” any day. In the end, transparency needs to triumph if consumers are to trust us and enjoy our products.
November 21, 2017 at 1:25 pm
This is exactly why I tell any small distiller who will listen that I’d advise them to walk away from the word “craft.” I’ve seen its use in the brewing business become incredibly divisive, to the point where there’s practically a civil war going on now, on the level of a holy war.
And really, in the end, it’s about as meaningful as the word “old” on a bourbon label.
Make good whiskey. Tell your story truthfully. Charge a reasonable price. That’s what you need. You don’t need “craft.”
November 22, 2017 at 12:38 am
Distilling is a craft, no matter what size the distillery.
November 21, 2017 at 5:30 pm
I see we are no closer to defining craft. And it never will be accurately defined. Neither will the term “quality” ever be defined. The terms ate all in the mind of the beholder. But who cares, anyway. ?