We all self-indulge from time to time, and so should we. As entrepreneurs, as business owners, as creators of fun spirits, as risk-takers and care-givers, we deserve a pat on the shoulder. And if there isn’t anyone around to do us that courtesy, well, we’ll pat our own shoulders. Nothing wrong with that. Not at all. But now that it reaches industry levels, it starts to annoy me.
What am I talking about? About craft distillers down-talking Big Alcohol and singing their own praise. “We are better because we are craft!” Oh, really? Are you really better? And if you are, at what? Probably not at marketing, right? And shall we start with a definition of “craft”, please?
Some say “craft” is small. Most representative and governing bodies agree. You are craft if you stay below certain production volumes. In my definition, that’s “small”, and not by definition “craft”. But if you feel there are inherent benefits to being small, well, I guess you might have a different opinion than I do. Okay, I can live with that. I can live with that, as long as you don’t grow! As long as you stay small! Because if “craft” equals “small”, then smaller is better, and growing your business is not an option.
Weird? Yeah, it is a weird position to take, because it is a completely wrong definition to start with. We should all enter the industry with the goal to grow our business, through great product and even better marketing. If your goal isn’t to grow your business, why the heck would you invest time and money? If you want to spend time and money on something you enjoy doing, then that “something” is called a hobby. Hobby distilling, not craft distilling.
So we already established that size matters and that craft does not equal hobby, so what is it? Before we dive into what it is, shall we elaborate a bit on what I strongly feel it is not?
“Hand-made! That’s what craft distilled is! Hand-made spirits!” Really? I don’t think so. What does “hand-made” mean at all? Yeast created alcohol. Your still concentrated it into spirits. Your pallet, hopefully not your hands, decided on cuts and smearing and flavor. Or did you use your hands to manually pump liquids from one container to another one? Nope, “hands-made” is pretty much meaningless, here.
“Traditionally! Craft distilled stands for spirits that are distilled traditionally!” Hm – again – really? Fruit brandy has been “traditionally” distilled on plated column stills since the 1870’s. Because fruit brandy, before the invention of plates, was pot distilled for many centuries, should we all go back to that technology? And while we are at it, why copper? The first stills were made from clay, so may I suggest clay as a prerequisite? You want to be a craft distiller? Okay, but you need to use a clay potstill over a wood fire! If not, well, then you are mainly using the term “traditional” as an opportunist argument to probably allow your decisions “in” and others “out”. If only the world would work like that, wouldn’t we all be the kings of our own big and splendid, yet under-populated castles?
Here is an easy one, that I think we can all agree on: if you mix and blend outsourced spirits, you are not a craft distiller. I am not judging here. Maybe you are a master blender or craft blender, but a blender it is. Blending is not distilling.
Why talking about blending is important? Because of two reasons. First, if we take North America as an example, around 80% of the craft distillers buy in whiskey, maybe blend it, maybe barrel it, but certainly label, bottle, and sell it and call it “craft distilled”. So I am told.
Secondly, craft distillers selling blended spirits … does that mean you are still a craft distiller? Or did you now loose that title altogether? The reason I ask these questions is that I believe this is where we can find the beginning of an answer: is the distiller “craft” or is his spirit “craft”? Let me explain why that might be an important consideration via an example, that I am sure heats the argument up quite nicely.
I am convinced Jim Beam was a craft distiller. I present this as a fact, not as my opinion. What’s a fact as well, is that Jim Beam Whiskey is not craft distilled anymore.
When Jim whipped up his first batch of whiskey, it was his idea, his recipe, his creation. Heck, since he didn’t exactly consider that “craft” should stand in the way of “growth”, he made a huge success out of it. So he wasn’t just good at distilling, he was very good at marketing. As craft distilling should be about “craft” and craft stands for profession, metier, trade, it is as much about making a drink successfully as it is about making the drink a success. In short? He ticked all the boxes and deserves to be called a craft distiller. Given his success, master craft distiller.
Jim Beam Whiskey is no longer craft distilled, because the recipe and production procedures have changed. From 45% to 40% and from potstill to continuous still, to name but two. Those changes came about by a company changing its policy, not by a craft distiller, let alone the original craft distiller, changing procedures. In other words: even if Jim Beam as a corporation hired another craft distiller, say Johnny Cooper, and even if they gave him carte-blanche, it would never have remained craft distilled Jim Beam Whiskey. They could have renamed it Johnny Cooper’s, though.
A craft distiller is a distiller that crafts his spirits successfully. It is that simple. He (or she) created the (idea for a) recipe, produced the spirit, and sold it successfully. Creation, production, and sales form the triple foundation of craft. Successful creation, production, and sales, that is!
A blacksmith or a carpenter of old would be considered craft, because they created, produced and sold an iron fence or a beautiful wooden cupboard. Without sales it wouldn’t be a profession but a hobby. Without creation, it would be reproduction. Without in-house production, it would simply be outsourcing.
There you have it: the only definition for “craft” we should apply to ourselves. We are craft distillers as long as we create recipes for drinks, produce these drinks successfully, and then sell them so we can create and produce some more.
A craft distilled spirit is created, produced, and marketed by a craft distiller at his distillery. A person at his location, not a corporation at any location.
A craft distillery is the workplace of the craft distiller. It is the location where he or she creates recipes, produces spirits, and sells bottles from.
Craft step 1: Recipe creation …
Craft step 2: In-house production …
Craft step 3: Successful marketing & sales …