Craft is Crap: Part 1

Artisanal, Handcrafted, Locally Sourced, Small Batch. The list goes on and on and on.If you’re at all involved with the world of “Craft” Beer or Spirits you’re no doubt all too familiar with these words.But what does it all mean?Frankly, not a whole lot. Short of things that require certification such as Kosher or Organic, most of these fall into a what the TTB considers “Fluff”. Basically, they’re meaningless adjectives and there are no rules limiting their usage. Let’s start with the most romanticized…Artisanal. You’ve no doubt seen this word on everything from beer, cheese, soap, candles, wooden décor to lettuce. That’s right,·ti·san·alärˈtēzən(ə)l/adjectiverelating to or characteristic of an artisan.    "artisanal skills"        (of a product, especially food or drink) made in a traditional or non-mechanized way.        "artisanal cheeses"Pray do tell, how exactly does one handcraft lettuce? You can grow it with or without pesticides, but the actual formation of the plant is completely independent of your (probably soft and all too clean) hands. Yet there it is.      The same is true of any of these adjectives.What constitutes “Small Batch”?Depends who you ask.If you visit any of the big Bourbon producers in Kentucky they will openly tell you that their small batch products can be anywhere from 50-200 or more barrels. That’s more than a lot of “Craft” or “Micro” Distilleries produce in a year. Yet there are no rules regarding the usage of the language. Same goes for “handcrafted”. What exactly does that mean? Many distilleries are at least somewhat automated. From large producers where distillation is entirely computer run to medium sized ones where things like temperature are computer controlled to even smaller producers who’s only computer in the still house is a phone.So why bother to use this language?It’s simple, they all have very cute and romantic connotations. For the consumer, who makes purchasing decisions in nanoseconds, you want to invoke a sense of quality, a feeling that some humble distiller somewhere labored hard, over each and every drop just for you. So, you see the language start to appear with the first wave of small distilleries, and generally it’s true. Then it becomes a trend. The big distilleries, owned by multinational corporations start to see they might lose 2% of their market share (if that) and so they co-opt this language. Before long, it’s lost all meaning. For the consumer, with little time, incentive, or knowledge of the industry, they make their purchases on the most readily available information to them. When you have a bottle of Jim Beam and a bottle Distillery X, both bourbon, both “handcrafted” But one is less than half the price of the other, which would you choose? Without the knowledge of how differently they’re produced, most people would choose the lower priced bottle.Another reason you see the use of all this flowery language, the reason that gets to me the most, is this.There are a lot of producers bottling genuinely uninteresting spirits. The amount of subpar whiskies, rums, vodka and other spirits out there is astounding. However, when all you have is run of the mill products that are neither innovative or interesting you must make the most of what you have. This is where you see elaborate stories about generational history, special filtration, etc. etc. Trying to differentiate your Bourbon from anyone else’s is a very difficult task. By its very nature there is only so much you can do with Bourbon and still call it such. Anyone who’s met me or read anything on our site has heard this before. There are ways to do it though. My question and challenge for small distilleries though is this. Why? Why produce another Bourbon? Why produce another vodka or, more likely, bottle someone else’s? Why not create something entirely new. Why not, if you want to call yourself Craft, truly be it? Create, craft, bring something new into the world. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse with this message sometimes but dammit, the horse needs beat.In part two I’ll address the labelling challenges that we faced when trying to introduce a new style of whiskey to the world and how labelling laws can make it difficult to introduce your product to customers. (No horses were harmed in the production of this rant. Cheers!)