Spirits: What does 'craft' mean?

I bought a package of crackers the other week. Couldn’t tell you the brand, but the box said the snacks were made with both “extra-virgin olive oil” and “sea salt.” I believe they contained whole grains, too. Possibly even antioxidants.

Yeah, I’m a sucker. Gen X-ers are hard-wired to respond to certain foodstuff buzzwords. And in the world of alcohol, the operative buzzword is “craft.” It’‍s still largely a brewing term, but over the last decade, that word has come to apply to spirits, as well.

And as small distilleries continue to populate the American landscape, dozens more each year and more than 600 in all, the definition of a “craft” spirit has again become a flash-point, and distillers are now having the same truth-in-marketing and product integrity debates that consumed brewers 20 years ago.

So what does it mean? Why all the hand-wringing over this five-letter word? Mostly, for small distillers, it’s about transparency, and labeling bottles of booze in a way that allows consumers to understand exactly what they’re buying, and where it came from.

But as tricky as the issue was and is for brewers, it’‍s trickier still for spirits. When it comes to beer, either you brew it or you don’t. East End Brewing Co. makes its own beer; Duquesne Beer, on the other hand, is a contract label, manufactured by City Brewing Co. of Latrobe. If you make your own beer, are independently owned, and brew less than 2 million barrels a year, “craft” probably applies, even if there is no official industry definition of the word.

For spirits, distinctions are more subtle. It’s possible, if not probable, that your favorite craft or “small batch” or “single barrel” American whiskey was distilled by a company you’ve never heard of. MGP Ingredients — a Kansas producer of premium ryes and bourbons, corn oil, fuel-grade alcohol additives and other products — supplies Bulleit, Templeton Rye, and more.

It’s a massive company. Should its buyers be able to appropriate the word “craft”? Should size and production capacity even be a criteria for “craft,” considering some of the world’‍s finest spirits are crafted by some of the world’‍s largest distillers? (International spirits giant Diageo recently launched its Orphan Barrel Whiskey division, which hopes to become, according to a company president, “the No. 1 ‘‍craft’‍ distiller in North American whiskey in the U.S. Why? Because we have the whiskies.”)

Local sourcing is an important element of “craft,” too, but where does that leave the gin-maker who buys neutral spirits from an external producer? It sounds like a shortcut, but for gin, the important work happens on the back end: adding the botanicals and herbs.

Or what about Vermont’s WhistlePig Rye brand — a frequent whipping-boy of craft spirits advocates — which advertises itself as a “craft whiskey company,” but actually buys its whiskey from across the border, via Canada’s Alberta Distillers? 

Maybe that’s not craft — but then again, isn’t taking a pre-distilled spirit and turning it into something unique a craft in itself? Irish and Scotch whiskies have elevated blending into an art form, using whiskey from various sources to create distinct spirits for centuries.

Problem is, if you let all distillers use the term in advertising and labeling, over time, it means nothing. A club that lets everyone in is no club at all — which is why so many are protective of the word and what it’‍s meant to convey. 

“Craft spirits, for us, is where you get a grain or fruit, you ferment, then you distill it, then you age it, then you bottle it,” said Moose Koons, partner at Peach Street Distilleries in Colorado. In other words, grain-to-glass, with no shortcuts, and a limited supply of product (generally, less than 52,000 cases a year, according to the guardians of the word).

A lot of small distillers feel the same way. It’s one reason that the non-profit American Craft Spirits Association — of which Peach Street is a founding member — was organized in the first place, created in 2013 after splintering away from the 11-year-old American Distilling Institute, a for-profit membership organization. The two groups overlap, but while the ADI has focused on building the industry and recruiting new entrants, ACSA is focusing more on the production and quality end. 

“There’s a lot of craft out there — and there’s a lot of craftiness out there,” Mr. Koons said. The difference between the two is that those making craft spirits are “honest with what you are putting toward the consumer.”

That honesty might come most easily through two other words, “distilled” and “produced.” If a label says “distilled by,” buyers should have confidence that the brand actually owns a still and makes the spirit on-site. If the label says “produced by,” the spirits probably came from elsewhere and were blended, rectified, filtered or otherwise treated somewhere other than the home distillery. 

It “makes more sense to go with transparency in labeling,” said Wayne Curtis, freelance spirits and cocktail writer. “There’s no sense trying to define craft ... It’‍s like trying to define what artisanal is. They’re going to find some other way” to distinguish between small, privately owned distilleries and larger operations trying to cash in on the popularity of niche booze. 

But even “distilled by” and “produced by” can be fudged — and all of this supposes consumers truly care where their booze comes from. As with most foodstuffs, the truth is that some do, and some don’‍t. But for those who do, the more clarity, the better, said Maggie Campbell, head distiller at Privateer Rum in Massachusetts. 

“On our website, you can look at the batch number, every barrel, [where] our sugar is from,” she said. “Full transparency.” Privateer is also redesigning its bottle labels to explain where and how the rum is fermented, distilled, aged and bottled, so consumers have some insight into every step of the production process.

And even though the word “craft” clearly resonates with some of those consumers, Privateer is trying to “stay out of the craziness and fighting over what the word means,” Ms. Campbell said.

Because it’‍s the final product that matters. “We will always be profitable making great rum,” she said. 

In the end, “craft” is in the eye of the imbiber. If the term seems subjective — unlike, say, “certified organic” — it seems destined to remain that way. Despite the concerns about truth in marketing, there’‍s no overwhelming push to establish a legal definition for craft in the spirits industry, unlike the fierce push among brewers to create a set of standards for “craft” and “micro.”

“Putting a binding definition on what craft is would be like putting a binding legal definition on what art is,” said Lance Winters, master distiller at California’‍s St. George Spirits, in an article published this month by The Spirits Business magazine.

Amateur Pittsburgh distillers have been receiving letters — and, in at least one case, a home visit from federal agents — from the U.S. Treasury Department’‍s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, threatening them with big fines and imprisonment if they own and continue to operate small pot stills.

While recreational at-home beer-brewing and wine-making is legal, at-home distilling is not. Yet many companies sell mini-stills, which conceivably could be used for licensed, small-scale commercial production, but more often than not are for personal use.  

At www.brewhaus.com, for example, you can choose from “the largest selection [of] moonshine stills and home distilling equipment and supplies in North America,” even though the website readily acknowledges that “hobby distilling” remains illegal. The Prohibition-era ban is in place because, according to the federal government, alcohol can be used for a variety of purposes (such as motor fuel), and because the vaporization and condensation process behind distilling requires intense heat, and could be dangerous. 

Then again, mowing your lawn with a spinning blade powered by an internal-combustion engine can be dangerous, too, yet we’‍re allowed to do it. At-home distillers say the real reason the feds don’‍t want people making booze at home is not because of the theoretical danger, because of all the lost excise taxes and licensing fees. 

The letter reads: 

“It has come to the [TTB’‍s] attention that you may have purchased a still capable of producing alcohol and/or equipment and materials that may be used in the manufacture of a still. Federal law provides no exemptions for the production of distilled spirits for personal or family use. ... Unlawful production of distilled spirits is a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of up to $500,000 and/or imprisonment for not more than 5 years, and may result in the forfeiture of your real and personal property.”

In March, TTB investigators and state law enforcement agents conducted a sweep in Florida, netting eight arrests and the seizure of 45 stills. In its press release, the TTB did not reveal how it learned the names of those who purchased stills over the past few years, but likely they required the sellers of such equipment to hand over their customer records. 

Calls to the TTB press office, seeking to learn how many letters had been issued in Pennsylvania, were unreturned.  

If you’‍re a bourbon fan — or an American whiskey fan in general — these are your salad days. The Kentucky Distillers’‍ Association announced last month that it has more than 5 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky warehouses. That’‍s the largest storage stockpile since 1977. Add in rye, wheat and other non-bourbons, Kentucky distillers are aging almost 6 million barrels. 

Last year, Kentucky bourbon distillers filled 1.2 million barrels, the most since 1970. Increased interest domestically and overseas demand are driving the production.

Who’‍s the grandfather (make that great-great-grandfather) of the modern tiki cocktail? Might just be Christopher Columbus, says New Orleans bartender and writer Jeff “Beachbum” Berry in his newest book. “Lime was introduced by Columbus ... And sugar was introduced by Columbus,” he explained to The Times-Picayune last year. Without sugar, there’‍s no rum. And without limes, no mojito. 

Mr. Berry’‍s book, “Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them” (Cocktail Kingdom, 315 pages), was named the cocktail book of the year at the annual Tales Of The Cocktail conference and trade show, held in New Orleans last month. Called “the Indiana Jones of Tiki drinks” by The New York Times, Berry spent years collecting stories and recipes, including the one below:

Rum Pot

3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice

3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice

1/2 ounce passion fruit syrup

1/4 ounce vanilla syrup

1½ ounces Demerara rum (El Dorado 12-year recommended)

In a cocktail shaker, shake well with one cup of crushed ice. Serve in an Old Fashioned glass, over crushed ice. 

— “Potions of the Caribbean” by Jeff Berry (Cocktail Kingdom, 2013) 


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