Whisky Advocate

What Is Craft? Wouldn’t You Like to Know?

August 27th, 2014

Author - Chuck CowderyI hate articles that begin with a dictionary definition, but defining ‘craft’ as it applies to whiskey making is our purpose here, so let’s see what the dictionaries say.

“An activity involving skill in making things by hand.”

“Denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company.”

“An art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill.”

And then there’s this:

“Skill used in deceiving others.” As in, “He used craft and guile to close the deal.”

That last one is archaic but relevant, because everyone these days wants to claim the word “craft” and apply it to their company and its products. That includes the largest companies in the business. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The world’s largest beer makers have been trying to co-opt “craft brewing” for decades.

In a recent conversation with Chris Morris, he cited the dictionary. Morris is Brown-Forman’s master distiller and the occasion was a press event to launch a new craft series for Old Forester Bourbon. (It’s pretty cool, but more on that later.) Morris said, “The dictionary says craft is about experience, knowledge, and skill. We have all those things.”

Ewan Morgan, a Diageo brand ambassador for whiskies, puts it this way: “Craft is about artisanship, passion, experience, great liquid, great products.”

I’m not going to quarrel with the big guys — not here, anyway — but the problem with their point-of-view is this. “Craft” cannot merely mean “well made.” If everything is craft, then nothing is. The word becomes useless as a way to distinguish something from something else.

If the definitions above are vague as applied to craft spirits, the American Distilling Institute (ADI) has one that is very specific. It defines “craft spirits” as “the products of an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases, where the product is physically distilled and bottled on site.”

Jackie Summers is a craft spirits producer in Brooklyn, New York, who makes an enticing liqueur called Sorel. He doesn’t distill anything. His craft is working with and combining botanicals and other natural ingredients to produce a drink that is original, even as it seems familiar. He is also skilled at crafting thoughts.

Mastering the craft

Mastering the craft

“Before the advent of public education,” he writes, “people learned a trade through the apprenticeship model. Apprentices would begin to study with a master in their mid-teens, and continue into their early twenties. It was not until you took on your own students that you could claim mastery yourself. By this method, generations of skills were handed from one to the next — you honed your craft — based on a simple principle: you don’t become great by trying to be great. You become great by doing something over and over again, learning as you go. Greatness is a process. As Aristotle said, we are what we do repeatedly.

“Ultimately craft distillers see themselves as artists, their distillate being their art,” he continued. “Sure, you could start off with a concept, hire food scientists to chemically analyze and then reverse engineer a liquor. But what makes small batch production special is the tiny inconsistencies from batch to batch that give a product character; the miraculous way one bale of wheat may differ ever so slightly from the next, or how actual botanicals play and dance with each other in a way that chemical compounds can only imitate. Remove these tiny fluctuations, and the end result is sterile perfection.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Craft is about things made, not necessarily from scratch, but where an artisan effects some kind of transformation. For something to be “craft,” an artisan must conceive and execute an idea, and it must be a production idea, not a marketing one. The craft performed must directly impact the product, not merely the packaging and promotion of it. And the artisan himself or herself must do it, perhaps with assistance (e.g., apprentices, journeymen), but the unmistakable mark of the master’s hand must be on the final product.

Craft has nothing to do with the size of the company. It is the product that represents the craft, not the producer. A corporation may be a legal person, but a corporation cannot be an artisan. A corporation cannot be a master distiller.

The artisans working at the producers most recognized for their craft whiskeys — Balcones, Koval, Corsair, Few, Dry Fly — do it with their mastery of the materials, equipment, and processes; but also with innovation, originality, and creativity. They do things that haven’t been done before and create products unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before. That’s what the consumer wants from ‘craft.’

To make sure you get what you want when you want craft whiskey, get used to asking producers and promoters this question about their craft products: “What’s ‘craft’ about it?”

 

16 Responses to “What Is Craft? Wouldn’t You Like to Know?”

  1. Josh Feldman says:

    Great piece of clear thinking, Chuck. Craft is a slippery term that has been stretched and abused. The ADI’s definition in excluding next year’s post-expansion Balcones and artists like Jackie Summers is missing the critical pieces: passion and creativity. You have manged to bring some rigor and also some feeling to this question of art, handcraft, and -ultimately- passion.

    • Josh,
      I think the Balcones expansion hits right at the heart of it. They have only expanded by taking on outside capitol and have become something other than owner operated. Chip Tate has become a minority shareholder and, if you have been following the intrigue surrounding Balcones lately, is dangerously close to not having any part in production there. Balcones without Chip Tate operated by the investors, quite simply would not be craft.
      When we “crafted” the ADI definition, we thought the most important element is what the consumer pictures when they purchase a craft spirit. Owner operation was and small size are at the heart of it. I cannot think of a distillery producing more than 52,000 cases a year where the owner maintains hands-on involvement with day-to day production. And I think a producer brining in the $8 or $16 million annually that such a large producer brings in would no longer fit the model of the small entrepreneur is thinking of when they say craft.
      The idea, ultimately was to create a list of spirits that were created by artisans, micro-distillers or whatever you choose to call it. The word is common usage is craft, and we have created a database of craft spirits. What we do not do is say that anyone is not craft.
      The ever-growing database contains more than 900 spirits and that we certify as fitting the criteria we have outlined — which is what we think the consumer is looking for in a craft product. As it grows, and consumers, wholesalers, retailers and bartenders refer to it more often. It can be helpful in sorting out the craft from the crafty.
      The database can be found at: http://distilling.com/craft/

  2. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    in German craft means “Handwerk” – among other things. Handwerk which includes the words “hand” and “work” describes a certain profession or trade. Painters shoemakers joiners are classical Handwerker or hand workers in the German language.
    “Werk” on its own means the product a craftsman – or – woman is making with their hands and tools and it means a certain painting or a sculpture in the arts made by hand and the inspiration of the artist like in “a work of art”.
    Hard to see that a highly mechanised product where de facto no hand of any craftsman is involved anymore could be craft especially as it is a mass product fabricated by some million gallons a year.
    That does not only apply to the USA by the way. Scotch is suffering by the loss of the craft way of doing things as well as a whisky category.

    That Diageo is to become the biggest “craft distiller” in the USA is therefore highly improbable. For that you need a small operation where real hands are making things and not computers monitoring engeneered processes.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  3. Danny Maguire says:

    Craft, as an expression, really means nothing. To say a product is atisan would probably make sense, in English at any rate, since that means that somone used their hands to make it.

    • two-bit cowboy says:

      Your thought has traction, Danny.

      “Artists” who are invited to submit “works” to a juried show are rarely participants in local “craft” fairs.

  4. two-bit cowboy says:

    The way to the answer is to persistently ask the question in different ways.

    Instead of asking companies to define “craft” shouldn’t we ask consumers? (However, I acknowledge it’s a ‘small batch’ of consumers who would truly ‘get’ the question as it regards whisk(e)y.)

    I’ve heard, “To be considered a journeyman you must do a thing 10,000 times.” If a marketing team uses their thesaurus–instead of the truth, whatever that is–10,000 times does that make them marketing journeymen (or just better fertilizer salesmen)?

    Nice, stimulating thoughts, Charles. Keep ‘em comin’.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      “Instead of asking companies to define “craft” shouldn’t we ask consumers? ”

      I have consistently asked that same question about “craft” beer, cowboy; I think that has merit. But then, I also think that “craft” as a descriptor has seen its day, at least in beer. Overuse has rendered it almost meaningless, something whiskey makers should observe and consider.

      • Sam Komlenic says:

        If we dump the term “craft,” then what? I’m sure that any descriptor will be co-opted and corrupted by whomever just to try to make their product/process seem to fit the genre.

        If that’s the case, “artisan” won’t help; neither will any other distinguishing term, so why not stick with craft since it’s a known quantity, to whatever extent.

        And though I appreciate Jackie Summers’s take on the true definition of craft; being a farm boy, that reference to a “bale of wheat” bothers the hell out of me since there is no such thing. A sack of wheat, sure, or a bale of wheat straw, but I digress…

        • Lew Bryson says:

          That’s pretty much my argument with the craft beer people, Sam: why use any descriptor? How about just “beer,” and we let it compete on merit?

          I’m not big on “how big is the company that makes it”, I’m more interested in where it’s made, how it’s made, how much it costs, and — most importantly — how does it taste? “Craft” ultimately tells me next to none of that. “Local” does; stylistic descriptors do (assuming the TTB is doing their job); and AOCs do. “Craft” and “Artisan” are about as useful as ‘Small Batch,’ in my opinion, because you cannot define them in a way that I can tell the difference in my glass.

  5. Danny Maguire says:

    Some very good points have been raised here. Couple of years ago I visited a distillery in Dufftown, pretty big production. I forget how many million litres but it was in the millions. One man operation his work station reminded me of the bridge on the Starship Enterprise. That is the way the big companies are going, there is no way their products can be called craft regardless if they are Diageo or Brown Foreman. They don’t just want quality, they also want quantity and that is anethema to both craft and artisan.

    • JDC732 says:

      Amen to that. Sorry but, size does matter when it comes to products like beer and spirits and monikers such as “craft” or “artisan” should be used to differentiate the big guys from the little. Small production size may not always connote quality but, it usually does mean that more human handiwork was used in the making of a particular product. And, this is worth noting on bottles and in marketing materials because, more transparency on the part of producers is usually a net win for consumers.

  6. davindek says:

    Does anyone else find it odd that the ADI definition does not say anything about quality? The term craft, as applied to whisky, is used to suggest quality, and that is what this whole discussion is dancing around, but instead, their definition is strictly about size. How about they add the line “… and scores 90 points or higher in the Whisky Advocate Buying Guide”? It seems quite self-serving to me that the ADI definition so nicely overlaps its own membership.

    As well, the impression so many seem to have that some major producers make their whisky without the use of human hands has not been my experience. At the major distilleries I have visited here in Canada, yes, grain is tested by machines when it arrives, but equally, samples are taken from the truck by humans, and are nosed by humans who have veto power (and use it) over the machines.

    Similarly, every batch of new make is nosed blind by people on organoleptic panels. These people also have and use their veto power. Each component and each batch of mature whisky is also nosed by people as is each final product. New make from continuous stills is usually nosed twice daily.

    More than this, these people do have a passion for their products, huge pride in their craftsmanship, and assert individual human input each step of the way. It is naïve, at best, to equate the big distilleries that I am familiar with, with industrial factories such as what we think of when we talk about Ford or GM.

  7. Danny Maguire says:

    Davin, my experience is of distilleries in Scotland. The only time I have seen the grain being tested is when it is delivered from the merchant prior to malting. Once the malted grain is delivered to the distillery, if it belongs to one of the major operators, everything is controlled by the single shift operator. He, or she, sits in a work station with a bank of computer screens which show every stage in the process and how far along it is. A button is pressed to move the grain from the silo into the de-stoner and then through the mill. This one operator controls every stage of the process right up to when the spirit comes of the still and into the spirit receiver, only then does a second person get involved, the tanker driver who takes the new make spirit away to be filled into casks. It’s not nosed until it’s 3 years old, so that they can decide if it’s going to be single malt whisky or if it’s going to be used in a blend. If it’s going to be blended is it going to be entry level, i.e. JW Red or is it going into one of the more expensive aged ones. If it’s the former it will go off to the blending plant there and then, if the latter it will be checked regularly.
    I’m not saying that new make spirit isn’t nosed but it’s not common practice to the extent that every batch is done.

  8. J says:

    For an in-depth exploration of craft ‘The Craftsman’ by Richard Sennett is an interesting read. But unfortunately marketers can and will misappropriate any description with buzzword potential and squeeze the life out of whatever’s ‘on trend’ until we become numb to it/sick of it. And it’s not just the big guys that are doing it, the small brands are too. As mentioned above, It would be much simpler if brands stopped telling people what to think, and let them decide for themselves based on the true merits of the product as opposed to who can shout the loudest or fabricate markers of ‘quality’ and perceived value which bare zero relevance to the actual quality. A good tasting whisky made with honesty and integrity in exchange for our hard earned money. Why is that so much to ask.

  9. Jim Laminack says:

    Rather than try and define “Craft” I would prefer the industry regulate what information must be on the bottle and let’s let the consumer sort it out. Primarily where is it distilled, where is it aged and for how long and where is it bottled.The vast majority of consumers think the industry enjoys more regulation than it actually does. I am a wholesaler and I am constantly amazed at the amount of “craft whiskeys” that are submitted to me to carry that are stump water in a bottle with the package/name/label as the impetus of the sale rather than the liquid. Brown goods are enjoying unprecedented growth but as consumers try bad whiskeys at $30 to $50 dollars the vigor will surely fade.

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