Saturday, August 20, 2016

What Is Craft?



What is craft, as in 'craft distillery'?

The dictionary offers a little help. The most nearly relevant dictionary definition is: "denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company."

That certainly supports those who argue that a big producer can't be craft, but distilling is problematic. Whiskey, for the most part, is made in a "traditional" and "non-mechanized way" by everyone. The difference between a big distillery and a small one is mostly just scale. The processes are almost identical.

Does that mean the term 'craft' is meaningless? Lew Bryson thinks so, as he told the Charleston City Paper a few days ago. "I've been trying to tell the brewers to walk away from that term for 15 years now. Just call it beer. It's beer. The only reason you're using craft is because you want to separate yourself from the big brewers. But people know who they are." He feels the same way about applying the term to whiskey and other spirits.

Bryson is a powerful voice in both industries but craft brewers haven't listened to him on this, neither have craft distillers. People will continue to use the term and argue about its meaning, who should use it, and who should not.

Maybe this will help.

Craft is about things made, not necessarily from scratch, but where an artisan affects 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.

For example, Diageo claims its Orphan Barrel bourbons are craft, but Orphan Barrel is a marketing idea, not a product idea. The product itself consists of nothing more than several large batches of leftovers.

Too harsh? Consider the facts. No one has claimed that United Distillers, the Diageo predecessor company that made the whiskey, intended all those years ago to make these products, nor that it did anything special then or along the way to the specific whiskey that became these products. It was standard production of the Bernheim Distillery, from before and after it closed and was rebuilt. It is simply whiskey they couldn't find any other use for until now. There is nothing wrong with it, it is perfectly good whiskey if you like bourbons that have spent that much time in wood, but there is nothing remotely 'craft' about it.

At the beginning of the craft distilling movement, many new distilleries were quick to claim that their 'craft' whiskey was superior to 'industrial' whiskey because, you know, it was 'craft.' The claim was hubris and all it took was a taste. No craft distillery has improved on the bourbon made by Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, etc. They probably never will. Today, most craft distillers have abandoned that foolishness.

The producers most recognized for craft whiskey -- Balcones, Koval, Stranahan's, Corsair, FEW, Dry Fly, Tom's Foolery -- do it with innovation, originality, and creativity. They do things that haven't been done before (belying the 'traditional' requirement) and create products unlike anything you've ever tasted before. That's what consumers want from 'craft,' but does it give us the makings of a legal or 'official' definition?

Probably not. As Lance Winters (St. George Spirits) says, "putting a binding definition on what craft is, would be like putting a binding legal definition on what art is." Consumers have to decide for themselves what 'craft' means to them and they should stay skeptical. Always ask producers who call their products 'craft,' what is craft about it? It is a question we have been asking here since 2008.

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