A craft distilling conference is a little bit like sex ed class: it addresses, in great detail, the very unsexy, technical aspects of a very seductive subject. The American Distilling Institute’s annual conference took place recently in Louisville. Huber’s Winery, which sits on a bucolic plot of land, served as the headquarters for the hundreds of American and international distillers who attended. There were seminars that dealt with the virtues of different types of yeast, others that tackled the thorny matter of governmental red tape, and others that dissected the dos and don’ts of marketing. Not sexy. There were salesmen pedaling synthetic corks, natural corks and density meters. Like I said: not sexy.
But there were also excursions to distilleries, legendary and fledgling. They were opportunities to marvel at giant, glistening, hard-working stills. There were late-night rendezvous to gab about avant garde distilling techniques and fun experiments. There were people sneaking off midday to taste obscure German and Austrian whiskies. Sexy.
"You can fly too close to the sun and only see the great parts"
For every rewarding marriage, there are battles over finances and household chores. For every winning political campaign, there are grueling late nights of rewrites and dreadful Chinese take-out. No victory comes easy, and the most important conference takeaway I detected was that one should not focus on the romantic, sexy side of producing a craft spirit with locally sourced ingredients, or put faith in the Horatio Alger story. Long sweaty days at the still does not a successful brand make. That can interfere with a readiness to focus on bureaucratic rigmarole that’s vital not just for growing a brand, but for maintaining it in the long run.
Make no mistake, there was a representative from a company that sells grain neutral spirit. The truth that distillers buy bulk spirit for their craft product was out on display, full frontal. But the topic was still a bit of an elephant in the room. It did come up in a plea for truth in advertising.
“Provide a compelling product to purchase,” said Andrew Webber of the successful Corsair Artisan Distillery during his appearance on a panel about building a brand.
In other words: go on, exploit the mystique, but only where applicable. Lawmakers and the distributers’ lobby, however, are not moved by mystique. It was astounding to learn how sticky governmental red tape actually is, how hard distillers and distillers’ guilds must hustle to achieve what they should inherently have, like the legal right to sell their products in their own distilleries and to be treated by government as the entrepreneurial small business owners they are. They warrant tax breaks just like small business owners in other fields. Those that pound the pavement and knock on doors are a model of success because they fit the aforementioned archetype of businessman over romantic.
As it stands, craft distillers pay the same federal excise tax per gallon of spirit as the giant producers. They drafted a bill, the Small Distillery Excise Tax Act (H.R. 777), which is yet to be passed. It would decrease the tax rate to about 20 per cent of what the big boys pay. Every American craft distiller signed on.
This kind of community has resulted in the use of the term 'movement' to describe the craft industry. The key to success with any movement is generating a snowball effect of support. Fred Bueltmann, 'Beervangelist' of New Holland Brewing Company in Michigan, delivered the sagest, most concise advice I heard all week on this and more: “It’s important to get used to failure,” he said.
“Get used to feedback: from distributors, retailers, employees. If they see you handle feedback, they’ll be more open with it. You can fly too close to the sun and only see great parts and not see the vulnerability.
“There's the idea of craft evangelism. Develop fans, not customers. Fans root for you and convert others.”