Production

Craft Fair?

Has the distillation world effectively spawned an uncontrollable, unregulated monster
By Neil Ridley
Let's be honest. We all love an underdog don't we? When the minnows of the World Cup pull off that unpredictable defeat against the mighty favourites, or an unranked tennis player totally destroys one of the top seeds in straight sets, we tend to start celebrating with the little guy. In fact, given the rise in fortunes of the world of the craft distiller, we seem to be more than a little obsessed with celebrating independent spirits, maverick thinkers and those who dare to challenge convention.

However, a particular elephant in the room has begun to emerge in recent months concerning the term 'craft distiller' and just exactly where the boundaries of the term actually lie. As an industry, craft distilling across all spirits has exploded in the US over the past decade. It has even breached the mainstream to an extent by appearing on The Simpsons - Google 'Maker's Moe' and you are in for a treat.

To use another television reference, this time from Happy Days, has the term 'craft distiller' 'Jumped the Shark', been so over used, that it has effectively run its course as a meaningful descriptor of a small distillery? More's the point, when presented by the plethora of 'craft' whiskies out there, how do we make an informed decision that the juice is actually going to live up to our expectations?

"I really don't like the word 'craft' as a descriptor of the small distiller, even though it appears we are stuck with it," thinks Dave Pickerell, distilling consultant behind hundreds of small distilleries across the US and also one of the founding members of the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA.) "To me, 'craft' means the expression of skill in artistry. Small distillers do not have a corner on this idea. There are many larger spirits that are craft. There are also some smaller spirits that exhibit little or no skill or artistry."

Emerson Lamb, owner of the Westland Distillery in Seattle, which was established in 2009 and began maturing a variety of malt whiskeys in 2010 feels that the issue of what the term craft actually means has begun to dominate the industry itself. As a result, Lamb and his co-founder Matt Hofmann prefer to use the term 'Thoughtfully Made'. "It's a sad state," he explains "and the priority for all distillers in the US - and around the world - should be practising the highest form of their art, whether that's distilling malts or making flavoured vodka. We politely decline to refer to ourselves as 'craft'- it's a slippery slope that we'd rather not be mired in. What you call yourself as a distillery is important, but not nearly as important as what's in the bottle."

On the other side of the Atlantic, for Sam Simmons, Global Ambassador at The Balvenie, the word craft acts as a descriptor for doing things in the traditional sense.

"As our coppersmith Dennis McBain says, 'it's all about making whisky the right way'" he points out. "If there is a job that can be done by a human being, we have a human being do it. A machine cannot make decisions, and cannot put a heartbeat into its creation. A craftsman can." Simmons also feels that "Craftsmanship is not something you get with your distilling license and new Christian Carl manufactured stills. It is the overlapping facets of art, science and most importantly, experience. Without the convergence of all three you're an artist or a scientist, a maker or a doer - but not a craftsman."

So what, if anything, should really define a craft distiller? Is it, as Sam Simmons suggests, really a combination of factors?

"The things that unite the small distiller are size and passion for their work," thinks Dave Pickerell. "I have built dozens and dozens of 'craft' distilleries and those are the only unifying factors that I can find. There are many corollaries, but at the root, they are all matters of size. Passion is the other component," he continues. "This isn't just a job. It is a livelihood. Craft distillers virtually all came from somewhere else and made a left turn into the world of distilling because that's what they really wanted to do."

For Anthony Wills, owner of Kilchoman, (who incidentally, doesn't class the distillery as 'craft') the key defining aspect of a small distillery is its unique selling point. "When I set up Kilchoman, I wanted to build a distillery with a point of difference," he explains. "Our uniqueness was to build the distillery on a working farm and grow some of the barley we use in production. I wanted to make sure our production was small, so we hopefully created a demand that outstripped supply. Rather than promoting Kilchoman as a craft distillery, we call ourselves a farm distillery, which, in itself, gives an impression of small and artisanal."

One man in a relatively unique position regarding craft distilling is Tony Reeman-Clark. As well as owning the Strathearn distillery in Perthshire, (currently the smallest operational distillery in Scotland, with a wash still capacity of just 1,000 litres and a spirit still of 500 litres) he is also the chairman of the Scottish Craft Distillers Association (SCDA.) With 60 founder members currently signed up to the constitution, the association is hoping to effectively give similar craft distillers across Scotland a greater representation internationally, through an accreditation system, backed by the Scottish organisation, Interface Food & Drink.

So what does Tony think about the word craft, in relation to distilling?

"It's a hugely variable term, which is wildly misused," he feels. "Deanston for instance calls itself a craft distillery and produces 1.2 million litres of spirit per annum. We've tried to set several parameters to define craft. The first is to determine a maximum output of 100,000 LPA. Secondly, the equipment used is regulated. It has to be pot still distillation and if the alcohol used is rectified it should significantly change in character, which allows us to incorporate gin distillers."

The big question right now concerns the increased output of craft distillers. As they grow in stature, becoming more mainstream operations, (effectively the poacher turned gamekeeper mentality) can the term craft still rightfully apply?

"If you watch the term craft as it applies to brewing, it has continually been redefined to ensure that Sam Adams remains firmly ensconced as a craft brewer," explains Dave Pickerell. "A similar trend seems to be emerging in the craft spirits world. The American Craft Spirits Association has just upped their definition from 100,000 proof gallons per year to 750,000 proof gallons per year. Many of the larger companies work diligently to have craft looking brands: like the A. Smith Bowman / Virginia Gentleman line from Sazerac or the orphan barrel project from Diageo."

With the rapidly rising number of small distilleries worldwide, largely driven by consumer interest, the debate concerning craft and its true meaning will no doubt rage fiercely for many years to come. I ask Chip Tate, founder of the Balcones distillery in Waco what the future holds for the small distiller.

"I hope we won't see any change in legislation concerning the word 'craft', since I'm not sure that the government is in the best position to make such a determination," he explains. "That said, I'm sure we will see a lot of changes for today's small distilleries. Defining what it really means to be 'craft' is a difficult question, but identifying what it clearly isn't is often much easier.'