Consider, for a moment, Manhattan. For the last several decades, stories of the city and its characters were the stuff of legend. Cultural movements were reactions against the status quo. Each went from grass roots to historic and, in the process, changed how we think, what we talk about. Perhaps this is best, most concisely illustrated with music: Disco, an appropriation and fusion of Latin, psychedelic and funk styles, swept through the underground nightclubs in the 1970s. A revolt against increasingly homogenous pop music, it became a scene wherein counter-cultures expressed themselves. Today it plays over the sound system in Gap and Starbucks. As a movement takes on momentum, everyone wants to claim it as their own. Everyone wants a piece of it. Its popularity ultimately, and ironically, leads to the erosion of its core values. The trailblazers become historical figures – icons, even. The original values they stood for become footnotes. The superficial qualities – a punk song’s driving baseline, for instance – becomes the defining characteristic. The movement’s edges become dull. Authenticity becomes tough to find.
And so it goes with craft distilling. In the early days, it was a subculture, and now everyone wants a piece of it. So much so that, as a recent cover story in this magazine addressed, the colossal and historic whisky companies are appropriating the term as their own, proclaiming it was theirs all along. “Craft distilling was really born because people weren’t happy that they couldn’t make their own choices [in production]. People wanted to be inspired,” Maggie Campbell told me recently. Campbell is head distiller at Privateer Rum, a distillery in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Before arriving there, she spent years in California and Colorado, where she learned from folks who could be called the craft whiskey movement’s first wave practitioners, like Todd Leopold. A torchbearer of old-world distilling philosophies who studied in the time – tested distilleries in Europe, and Jake Norris, the original distiller at Stranahan’s who left when the behemoth Proximo purchased the company and now makes bourbon from start to finish at Laws Whiskey House in Denver.
“The hard part is that we want to be involved with the word craft, but it’s gotten complicated. With wine, you have ‘boutique wine,’ and with beer you have ‘craft beer.’ I wonder if there’s a word for spirits that captures how it’s actually made. We’re in that spot where ‘craft spirits’ is big enough that people kinda know what it means. But it’s also been watered down,” she said. “I work hard – we ferment, distill, age and bottle everything – and they point at me and say I’m like the others. And I’m not.” The ‘What is craft?’ question used to be debated – in industry circles. Now it’s hit the mainstream, thanks to exposé style articles in national and local publications and websites. And then there are the lawsuits. If you’ve been reading this magazine, you know that many distilleries buy neutral grain spirit, age it and label it with language that implies that they’ve produced it start to finish. You’re familiar with class action ordeals that call brands out for misleading consumers.
The original values that craft stood for become footnotes. The superficial qualities – a hint of vanilla in a bourbon’s flavour profile, for instance – become the defining characteristics. Authenticity becomes tough to find.
Over the past few years, I’ve had countless discussions with producers and owners at many startup operations as well as the colossal, iconic distilleries. It’s become clear to me that in order for this discussion, which only ever goes around in circles, to end, we need a way for the public to have a baseline understanding of facts, not just superficial qualities. In a perfect world we’d see an oversight body that would design a list of stipulations that a producer must adhere to in order to be called craft. Language is a delicate commodity. If a word gets overused, it can malfunction or break. And that’s a disservice to everyone. We can only ensure proper handling of the term ‘craft’ if we make it a nomenclature that’s earned, like ‘master somelier.’ It can’t be free for the taking.