Monday, July 21, 2014
There Is a Difference Between 'Craft' and 'Crafty'
As reported by Amy Hopkins in The Spirits Business last week, Diageo North America president Larry Schwartz recently declared to investors at a conference: “We’re going to be the number one craft distiller in North American whiskey in the US. Why? Because we have the whiskies.”
Schwartz was talking about the Orphan Barrels program, which so far consists of three bourbons called Old Blowhard, Barterhouse, and Rhetoric. Diageo calls them 'craft.' Others have called them "an insult to American whiskeys and the people who drink them."
The person Hopkins calls "Ewan Moran" is probably Ewan Morgan, who takes the ball from Schwartz. "Craft is about artisanship, passion, experience, great liquid, great products," he says. Okay, except 'artisan' is just a synonym for 'craft,' while 'passion' and 'experience' sound nice but they're just vague platitudes. Even absent an agreed definition, 'craft' has to be more than a vague label you can stick on just about anything.
Or does it? For marketing purposes, words such as 'craft' are best left to the consumer's imagination, because like 'small batch' and 'produced by,' the consumer is likely to believe they mean more than they really do.
Morgan is absolutely right about one thing when he says, "not all small distilleries are craft."
The American Distilling Institute (ADI) begs to differ. 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."
In other words, "not you, Diageo."
But 'craft' has to mean more than just 'small,' doesn't it? ADI's problem, of course, is that so many of its members are fakes. Take a look at its pathetic joke of a craft self-certification system. Diageo probably loves it since it's based on the principle of "It's craft because I say it is."
To muddy the waters further, a California company called Craft Distillers Inc. (CD), has trademarked the term 'Craft Distillers.' Earlier this year they filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the young movement's other trade association, the American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA). ACDA put on its tough guy face at first, then became the ACSA (American Craft Spirits Association).
Can a large distiller be craft? Probably, but Orphan Barrels isn't because there is nothing even remotely craft about the offering.
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. Orphan Barrels 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 all the whiskey, intended 26 or 20 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's a name for that -- 'Closeout' maybe? 'Bargain Bin'? 'Final Liquidation'? -- but it's definitely not 'craft.' Saying the Orphan Barrels aren't craft doesn't mean they're bad whiskey. They may be great whiskey, they're just not 'craft' if 'craft' is to be anything other than a meaningless marketing term du jour.
The producers most recognized for their craft whiskeys -- Balcones, Koval, Corsair, Few, Dry Fly -- do it 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,' but perhaps Lance Winters (St. George) is right when he says, "putting a binding definition on what craft is, would be like putting a binding legal definition on what art is." Consumers have to stay skeptical and always ask producers who call their products 'craft,' "where's the craft?" It's a question we've been asking here since 2008.