The latest issue of WHISKY Magazine has on its cover an artsy photograph of a fellow named Henry McWilliams shoveling malt at the Balvenie Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland. The headline asks: “Is Craft an Expression of Skill?” The word ‘expression’ is emphasized. Beneath the headline is this pull quote: “Small distillers do not have a corner on ‘craft distilling.’ There are many larger spirits that are craft. There are also some smaller spirits that exhibit little or no skill or artistry.”
The article inside, by Neil Ridley, continues along those lines.
Do you sense battle lines being drawn? Clearly, the major producers are not going to let this ‘craft’ thing go. Moreover, they are not going to let themselves be labeled ‘industrial distillers.’ They will fight back. Resistance is futile, so maybe it’s time to just retreat and declare victory. Fighting about it is probably a big waste of time and, ultimately, a distraction from something that is much more important.
Featuring Balvenie on the cover was no accident. Hardly any distilleries grow barley and malt it traditionally, but Balvenie does. It also has coopers and a coppersmith on staff. It can afford all this ‘craft’ because Balvenie is one of the best-selling single-malt brands in the world.
So is Balvenie a craft distillery?
Perhaps that’s the wrong question.
As everyone has pointed out, this all happened with craft brewing a generation ago, yet no one can deny that the name stuck. We still talk about ‘craft beers,’ and for the most part we all mean the same thing when we say it. The parallels aren't perfect. For consumers, the craft beer movement has mostly been about variety, sampling beer in all its possibilities. For some, it’s also about the practical and emotional values of ‘localism,’ if not terroir exactly. For perhaps the smallest number, it’s about the preservation of traditional production methods and the intimate connection between maker and product that is only possible in a small operation.
There is a good chance craft spirits will turn out the same way.
With its numerous expressions, Balvenie offers a lot of variety, but no one would call them experimental. Balvenie is a conventional Speyside malt, not that there’s anything wrong with that. They get their highest points for the use of traditional methods. They score zero for localism as their whiskey is sold everywhere, though no doubt the folks in Dufftown are very proud.
Knowing all that, can you slap the ‘craft’ label on them or not? Breaking it down, you see how ridiculous the question is. If it makes sense to call Balvenie a ‘craft distillery,’ it’s because they’re different. They do many traditional things their counterparts do not. If Balvenie is craft, therefore, Glenlivet can’t be.
What Balvenie is, most of all, is real. That’s where the young U.S. craft distilling movement has gotten stuck. Too many of its leading names are outright fakes. Too many new consumers, attracted by the idea of ‘craft spirits,’ are being suckered by clever packaging and glib stories that may stay within the letter of the law but use every trick imaginable to convey a false impression.
While it's disgusting that some producers employ these practices, and over-burdened regulators let them, consumers deserve some of the blame. There will always be bad actors, especially in expanding markets, and regulators are never fully effective. What’s really shocking is how many consumers are okay with it. They consider it bad taste to disabuse them. All of the fakers have ardent supporters. Fine. Tell Al Capone I said hi.
Maybe the best thing to do now is just let it go. I haven't changed my standards. I'm still going to investigate and report, and anyone who cares knows where to find me. Consumers are going to use the terms they find most useful. The hive mind eventually sorts these things out in ways that are generally unambiguous if not precisely so. It’s good at that.
f you want to know the truth about any products, the first thing you have to do is find independent voices. Many producers do a good job with transparency, but it still takes independent voices to tell you who those producers are and keep them honest. Everyone vying to be one of those independent voices has to establish their own credibility. Everyone in the advertiser-supported media recognizes how that model threatens credibility and because they all navigate it differently, some advertiser-supported outlets are more credible than others.
Because I write for some advertiser-supported outlets, I am partially advertiser-supported but mostly not. When producers invite me to events they want me to cover, they usually pay my expenses, but that’s a wash. Most of my income is from book sales, newsletter subscriptions, and personal appearances.
Consumers have to do some of the work, if only in deciding who to believe and what to buy. The consumer who expects the easy answer to also be the right one is always disappointed. To really understand what’s going on in the distilled spirits business, you might need to read a book.
Here are a few to get you started.