Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In Which We Retreat and Declare Victory on ‘Craft Distilling’

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.


Brad Karrfalt said...

I saw that ad the other day and thought, "Eh?" but nothing more. This type of distinction really only matters to those to whom it matters. How and where something is made, how ethically and ecologically correct the process may be, or what sort of chant a Shaman mumbled as they bottled and corked it are secondary to the quality of the final product, IMHO.

Have you ever tried "organic" wine? Blech. Does the world really need sustainable, free-range Scotch?

As for Balvenie I drink it quite often. It's very smooth, with a distinctive nose and taste, and very reasonably priced. Though I do mourn for the days when Trader Joe was selling the 12 year Doublewood for $29.

Sorry Charlie, we don't want Whiskey with good taste. We want Whiskey that tases good.

Lots of it.

M.w. Blaum said...

Great post, and I agree that asking who is and isn’t craft is not necessarily the right question. In my humble opinion, the distilleries who are associated with being ‘craft’ nowadays are those who spend the marketing dollars to ensure that consumers associate them with the word ‘craft’. Balvenie is a great example. While I absolutely love Balvenie and their commitment to keeping trade crafts alive (the juice is good too), one must ask, are they truly doing these things because they will generate a better product, or is it more about consumer perception? Are their floor maltings better than the outsourced malting facilities? Are their coopers better than those at the Speyside Cooperage? Something to note: Balvenie malts barley, but they only malt 10-20% of the barley that they use (I asked). Their distillation appears to be mostly computer controlled (I’ve seen). I’m not saying that these are negatives. Springbank, on the other hand, malts 100% of their own barley (both for them and sister distillery Glengyle), and they don’t have computer automation for distillation. But they also don’t necessarily have the image of being ‘craft’, nor the marketing budget or reach of Balvenie. Perhaps, they don’t even give a damn what people think of them in this respect. So who is ‘craft’? Lastly, there are a number of micro distilleries in the U.S. that spend gobs of money on promoting their ‘craft’ image of doing everything by hand, yet though they are distilling their products locally (not NDPs), 100% of the distillation process is executed via computer automation (steam, cooling, cuts, etc). Again, not saying that is ‘bad’, just saying let the consumer know how you are or aren't making the product and let them call it what they want. Doesn’t happen too often.

Chuck Cowdery said...
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gizmomathboy said...

Maybe craft can't apply to distilled spirits because of the legalese involved, much more so than in beer.

A more pointed term might be honest distillers. That strikes to the heart of what I think you are doing and care about, Chuck.

I don't get the feeling that Jack Daniels, Makers Mark, and some of other whiskey's I drink on a regular basis don't lie to me as much as say, W.H.Harrison Whiskey does.

I get that it is tough to make good, aged whiskey, but it isn't tough to tell me how it's made and not lie to me about it.

Oscar said...

Thanks for another good article Chuck.

Anonymous said...

Words like craft, hand made, etc.. are non trademarked words that can and should only be used by those that choose to use them. As a small distiller (1000 liter pot still) I have no interest in using those terms, because I know they have been bastardized by mega distilleries, who are attempting to use the marketability of the terms, that proved successful for craft brewers.

When was the last time you heard : craft winery ? Never. In fact one can almost argue that use of the word craft in distilling is now synonymous with "crafty marketing" .

As private small distillers we just need to trademark a term under a strict and specific set of parameters that define some as yet determined scope of operations, and therein only those who fit said parameter can use said designation.

Craft. Who cares ? In this day of Tweets, Googles, Blogs, Viagra , etc.. and every other trademarked word used to define a good or service, it shouldn't be too hard to come up with a word, and then disseminate to the public the parameters therein.

Thereafter the appropriate distillers may choose to use said term, and the buying public may then purchase with confidence, that which is so "tagged".

The big guys? Too bad, you're out .

Now all we need is some neutral party, like a blogger or somebody, to work this through to the end, and save this fledgling industry from the large companies who are trying to keep their market share by pretending they are something other that what the public perceives them to be.

Serge said...

Hi Chuck, maybe the better way would be the Champagne way. As you know they have been using codes/appellations on their labels for quite a while. RM (récoltant manipulant) means they harvest and make it. NM (négociant manipulant) means they buy some, or all the grapes and make the wine. ND (négociant distributor) means they slap their labels onto finished wine. And there are other codes (SR, CM and so on). Not very explicit but it's on the labels. Now yes we also suffer from over-regulation in France ;-).

snakeman48 said...

I like the term, Micro Distillers.

Which in fact is what they are.

Oscar said...

I have a word that all the distillers can use, "Age Statement".
Do some proper aging, like 8 years and up and post the age on the label.
Everything else is just BS.

Anonymous said...

Agreed about the age statement. After all, what other industry on the planet charges a premium due to bad inventory control. 4 year vs 8 years, means absolutely nothing about quality. Let me say it again, nothing.

As a distiller, I love the concept of charging more for our overproduction, but it's absurd to think it improves the spirit somehow.

In fact the ridiculous thing is that all of the old time hard core drinkers Love things like the spice of rye, then they will strive to buy something so old, it tastes like wheated bourbon.

But I love the financial side of it. Keep at it. Make everybody state the age. It's just more money for the distillers.

Austin, TX said...

For what it's worth - Balvenie is technically an independent, family owned brand (William Grant & Sons), something I consider to be an important part of the "craft/micro" distillery designation puzzle, versus, for example, a Bruichladdich, once technically craft/micro/independent, who sold out to corporate brand Rémy Cointreau who has shares and stockholders.

Mike Thigpen said...

I don't think it is the mega distilleries that have bastardized the term craft, it is the NDPs that have a better story than product.

Anonymous said...

First off thanks for another great post Chuck. I feel information about how a product is made and how, in what and for how long it is aged is most important. As a lover of good "juice" i really don't care how big or small a distiller is so the term craft is meaningless. The term i am after is transparency. A distiller should be proud and open about the product. A distiller should allow us to know all aspects of the process. What concerns me is all these nonsense stories which are becoming more like fairy tales and are placed on packaging were real information should be. Picture trying to sell a food product will a silly story about how your father got the recipe from a one armed elf in the forest after a riddle contest and then not putting any ingredients on the package. It is just getting silly now especially in the scotch side of things. aged statements replaced with pointless stories. It's about honest,pride and integrity not marketing ploys to distract from the customer as the distiller puts out a cheaper product at a higher price to achieve higher profit margin.