When asking around to my friends, as i wanted to write that post, what a craft distillery was, I often heard the following response: craft must mean “small” and “carefully done.” Hum. Hum. Hum.
What is small? What is careful? There are terrible distillers working in small quantities, I have friends producing a terrible calvados. Yes, after all, craft does not mean good either. There are huge companies producing vodka in a particularly careful manner. So how do we define a craft distillery? Size? Hands-on? This the challenge we are facing in that article, trying to define CRAFT. Let’s go!
First, is there an official definition out there?
The American Distilling Institute (which is a private company) definition says “an independently-owned distillery with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases where the product is PHYSICALLY distilled and bottled on-site.”
The definition from the American Craft Spirits Association (a non profit organisation) states, “a distillery who values the importance of transparency in distilling, and remains forthcoming regarding their use of ingredients, their distilling location and process, bottling location and process, and ageing process… that produces fewer than 750,000 gallons annually,… and is independently owned and operated, with more than a 75% equity stake in their company, or operational control.”
This definition is already a bit more detailed and demanding.
In the EU? …..I couldn’t find a definition.
However, from observing the situation, organising panel conversations and discussing with producers i would say that a craft distillery in Europe operates under a certain number of principles, in addition to the small scale process, and independently owned operations and facilities already mentioned in the US definition.
- organic products
- locally sourced products
- no additives nor colouring agents
Is there an history of craft? Are craft spirits the same thing than the craft beer movement?
How can you make an history of something that has always existed in the back of the farmyard, in the secrecy of the kitchen. In the US maybe?
In that article “An Insider’s Look at the Craft Distillery Industry » the author, Corie Brown, writes:
In 1965, there was only one craft brewery, Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, bought on impulse by 25-year-old Fritz Maytag, a descendent of the Maytag appliance family. When Maytag later launched Anchor Distilling in 1993, he became one of the first craft distillers. He learned the craft from Jörg Rupf, America’s first modern craft distiller who launched St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, in 1982 to distill eau-de-vie from the region’s bounty of fresh pears, raspberries, and cherries.
There has never been a home distilling movement similar to what drove the craft beer movement. Distilling at home stills remain illegal, a law that appears to be carved in stone as much because of the fear of exploding stills and accidental poisonings as an aversion to “demon” spirits. So the movement has grown far more slowly. There are no firm numbers on the size or value of the craft spirits sector.
If it is also not legal to distill in your kitchen in EU, many family had the right to distill (like Bouilleur de Cru*1, in France of people with Brennrecht*2 in Germany). What a craft distillery is, is still very much vague and without legal definition.
However there is a need for rules and reglementation. In the US, still in the same article mentioned above:
The association (American Craft Sprits Association) hosted its second annual trade show in February 2015 and is leading the charge to change federal and state laws hobbling the growth of craft spirits. “We’re just at the beginning stages of organizing the craft spirits industry,” says Leah Hutchinson, director of operations and marketing for the nonprofit association, noting that there are parallels to the early stages of the craft beer industry.
Owens and the nonprofit ACSA define “craft spirits” to be both grain-to-glass spirits and spirits produced using distillate made by industrial distillers. Both production processes are legal and common among large distillers. Yet within the craft movement, using industrially produced spirits is controversial. Some “blenders,” as they are sometimes called, market their products as if they produced them grain-to-glass. Two class-action lawsuits were filed in 2014 accusing leading small distillers, Tito’s Handmade Vodka and Templeton Rye, of defrauding consumers with false marketing claims concerning their production processes.
“There’s no self-policing yet in craft spirits,” says Rodewald. No one is enforcing truth in advertising for craft spirits, so, as Rodewald adds, “You can cheat.”
And this situation can be detrimental to a whole category. Many producers in the US are not satisfied with such a vague definition.
Some argue that it would be necessary to separate grain-to-glass distilleries from spirits companies who aren’t distilling at all (but only adding clever marketing campaign to beautifully designed labels) even though taking such a hard line approach may actually complicate efforts to classify some distilleries.
Maybe I should have warn you that i will not give any answer to the question « What is a craft distillery? » in this post, but only underlying the dilemmas and challenges the category is facing.
Is this a US thing ? Or something that exist in Europe too?
The vagueness of the definition is far to be a US phenomena. In the EU, producers have to follow the strict rules that are defining the category of the alcohol they produce. There are rules but rules are the same for small scale and big scale producers.
Hence some collectives and movements have started. An exemple is the many producers exhibiting at DESTILLE BERLIN (disclaimer one: i work for that fair, helping producing the lectures and tasting program) but again, one can say, it is privately owned and the awards they give have enough marketing value to possibly corrupt their honor-system style of certification (disclaimer two: even though i’m been hanging out long enough with those guys that i know its bloody genuine, but this is another story)
With a fair such as DESTILLE BERLIN; it does create a community with producers thinking alike according to the motto
- organic products
- locally sourced producst
- no additives nor colouring agents
Some are starting to get better-organised and quite strict (compare to the American definition mentioned earlier) such as nature schnaps manifesto / natural booze / gnole naturelle) What do i mean by more strict ? Here is an excerpt of the principles they subscribed to:
- We distill in manually operated copper stills (no automation, no contiuous distillation).
- We obtain our base from organic quality farming (with or without official label).
- We obtain our base locally and we know the social practices and working methods applied by the producer.
- We do not intervene in the mash: no sulfuric acidification, no peroxide, no lye, no external yeasts, no artificial enzymes, no taste enhancement. Only fermentation on indigenous or self-raised yeasts can ensure that it’s the fruit that expresses itself and it’s the yeasts and enzymes present in this part of the world that have assisted. Wine used as base is respectively Natural Wine. If you use different bases, add yours. (Cereal bases need to be discussed yet.)
- We do not use additives to facilitate distillation such as anti-foaming agent.
- We do not use ethyl alcohol, as it is an industrial product.
- We do not clear or filter (activated carbon, milk protein, bentonite, gelatin etc.): Natural Booze is living booze. To remove thick deposit we may use a particle filter. That’s all.
- We do not use additives such as synthetic colourants, sugar, caramel, citric acid, glycerine etc (no elements modifying structure, colour, taste or look except if naturally obtained by maceration of a plant or barrel aging for example).
- We stock in wood, glass, stone or stainless steel, but not in plastic to avoid phtalate extraction.
- We pay attention to the quality of our diluting water.
- We are honest and transparent about our products.
- We engage in waste reduction, energy efficiency, water saving and good social relations.
It goes a little deeper than small and carefully done, right?
I stop here otherwise this post will be too long. And I don’t like them too long.
The answer to the question could be « so far no one can say precisely what is a craft distillery but that implies a lot a points such as scale or the type of products you use and the definition is emerging on both sides of the atlantic as we speak ».
Ok, no, one last thing before the conclusion. Craft is definitely the place for creators and innovators. People who works behind the stills hours long who are experimenting and know they products so well, without any boss to ask them to be constant, or to deliver products with a consistent taste: they are free to experiment. And many do.
And if it is not part of the common definition of craft from the producers, that is definitely something that Spiritsfully would add to it. Craft is innovation.
Needing exemple? That’s easy check out the fine distilleries of Helsinki Distilling co or Empirical spirits.
But now let me know, does it change your point of view of spirits?
Why is it relevant to think and question craft spirits now, beyond the interest for processes and for transparency?
It is also because it is a real growing market. After decades of consolidation, the global liquor industry is steady, defined by marketing that hype minor differences among products. Even the most venerable Scotch distilleries or small batch vodka are owned by multinational corporations today. In response to that increasingly monotonous market, many consumers are attracted to the anti-corporate, organic ethos of craft distilling? And maybe even more the younger generation, thirsty for that broader palette of flavors and the transparency that comes with it.
A mobile distiller is a person authorised to produce his own eaux-de-vie. It is not a profession but a status that derives from the status of owner-gatherer (not to be confused with distiller which is a profession). Some itinerant distillers are still entitled to a duty-free allowance entitling them to tax exemption on the first 1 000 degrees of pure alcohol they produce. This is called “privilege”, and by abuse of language “right to boil”. In France, since 1959, this privilege is no longer transferable by inheritance, and will therefore expire upon the death of the last holders. Since 2008, distillers who do not benefit from the privilege are taxed at 50% on the first ten litres of pure alcohol and then at 100%.
In France, any person who owns a plot of land with the name of orchard or vineyard on the land register may distil the products from this plot (fruit, cider, wine, pomace). Distillation is carried out in a public or private workshop after having made a declaration to the Customs and Indirect Duties Department. People who do not have the title of « Bouilleur de Cru” pay from the first degree of alcohol.
In Germany: Abfindungsbrennerei is the name given to a production plant for spirits (distillery) whose distilleries are not under customs control during the manufacturing process. In contrast to the sealed distillery, the tax on the severance payment distillery is not levied on the quantity of alcohol actually produced, but on the type and quantity of material declared.