Local Wine Co's Blog

What is Craft Distilling? by cdbakunas
January 3, 2011, 5:34 pm
Filed under: Libations

I have been reading a lot of articles, blogs and news feeds on craft spirits and craft distilling over the last year. For instance, here’s a quote from a recent NPR Colorado radio segment, “Craft distillers are catering to drinkers who have a taste for the regional and the unique.”  Or Max Watman’s excellent book, “Chasing the White Dog,” who seeks stories and truth from craft distillers and the American history of making moonshine. Do an internet search for craft spirits and you’ll be overwhelmed by more than 4 million hits.

From our distillery in Oregon, Ransom

So it makes me ask, what is craft? Where does this resonant term derive from and where might it be going?

Craft has traditionally been referred to genres of work and production that require specific skills.  From Medieval times a craft began as an apprenticeship and graduated into a journey man’s status. Today this still holds true for most craft work. You learn under someone skilled, who is hopefully a good teacher, then you develop your “craft” and head forward on your own to establish a name and fame. Craft has a second connotation of being small production. Inherently, without the aid of modern machinery mechanized for mass production, craft production will be limited to what a few people can do on their own. Interestingly enough there is consensus that craft is skilled labor, small production learned from the hand of a master and skills honed over time, but there are not any legal definitions of what craft production is. For instance, yesteryear craft production was defined as using only tools by hand, not machinery. Later, post industrial revolution craft production is the assemblage of certain goods and products with  the use of machinery and skilled labor (eg. a column or alembic pot still, or a lathe and drill press used in furniture). But how much is small? And how much is medium-sized production?

In my world of wine and spirits it is safe to say that anything you find on a Safeway liquor shelf has been made at extreme scales of largesse, especially when speaking about spirits. If you ever have a chance to visit a large tequila producers or a Budweiser plant or a winery that makes Yellow Tail you will be amazed at how much these production facilities look like energy or oil refineries with their giant continuous column stills, smoke stacks billowing steam from their hoods at 200 feet and silos holding hundreds of thousands of gallons of fermenting grape juice.

The small brand, craft spirit production is typically made by a dozen or fewer people working nuts to bolts with little to zero marketing budgets and getting by on word of mouth, grassroots and sweat of their labor.  As I peruse craft spirits across the web and see how many people are excited about this budding cottage industry, about how many new distilleries have been licensed in the last 12 months (149!), and how bartenders, restaurateurs, retail buyers and consumers are clamouring for higher quality, unique spirits a smile fills my face. This is what makes America so damn great. Small businesses are leading the way to new ideas, new flavors, safe guarding history and the craft of our forefathers all doing something that brings social joy to the next level…the appreciation of a fine spirit.

Craft will evolve, and I predict that craft spirits will rival the micro brew revolution that we have seen over the last three decades. The people have spoken, and they’ve said they want higher quality, more choices, unique historical spirits and they want to know it was made by good human beings, not a board of directors far removed from their craft.

May we all tipple a craft spirit tonight with someone we love.


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