Nuance is the essence of craft spirits
The debate about what is craft, and the use of neutral grain spirits and bulk whiskey in craft labeled products, can certainly be heard resonating through the community at the moment. Media sources throughout the country, both traditional outlets and those such as ourselves, have, of late, published stories on the matter, including excellent articles by Chuck Cowdery, Janet Patton of the Kentucky Herald-Leader, and the Dallas Observer. For the large part, these are invaluable reads for consumers, shedding a great deal more light on the matter than most producers are willing to provide, in seemingly non-partisan fashion.
Clearly, this is a conversation that must be had. With new labels springing up virtually, and sometimes literally, overnight, it is often difficult to sort out just who is producing what, particularly when many of the players don't want you to know. So it is incumbent on us, the craft spirit media, to do our part in sharing as many pieces of the puzzle as possible.
The rub there is, this is business we're talking about, and big business at that. Just how big? To quote a number from Ms. Patton's article, 80 million proof gallons. And that's just bourbon.
80 million is a big number, one large enough to influence such things as lawyers and legislature. Obviously, we in the media business aren't immune from that kind of influence either. For operations such as our own, enterprises utterly reliant on the spirits industry for our very existence, there is a certain vested interest in spinning the story one way or another, usually in the same direction as we ourselves are inclined (in our case, micro, independent, and local).
It is certainly in Kentucky's interest to point out that, unlike many of its own well-crafted whiskeys, a large number of craft producers are all marketing the exact same product. The idea of shelling out a little extra on a craft whiskey loses some of its flavor when its watered down with the realization that it came from the same plant that produces for the giant labels, now doesn't it? Why, you might ask? Because craft implies something else.
The reason so many people are flocking to craft brands isn't because they taste great, or because they are inherently better than spirits produced in bulk. The simple fact is, in many cases, they aren't. To be honest, it is nearly impossible for a distiller operating a small still to compete with the bulk producers in terms of consistency and perceived drinkability. And it isn't for lack of trying. Craft distillers are, in fact, remarkable for the lengths they go to in order to approximate the flat curves of the large scale manufacturers. It is simply a matter of scale. When you produce small batches, variability is enhanced, inherently, by the process, and there really isn't much you can do about it. But is this a bad thing?
Here again, the argument misses the point. If you wanted invariability, you can have it; buy some Jim Beam. It will invariably taste the same as the last time you tried it, and so will the craft brands founded on whiskey sourced from MGP. But is that what the craft aficionado wants? Hardly.
Nuance is the essence of craft. Good is great, but unique is better. Yeah, we may sacrifice a little bit of "smooth" or "mellow" in the process, but is that really that much of a price to pay knowing that Ryan at Montgomery or Derek at Corsair or Colin at Kings put his heart and soul and the baby's college fund into it? Shit man, there's a still and a rack of whiskey barrels in my backyard! Forget Kentucky! Let's go downtown!
Craft doesn't belong to big business, and that's why we love it. It belongs to us. It isn't bland, or corporate, or cookie-cutter clean. There isn't room in it for poseurs, or anyone who is afraid of failing on their own merits. Like any true art, its exists on its own, irregardless of our attempts to define it. And as soon as we forget that, well, craft, like many great movements, is dead. Which seems less than ideal.