The Difference Between Craft and Crafty
When it comes to the definition of craft spirits, there are those who will tell you that it is impossible to determine, definitively, what constitutes craft. However, we at MicroShiner are here to tell you that, not only is that patently untrue, those people are probably trying to sell you something that is not craft.
Now we’re not here to tell you what to drink - if you want to pay more for a bottle of whiskey or gin filled with exactly the same liquid as numerous other, possibly cheaper, ones on the shelf, go right ahead. But we are here to tell you that the various ways in which spirits are produced are distinctly different and that distinction matters immensely.
But before we explain why how a spirit gets made is so important, let us quickly break down the variety of ways in which distilled spirits make it into a bottle.
Sourced spirits are just that, spirits that are sourced ready to bottle from some, typically extremely large, factory distiller like MGP or BSG. Some of them can be quite good, high end even, but there is nothing craft about them. Low cost, obtained through economies of scale, and consistency is the goal. Those that purport to be craft are usually more expensive than the same spirit in a less heavily marketed package. A high degree of marketing - whether that manifests itself as trendy, authentic, or thematic - is usually a dead giveaway. These are the ones that say “produced” or “bottled” by on the label, rather than “distilled”. Don’t waste your time here. Purchase the cheapest bottle on the shelf, it’s probably the exact same stuff.
In the case of brown spirits such as whiskey, some go the extra step, buying barrels from different sources and blending them to create a unique, proprietary product. Hats off to these folks, as what they do has the semblance of craft. It doesn’t make the grade with us though.
A Word (or Two) on Neutral Grain Spirit or NGS
In a word, neutral grain spirit sucks.
Now in saying that, we’re not referring to the neutral spirit that must be distilled prior to making any number of wonderful beverage alcohols, including gin, brandy, aquavit, and, of course, vodka. No, we’re talking about NGS, highly concentrated ethanol that comes in plastic totes or tanker trucks and has been purified by means of repeated distillation in continuous multi-column stills through a process called rectification, typically at a plant that looks like a petroleum refinery. NGS is made from overstocks of corn, wheat, and other grains, and for that we give it some credit. Better to put those calories to some use then see them go to rot, right? Except maybe they shouldn’t have been grown at such scale in the first place, since they are largely just natural gas transformed into foodstuffs through an industrial process of somewhat dubious origins.
Doesn’t sound much like craft, does it?
Many people will argue that, in the case of something like gin or absinthe, that the craft is in the selection, curation, and introduction of the botanicals, not in the distilling. We think that is just nonsense. The point of what most of us consider “craft” to be - which is independently owned, micro in scale, and locally sourced - is completely missed in spirits based on NGS, even though ample amounts of craft may have gone into their production after that. More importantly, it misdirects our dollar away from what it was intentionally aimed at supporting.
(This, in particular, is why we call out craft distillers who buy NGS instead of distilling their own neutral spirits. The cost of making neutral spirits for a small producer is much higher, which puts NGS-based products at an unfair advantage if we consider them both “craft” -Ed.)
The premise here is that you created the world’s greatest recipe for bourbon (or whatever), using some proprietary yeast you collected in your great-uncle’s backyard in Mongolia. You made some test batches and everybody loved it, but you can’t come up with the capital to start your own distillery, so you hire an established distillery to mash, ferment, distill, and perhaps even blend and age, your baby for you.
Okay, that’s cool. Just don’t call it craft.
These are the folks buying neutral spirits from a third-party producer and running them through a still to create gin, absinthe, aquavit, and other flavored spirits. To impart the desired flavor, a basket filled with botanicals is placed in the column of the still for the vapors to pass through or the neutral spirit is steeped in botanicals, similar to how a brewer uses hops, or both. There is a high degree of craft to the process, and we love rectifiers for that. However, we wouldn’t consider what they make craft spirits.
It is important to note that, in the United States, there is a definition for what can be considered craft spirits. In fact, there are two. There are ongoing efforts to effect similar qualifications in Australia and South Africa. All of these place rectifiers under the umbrella of craft because the spirit has been run through a still located in the distillery on the TTB-approved label.
This is where things get sticky, because rectifiers are allowed to place “distilled by” on their labels, even though the base spirit may be, and probably is, NGS. Which is why MicroShiner has been working on a tool that helps conscientious consumers determine whether a bottle is legit just by scanning the label with their smart device. Download the MicroFinder app and check it out!
Micro (or Craft) Distilling
Micro distillers are distilled spirit producers who own the process from start to finish. They turn raw fruit, grain, and vegetable matter into spirit alcohol by first fermenting and then distilling the resulting liquid. All the best ones bottle themselves, often by hand. They sell less than 10,000 cases per year, with the aim of having a sustainable business that adds value to their local community.
At least that’s how we see it. In reality, many states have their own legal definition of what can be considered a “micro-distillery”, conveying certain rights and restrictions. Mostly, we don’t care about that, because we are primarily concerned with outcome and intent.
As we’ve explained in detail elsewhere, the original purpose of alcohol, in terms of human civilization, is to preserve calories. And it makes more sense to do that in a small, decentralized fashion than it does at centralized, industrial scale. The reason being that a decentralized system is more resilient - the entire system isn’t reliant upon one node for its survival - an important consideration as we enter into an era of climate adaptation. It also requires more labor, creating more livelihoods, another concern in an increasingly automated, post-capitalist society.