Distilling a Definition: What are ‘craft spirits’ and does it matter?

Cocktail with lemon rind // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

You needn’t look any further than the Twin Cities to see the flourishing craft spirits movement afoot in the United States today, with new distillers taking up residence in old warehouses all around us. As of March of this year, the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) reported that there were upwards of 1,300 spirits producers in the U.S. bearing the designation of a craft producer. Compare that with a mere 50 a decade ago. Craft spirits are becoming a big, boozy business.

But not all spirits that claim the “craft” designation are made the same. Some makers distill their spirits grain to glass. Some have their wash—the fermented liquid which is then distilled—produced elsewhere, or buy neutral grain spirit and re-distill it with botanicals. Other “craft spirit” companies don’t distill at all.

The problem for the conscientious consumer is that the concept of “craft” spirits is a nebulous one as there’s no firm definition that’s widely accepted. What’s more, defining craft spirits is a controversial topic among the nation’s spirits makers.

Defining a Craft

Old fashioned // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Old fashioned // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Industry organizations, like the American Craft Spirits Association, have tried to define craft spirits. “The ACSA defines who can be a voting member of the organization based on sales volume and ownership structure,” says Paul Hletko, president of the ACSA, and founder of FEW Spirits. “But the definition of ‘what is craft’ is very much in the eye of the person purchasing the products.”

“The ACSA has very strict ethical mandates for its members to ensure that the public has truthful and accurate information to base their purchasing decisions, but there is not a definition of ‘craft’ that we are aware of to capture the nuances of what the public believes ‘craft’ to mean,” adds Hletko.

The American Distilling Institute, another industry organization, identifies the mandatory components to receive its craft spirit certification. The spirit must be run through a still by a certified craft producer. Less than 25% of the craft distillery is owned or controlled by alcoholic beverage industry members who are not themselves craft distillers. Maximum annual sales are not to exceed 100,000 proof gallons. And, perhaps most ambiguously, there is a “hands-on production” requirement, which intimates craft spirits producers are to use some combination of traditional and innovative fermenting, distilling, blending, and infusing techniques to produce their spirits.

For the majority of the nation’s small spirits companies, the size and ownership requirements are a non-issue. But the vagueness represented in this last clause opens the door for interpretation and causes the confusion over what attributes of a spirit truly make it “craft.”

Hard Lines, Hard Questions

Most spirits producers want the craft definition to apply to their own particular methodology, but some distillers, like Far North Spirits’ Mike Swanson, believe a hard line needs to be drawn in the sand.

“In craft distilling, the entire product is made either by one individual—the distiller—or under the supervision of the distiller,” Swanson says. “A distiller starts with grain, sugar, grapes, fruit, etc. Fermentation, distillation, aging, blending and bottling are all done either by the distiller or under the distiller’s direct supervision. Simple.”

Far North Spirits' Michael Swanson inspects rye seeds // Photo by Cheri Reese

Far North Spirits’ Mike Swanson inspects rye seeds // Photo by Cheri Reese

While Swanson’s definition would separate grain-to-glass distilleries like Far North from spirits companies who aren’t distilling at all (“They are merely ‘crafty’—marketers masquerading as craftsmen, and I reserve a special place of loathing for them,” he says.), taking such a hard line approach may actually complicate efforts to classify some distilleries.

Take Bent Brewstillery, for instance. Head distiller Bartley Blume makes his Kursed Whiskey and Bent Anchor Poitín from washes made right at the distillery, but his award-winning Gunner Ghost Gin is derived from a pre-made neutral grain spirit.

“The ‘craft’ of a gin comes in mixing botanicals and flavors,” Blume said in an interview with The Growler from 2014. “Making NGS takes time and energy, and it’s something with no flavor. Where’s the craft in that? For whiskey, I’d agree. That gets flavor from the grains and how it’s fermented. But making NGS that you need for a gin is not where the artistry comes into play.”

Or consider Tattersall Distilling. Twenty of the 21 products served at the distillery’s Northeast Minneapolis cocktail room are made from scratch. The single outlier? A small batch bourbon sourced to them by a now-defunct craft producer and double-barrel aged in-house before being mixed into Tattersall’s old fashioned. Tattersall chose this path as a holdover until such time that their rye whiskey is ready to serve, and they expect that the timing should work out almost perfectly, based on current projections.

“The bourbon we source isn’t sold outside of our cocktail room, and it isn’t marketed. We are very transparent about that product, and always have been,” says Tattersall co-founder Dan Oskey. “It’s strictly a bridge until our brown spirits are ready. We’ve been distilling whiskey for a while now. But what we don’t want to do is spoil our pot by releasing a spirit that isn’t ready simply to have a whiskey or bourbon in our portfolio,” he explains.

Tattersall Distilling co-owner Dan Oskey // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Tattersall Distilling co-owner Dan Oskey // Photo by Aaron Davidson

As for the effort that goes into the 20 products served at the bar, that are fully produced in-house:

“We are always trying to do a little bit more,” explains Oskey. “In the case of our apple brandy, we know the farmers that are growing the apples. They’re bringing them to us, we’re fermenting the cider, then we’re distilling it. You can come in here and trace every type of apple that went into the brandy, you can see Bentley fermenting and distilling it through the glass wall. It’s not taboo anymore. There isn’t this bottle suddenly in front of you, and you don’t know where it came from.”

The Power of Craft

For some distillers, the formal craft designation is secondary to the fact that hands-on distilling scratches their creative itch. For people who have the goal of hand-making the best spirits possible, there’s no other way than to make it yourself.

For Oskey, hands-on spirits production also allows them to explore the world of spirits firsthand. Tattersall can embark on flight-of-whimsy science experiments, such as distillations containing black walnuts, or centrifuging strange new botanicals.

“Perhaps my bar staff will be writing a drink list and they’ll mention a desire to bring in a certain flavor profile. That’s when the light bulb in the brain turns on. The big guys can’t really do that.  It’s the same thing that we saw in craft brewing. Just look at the proliferation of new styles and flavors that have emerged over the past 10 years in the beer market. I think you will see something similar in the spirits markets. The big brands can’t do small experimental runs that may or may not work. Craft distillers can.”

Related Post: State of Spirits: What’s new at Minnesota’s distilleries and spirit companies

But there is power in “craft,” according to Mike Swanson. “How do I know that there are benefits to the craft designation?” asks Swanson. “Because there is such a tremendous effort made by the fakers to deceive people into thinking that their product is craft.”

“They display ‘handmade’ on the bottle. It will say ‘produced by’ on the bottle—which means ‘not distilled,’ by the way. They use all sorts of beautiful imagery on their websites that depict farmers, fields, ingredients, barrels, stills, etc. Every effort is made to convince you that their product is that craft product you’re actually looking for. It’s an elaborate, glittering deception. But it’s still a deception.”

Why is Swanson so ignited by his emotions on the matter? Simple:

“What I am is passionate about what I do, and impatient with B.S. I grow grain, and make the best spirits I know how to make. It’s incredibly rewarding to bring in a harvest, and years later fill a bottle of whiskey. And that kind of pride makes for deeply held convictions.”


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