“Craft” Whisky: Marketing Baloney or Next Big Thing?
For years I have been applying an unfair dose of cynicism against words like “craft”, “artisanal” and “small batch production” when I see them on the labels of whiskies and bourbon. I think this could be traced back to a traumatic event in my early adulthood. In the summer of 2013, I found myself laughed out of a craft beer pub for butchering names of several menu items before giving up and asking if they could just give me a Heineken. Curse those flannel-wearing hipsters.
In all seriousness, a lot can be said about the uses and abuses of such terms. “Craft” seems to imply everything and nothing at the same time. It could mean whatever the bottler wants it to mean just to justify a $50 increase to the price.
Yet, there is some universality to the idea of craft distillation. The Japanese have a broadly similar concept they call “Jimoto no uisukī” (地元のウイスキー) or simply “Ji-whisky” which dates back to at least the 1970s. Roughly translated, “Ji-whisky” means “local-origin whisky”. The concept refers to small family-run operations that distil small batch whiskies made from local Japanese ingredients and which are admired for their dedication to craft and quality. Original exemplars of Ji-whisky include Hanyu Distillery which was run by the predecessors of Ichiro Akuto (Chichibu’s founder), and Sunshine Whisky from Wakatsuru Saburomaru Distillery which was sold in cute saké bottles.
What does “craft” even mean?
If it isn’t just a bunch of marketing baloney, what exactly does “craft” whisky mean? The term has, after all, eluded legal definition.
Trade associations offer some suggestions: –
- The American Craft Spirits Association defines a craft distillery as one that (1) values the importance of transparency production, (2) produces fewer than 750,000 gallons annually, and (3) is independently owned and operated.
- Similarly, the American Distilling Institute defines craft distilleries as (1) independently-owned, (2) with maximum annual sales of 100,000 proof gallons, and (3) with on-site distillation and bottling.
I see what they’re driving at – an arbitrary limitation on production excludes giants like Diageo or Suntory, and is more feasible to enforce as regulation. But wouldn’t you find that a little too reductive?
I’ll venture my own definition. We generally think of craft distillers as small, independent businesses, devoted to authenticity, quality, traditional or local ingredients and the use of traditional production methods without too much concern for efficiency and expense.
This isn’t the most precise description, but a few distillers come to mind. There is Springbank Distillery who proudly sticks to the laborious practice of “floor malting” even though no one really knows whether this traditional practice affects flavour. There is also Dornoch Distillery who uses heritage barley that has a lower alcohol yield but supposedly better flavour. Across the Atlantic, there is the impossible-to-find Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon which had been traditionally made with in-house yeast and spring water (instead of municipal water) and which comes in truly small batches that can never satisfy its wild demand.
It is not so much the end product, but the ethos and people behind it. Craft distilleries are sincere about the art of making whisky in a way that almost ignores efficiency and expense (whether there is a scientific or non-scientific basis). This explains why we snigger when we see “craft” printed on whiskies produced by big conglomerates like Diageo. Very large corporate groups with pragmatic shareholders simply do not tolerate expensive methods of producing whisky when cheaper and more efficient modern methods are available. The Thompson Brothers of Dornoch Distillery have lamented that the modern ways unfortunately come at the expense of flavour and character of the whisky.
Therefore, craft whisky still draws admiration despite its elusive definition. The respected Ian Buxton, author and former marketing director of Glenmorangie put it best:
“Craft whisky is like pornography. I know it when I see it.”
(For those confused about the reference, see Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964))
Case study: Shizuoka Distillery
The recent years have seen a lot of fanfare surrounding the so-called new wave of Japanese Ji-whisky. Small craft distillers began to appear on the radar- Shizuoka Distillery in its namesake prefecture, Akkeshi Distillery in Hokkaido, Kanosuke Distillery in Kagoshima and Saburomaru Distillery in Toyama. Even before the first bottles were released, whisky lovers have been eagerly flocking to these distilleries for tours and to sample new make.
“What is the big deal?”, you ask.
To understand the draw of these so-called “craft” distilleries, it helps to have a case study of Shizuoka Distillery and understand what makes it “craft”.
First, we begin with the obvious example - Shizuoka's prized Pot Still K and Pot Still W. “K” was salvaged from the legendary Japanese ghost distillery, Karuizawa, whose vintage whisky continues to be highly sought-after today. “W” is the only wood-fired still in the world still used by a whisky distillery (the common practice today is to use gas, coal or steam-heated stills).
Using these traditional stills means much more inefficiency and less control over the distillation process. Yet romanticism prevails over pragmatism here. They went ahead with them anyway due to a sentimentality for Karuizawa and the belief that a wood-fired still would create a distillate with a distinctive character.
Next, the washbacks. While the common practice is to import either steel or pinewood washbacks from Scotland, Shizuoka’s founder was inspired by the saké industry to use Japanese cedarwood. They tracked down the only living saké washback craftsman and built a cedar washback for whisky.
Finally, the raw ingredients. A core tenet of Ji-whisky is the use of local resources so that the whisky reflects its locality. In that spirit, Shizuoka sought to incorporate the use of local materials as far as possible. This includes the use of some component of Japanese barley to make the whisky - a big deal since barley is not Japan-native and the vast majority of Japanese distilleries import their barley. Shizuoka still has to rely on Scottish peated malt and German beer malt, so not 100% of Shizuoka’s barley is Japanese, but they really deserve points for trying their best.
Romanticism trumps pragmatism. Shizuoka is evidently a labour of love by the founder and not just a profit-driven commercial venture. This fits the bill of a craft distillery.
The label of “craft whisky” is by no means perfect. It is prone to abuse by less than forthright distillers. It eludes precise legal definition because it refers to very ineffable qualities like the ethos or passion of a distillery.
Yet, distilleries like Chichibu and Springbank continually generate cult followings amongst serious whisky lovers at an intensity over and above well-marketed big brands. This has more to do with heart than science. Many serious whisky lovers (including the Thompson Brothers) feel that much of the whisky industry is now run by big, pragmatic businesses that seem more committed to the bottomline and shareholder value rather than quality and craftsmanship. Craft distilleries, on the other hand, are the non-sell-outs who seem to demonstrate more soul and passion than these megacorporations.
Do craft whiskies taste any more special compared to those produced by big corporations? Like free-range eggs or wild-caught salmon, you just to have to taste several craft whiskies to decide for yourself.
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