Handmade, Craft and Artisanal: Meaningful or Meaningless?
As the “Farm-to-Table” movement gains increased momentum, consumers are finding themselves more educated and selective about the types of food they eat. WIth increased labeling and regulation, one can discern almost every ingredient that composes that lovely meal in front of them. This shift towards complete disclosure in food has caused a keen interest in other craft and artisanal products. For example, the craft brewery industry saw a 15% increase in sales from 2011 to 2012, and although this category isn’t the topic of discussion here, it has set a good precedent about consumer spending in the artisanal segment. The essence of artisanal products resonates highly with a customer who wants to feel connected to their product and a larger movement surrounding the lifestyle of “craft” is starting to take shape. Customers are quickly venturing into buying speciality craft spirits as well, but unlike food, there is little known about the ingredients and production methods for alcohol. Shopping for a craft spirit can be a daunting task. A consumer can find any type of liquor made from any substance on the planet. Inspiring backstories and labels touting “locally sourced” ingredients provide even more captivating mythos about artisanal processes. However, much like the backlash from “cage free” labeling on eggs, most claims on these bottles are not regulated by any governmental body. Any distiller or bottler can claim their products are “handmade”, “artisanal”, or “craft” without substantiation. Likewise, as more spirit brands and distilleries popup across the nation, these buzz words can be used to manipulate the perception of the brand. After all, the artisanal segment of spirits has seen a 7% increase in revenue over the past year. Why wouldn’t a brand use these words to attract new customers?
To better understand the nebulous area of craft spirits labels, let’s focus on the most frequently used buzz words in this segment: “handmade”, “artisanal”, and “craft”. First, “handmade” is an incredibly vague classification. To make with one’s hands could mean just about anything. In fact, to bottle a final product, whether distilled on premise or not, somebody has to use their hands to fill the bottles, or at the very least put the bottles in a box. Is that what you’d consider “handmade”?
Let’s use an analogy of hamburgers. Nothing is more ubiquitous than the almighty hamburger, and it has also seen its fair share of resurgence as a result of the farm to table movement. Most establishments at which you can buy a hamburger, the meat arrives frozen and is seared/seasoned on the grill to order. For all intents and purpose, the burger is “handmade” to order and the marketing verbiage can express exactly that. But does this represent the true nature of what “handmade” embodies? Does a simply addition of heat and spices justify a “handmade” designation? Let’s take the opposite for example, you purchase a hamburger from a local establish that sources its meat from local farms and hand grinds/forms the patties every morning. The process takes more time and labor but ultimately yields a higher quality product. This increased attention to detail and from scratch mentality easily represents the ideology of handmade. This analogy represents a very common practice in the spirits industry; let’s call it the “trucking-in” of product. This process involves purchasing large amounts of neutral spirit (usually produced by an industrial distillery) and rectifying, or in some cases just rebottling, the spirit to make the product you find on the shelf. (think frozen hamburger patties here). Most of the work has already been done by another distillery and the finishing touches, usually redistilling and carbon filtering, are almost superfluous. If you saw this product on the shelf and knew exactly how it was produced, would you consider it handmade? Sure you could make the argument that “adding locally sourced botanicals” or “distilling 9 times” might qualify the product as handmade, but does this really capture the essence of the term?
This analogy represents a very common practice in the spirits industry; let’s call it the “trucking-in” of product. This process involves purchasing large amounts of neutral spirit (usually produced by an industrial distillery) and rectifying, or in some cases just rebottling, the spirit to make the product you find on the shelf. (Think frozen hamburger patties here.) Most of the work has already been done by another distillery and the finishing touches, usually redistilling and carbon filtering, are almost superfluous. If you saw this product on the shelf and knew exactly how it was produced, would you consider it handmade? Sure you could make the argument that “adding locally sourced botanicals” or “distilling 9 times” might qualify the product as handmade, but does this really capture the essence of the term?Although timely and more labor intensive, many distilleries alternatively pursue fermenting the base spirt from scratch. The resulting spirit is distilled, sometimes redistilled, and processed by the same party. This of course is analogous to grinding and forming hamburgers from scratch. Arguably, the finished product is made with more attention to detail and results in higher quality. Should the brands that merely redistill someone else’s product be able to claim handmade in the same way a distillery creating the entire product from scratch does? Are they equally handmade? More importantly, shouldn’t these types of differences in manufacturing be clearly disclosed on the label, or at least easily available upon request? The tightly guarded secrets of alcohol production and money-saving measures are heavily guarded. As a result, customers often have little to no knowledge about the products they’re drinking.
These terms are essentially synonymous, so they have been lumped together here. “Craft” is an interesting term. It’s essentially defined as the act of making something with skill. This vague definition could plausibly include anyone that’s ever operated a still. Since most stills require a good amount of knowledge in separating bad alcohol from good and maintaining the proper level of purity, craft distilling may be a good description. Much like “handmade”, the TTB makes no legal distinction of the term craft as it pertains to distilleries but does in the area of micro-breweries. However, certain states, Washington for instance, do have a specific designation for craft. It is defined as producing no more than 60,000 gallons of product per year. In this case, Craft/Artisanal seem not to describe the quality of a finished product but more defines the output capacity of production. This presents an interesting dichotomy because the manufacture could use any production technique yielding under 60,000 gallons annually and use the word craft/artisanal without issue. The word again acts more as a marketing gimmick rather than a true indication of quality. This is not to say that some incredibly innovative distillers don’t fall into the craft/artisanal realm, but it’s just another example of how the empty context of certain label terminology can be intentionally misleading. “Craft” and “artisanal” do have a deep meaning to certain distillers, but are quickly losing meaning with the massive influx of new spirits brands into the market.
The lucrative nature of the liquor business exposes many vacillating principles and a loose interpretation of terms. “Handmade” can mean just about anything with a believable enough label. “Craft” and “artisanal” can be hijacked by any person who thought starting a distillery was a profitable business decision. Unfortunately, these terms cannot be reserved for distillers who passionately create spirits and exercise extreme skill at every stage of production. The saturated spirits market makes it very difficult to distinguish the values and true artisanal attitude of certain brands. Customers deserve to be apprised of added coloring, artificial flavoring, or carbon filtering. After all, these shortcuts are often indicative of lower quality products and should be made common knowledge. If a macaroni and cheese box can openly discuss its ingredients, shouldn’t a liquor bottle do the same?
There are many wonderful craft spirits on the market and sometimes they don’t even bear the words “craft” or “artisanal” on the label. The labels don’t try to manipulate or smokescreen the quality ingredients. They simply stand for making the best product possible. These are the values that all distillers should strive for, but the subtle exploitation of consumer values makes it easy to hop on the artisanal bandwagon. The craft spirits market shows little signs of slowing and as long as craft, artisanal, and handmade remain buzz words, there is a lot of money to be made.