What Makes a Spirit a Craft Spirit?

Over the past few years, one of the fastest growing segments of our business has been craft spirit labels. Some of the best-designed and complex work we’ve done has been for craft distilleries, from Devil’s Head Distilling in Englewood, Colorado to Watershed Distilling in our own backyard. At this point, we are a member of the American Distilling Institute and serve dozens of craft distilleries, but I still feel like I have a murky understanding of what exactly a craft spirit is. Does it have to do with the size of the distillery? Ownership? Distilling methods? Well, all of the above, and there’s even more to it than that.

American Distilling Institute’s Definition of a Craft Spirit

My first stop was the American Distilling Institute’s website. This gave a very concise outline of what it takes to be certified as a craft spirit by their organization. To summarize, you must produce less than 100,000 proof gallons, not be owned by a larger distillery, and must adhere to “hands-on production.” ADI’s description of hands-on production is, “craft distillers produce spirits that reflect the vision of their principal distillers using any combination of traditional or innovative techniques including fermenting, distilling, re-distilling, blending, infusing or warehousing.”

As an industry outsider, I had a little trouble understanding the last qualification. Not to mention, ADI offers a second distinction called a ‘craft blended-spirit’, which has all of the same qualifications, except that the base spirit doesn’t have to be produced by a craft distillery. So basically, a craft blended spirit producer could buy a mass produced vodka product and then infuse it with botanicals using “craft methods”. Confused yet? I was too, so I kept searching.

Other Certifications for Craft Spirits

One of the top results was an excellent article by Punch, which points out that though the ADI definition is largely agreed upon, there are other craft certification organizations, like the American Craft Spirits Association and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), that have their own definitions. These are just two of the other domestic spirits organizations; in addition, there are tequila organizations, whiskey organizations, and on and on.

Not only that, but terms like ‘artisan’ and ‘folk’ spirits are also being used in labeling to describe these new spirits brands and products. So when you see the word ‘craft’ on a label, it doesn’t necessarily mean much. There are several certifications that distinguish craft spirits, but there is no legal or commonly agreed upon definition of the word. So, if you really want to know what you’re drinking, you’re going to have to do some research.

How to Determine if Your Favorite Spirit is a Craft Spirit

Determining whether you are dealing with a small, family owned distillery in a rustic setting or a mass marketed ‘crafted’ brand by a multinational corporation isn’t as easy as you’d think. Luckily, there are lots of great resources to help you along the way.

The large craft spirits organizations have databases and directories of their certified craft spirits, so you can always run a search to see if they are certified according to the standards of their respective organizations. There are also a lot of great blogs that delve into the subjects or origin, ownership, and history of popular spirits brands, some of my favorites are Chuck Cowdery and Alcohol Professor, but there are a lot of insightful, interesting blogs out there.

And finally worth pointing out, just because a distillery is large and multinational doesn’t mean it isn’t high quality or worth buying. Our own namesake, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, has been international for over a century and still makes quality products. Tito’s Handmade Vodka started as a small distillery creating artisan vodka, and is now a heavy hitter in the spirits market.

So, after a good deal of research, there is definitely a growing part of the spirits market that is interested in high quality ingredients, time honored distilling practices, and involved owners. But in order to find out whom you’re dealing with, you’ll have to look past the label and find out for yourself. The only real way to tell whether or not your favorite craft spirits are the real deal is to do the research. Look them up online, give them a call, or best of all, schedule a tour to find out who and what is behind the craft spirits you love.

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