Dave Kyrejko, engineer at one of Industry City Distillery's stills
When it comes to spirits, too many terms are thrown around regardless of their meaning. Think about the slew of bottles with labels proclaiming a spirit is “small batch” or produced by a “craft distillery.” Without context, what does any of this mean? Often very little. Scott Rosenbaum, T. Edward’s Spirits Strategist, has given this topic a lot of thought. What does it mean to be a micro-distillery? How does one define “craft spirit?” His answers follow.
What is a micro-distillery?
Small, artisan distilleries are opening at a rate of about 30 to 40 a year; there are currently about 350 in the United States. There is no legal definition of what constitutes a “micro-distillery,” though the American Distilling Institute, a trade organization states:
“Maximum production for a ‘craft’ or ‘artisan’ distiller should not exceed 50,000 proof gallons per year."
How much is 50,000 proof gallons/year? A little more than 25,000 9-Liter cases of spirit bottled at 40% abv. To put this in perspective a craft distillery would max out production at about 68½ 9-Liter cases a day.
By comparison, Smirnoff sells about 46,500 9-Liter cases a day. Absolut sells about 29,000 9-Liter cases a day.
Hand-labeling with Bridget Firtle at The Noble Experiment
Owney’s Original Small Batch Rum is produced at the rate of about 6½ 9-Liter cases a day. Industry Standard Vodka produced at the rate of about 4 ½ 9-Liter cases a day. Dark Horse Distillery produces less than 15 9-L cases of whiskey (rye and Bourbon total) a day, while Tatoosh Distillery makes less than 20 9-L cases of Bourbon a day.
Where did this 50,000 number come from? The government. Once a distillery produces more than 50,000 proof gallons it falls into a different tax bracket.
Many people use different terms for the same thing. The words: micro, artisan, craft, experimental, and small batch are often used interchangeably, though none of them are legally defined.
So why differentiate a micro-distillery from a large one?
1. It’s possible to produce most products without ever distilling a drop.
2. Production volume is important because it separates the small players from the major manufacturers (with large marketing budgets).
3. Smaller manufacturers face difficulties that are far different than large producers.
So what is a craft spirit? A good, working definition might read as follows: A craft spirit is produced by a micro-distillery, so distinguished from their larger more commercial brethren by their small scale production, the traceability of their ingredients – often local and/or organic – and by the experimental nature of their methods and products. As a wine should speak to its provenance, a craft spirit should be a reflection of the person or people who have made it, meaning that behind every bottle there is a name you know and a hand that you have shaken.
In spirits, the concept of terroir resides in the methodology of production, with the irreducible fact that the production techniques employed in making a particular spirit cannot be replicated anywhere else.
Botanical Grounder at Roundhouse Spirits
How do you know if a spirit is a craft spirit? It should possess the three following traits:
1. Integrity. A distillery should be honest and transparent when it comes to their production methods. There are a lot of big brands that hail from the same distillery, yet you'd never know. American Rye is a great example. The brands Bulleit, Redemption, Willett, High West, Templeton, Temperance Trader and many others all hail from the same Indiana-based distillery even though they are bottled in different states. Masquerading as a small production spirits only qualifies you as “crafty,” not craft.
Ask yourself: Does the distillery have a marketing department? What’s the name of the distiller? What’s the address of the distillery? If the answer to the first question is “yes” and the answer to the other two is “I don’t know/can’t find out,” you’re not dealing with a micro-distillery or a craft spirit.
2. Purity. Just because the process of distillation is a "rough" one doesn't mean that a spirit is manipulated. Usually it's the addition of various enhancers, coloring agents, artificial flavoring agents and the like after distillation that produce a spoofulated spirit. Do you know your suppliers’ suppliers? Can you follow the supply chain? Is there truth in their labeling?
3. Innovative. Every winemaker strives to make the best wine they can given the vagaries of a particular vintage. This isn’t the case with most distillers; usually they tend to leave well enough alone and let the marketing team do the heavy lifting. One of the defining characteristics of a true craft distillery is that it won't rest on its laurels; they constantly seek to improve their spirits. Is there something unique about the way the spirit is produced? If not, it probably doesn’t hail from a micro-distillery.