Defining “craft” distilleries

Eastern Washington Wheat Fields

Following up on last week’s post about Oregon’s new craft distillery law that potentially violates the Commerce Clause, it’s worth mentioning that Washington may not be doing any better. But first, a couple articles that have come up recently about definitions of “craft” distilleries.

At The Atlantic, Wayne Curtis notes that right now anyone can call themselves a craft distiller, regardless of whether there is much craft to what they do:

It’s a little-known fact, but you don’t actually need a still to call yourself a distiller. The vodka makers I visited had adopted a simple and surprisingly common business model: buy a large quantity of potable alcohol from an industrial supplier (one vendor of neutral spirits offers it “in drum, truckload and railcar quantities”), run it through a tall charcoal filter to remove any trace impurities, cut it with water, decant it into bottles, and then slap on a label touting it as a local craft product worthy of its premium price.

At his excellent whiskey blog, Chuck Cowdery examines the so-called “problem” of non-distiller producers (NDPs), brands that simply repackage spirits under a new label with varying degrees of transparency. His suggested solution is a voluntary certification program:

Hence this modest proposal. The industry has several voluntary trade associations: the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), the American Distilling Institute (ADI), and the newly formed American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA), to name a few. Several universities, such as Michigan State, have distilling programs. One of those entities, or a new one established for this purpose, could create a certification program. It would establish criteria, and a monitoring and enforcement system, and award certifications to producers who apply and meet the requirements. It would all be voluntary and funded by the participants. Then it is up to the participants to promote and support it, to imbue it with sufficient credibility so that concerned consumers will learn to look for and trust that designation.

I’m glad to see that both articles express some skepticism about using government regulations to address the issue. Washington is one state that has tried, and not surprisingly the state gets it wrong.

Washington law designates a special license for craft distillers. Qualified applicants pay a reduced fee, $100 per year instead of $2000. They’re also allowed to offer on-premise tastings to consumers. But there’s a catch: They cannot produce more than 60,000 gallons of spirits per year, and at least half of the raw materials used in producing their spirits must be grown in Washington. (Details on Washington’s various license types can be downloaded here.)

Like Oregon’s new law, the requirement that craft distillers use locally grown ingredients raises obvious Commerce Clause issues. It’s also an exceedingly narrow definition of craft. It practically* excludes the NDPs and instant vodka brands, which is at least arguably desirable. But it also excludes producers that most people would consider worthy. For makers of gin, aquavit, absinthe, or various liqueurs, the origin of the base spirits is often far less important than the distiller’s skill selecting and incorporating botanicals. And if a distiller wants to specialize in rum, forget about it: The banks of the Puget Sound are not known for their fields of sugar cane. (Washington absinthe distiller Gwydion Stone argues the same case.)

Craft distillers in Washington are making interesting, quality spirits from local ingredients, like Washington wheat whiskey or gins and vodkas distilled from local grains. But I wouldn’t say that they’re more deserving of the craft designation than an Oregon producer making quality gin from neutral grain spirits. How to source one’s base ingredient is a creative decision that should be left to the distiller, not codified into law to promote local agricultural interests.

Fortunately the advantages provided by Washington’s craft distiller license are not overwhelming, allowing distilleries that don’t meet the definition to still go into production. But it demonstrates the perils of letting regulators and legislators define craft instead of leaving it to the rapidly evolving market for spirits.

If the beer market, which has had more time to mature, is any guide in the matter, maintaining a meaningful definition of craft is going to get increasingly difficult anyway. Volume of output can be objectively measured. “Craft” means different things to different people. Beer writer Jeff Alworth offers a different list of brewery classifications that he finds useful, with no place for the c-word: “There’s really no use for the term and I am going on a personal campaign to eliminate it from my own vocabulary.” Legally speaking, at least, that may be the best advice going forward.

*Edit: Added the word “practically” to be more precise. As Gwydion notes, it may be possible to buy NGS or other spirits that comply with the local requirements. I’m not sure how this would be addressed.

[Photo: Field of Washington wheat, by Jimmy Emerson on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.]

Comments

  1. MArk B. says:

    Rum made from sugar beets.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Recently we enjoyed a little bit of a Twitter exchange regarding what constitutes “craft” in the world of craft distilling. This was spurned by a couple of articles – first, in The Atlantic, and then a response and a little more in-depth blog post at Liquidity Preference. [...]

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