The craft spirit industry is in the midst of a boom, but confusion remains about what exactly qualifies a spirit as ‘craft’ and, as a consumer, how to know if what you’re buying is actually considered ‘craft’.
What Is A Craft Spirit
Unlike craft beer, there is no national, over-arching legislation defining what can be called a ‘craft’ spirit. No production minimum, no control of additives or ‘fake’ ingredients (outside of existing parameters for specific spirit categories), no corporate vs. private ownership status requirement.
Adding to the confusion is that a ‘craft’ spirit can be made from a non-craft base.
In the case of craft vodkas and gins, the base spirit often originates from a neutral spirit purchased in bulk from industrial suppliers. As for whiskey, independent bottlers who purchase aged whiskey by the barrel then blend, or ‘cut’, it to create something new can also be considered ‘craft’.
As you can see, there’s a fair amount of gray when it comes to what is and is not a craft spirit. However, industry advocacy groups, including the American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA) and the American Distilling Institute (ADI), have created some guidelines to address the question, mostly based on ownership and production/sales numbers.
Production-wise, the general consensus is that to be considered ‘craft’, no more than 100,000 proof gallons can be produced per year.
For comparison’s sake, Bulleit, Hendrick’s Gin and Woodford Reserve each sells between 200,000 and 300,000 cases annually.
As for ownership, both groups maintain that in order to qualify as a craft spirit, the distilled spirits plant (DSP) where the spirit is produced must be independently-owned.
Meaning “less than 25% is owned or controlled by alcoholic beverage industry members who are not themselves craft distillers.”
ADI goes a step further in its qualification rules by not only including a provision about ‘vision‘, but by also distinguishing between ‘craft distilled’ and ‘craft-blended’ spirits, the former requiring that the spirit is distilled by the DSP itself while the ladder originates from a non-craft base.
How To Tell The Difference
So, let’s summarize. A craft spirit is one that is produced in smaller quantities by an independently-owned distillery, of which there are essentially two types:
CRAFT DISTILLED SPIRITS: Goes from grain to bottle in-house at the craft distillery; the bottle declares “distilled and bottled in..”
CRAFT-BLENDED SPIRITS: Originates from commercially produced spirits that are then blended by the craft distillery; the bottle declares only “bottled in…”
Although a bottle may make several references to a state, like Tincup does with Colorado, this does not mean it is a craft distilled spirit unless the label specifically reads “distilled and bottled in…” In Tincup’s case, it does not; Colorado refers to the fact that the whiskey is cut with local water, so it is a craft-blended spirit.
If you’re thinking this is quite deceiving, then you’re on the money.
The craft spirit industry is full of clever marketing meant to entice buyers. Words like “small batch” or “handcrafted” may look good, but, remember, the only way to truly know what you’re buying is by looking at the writing on the label!