A post on Chuck Cowdery's blog about his thoughts on craft distillers.
Posted 15 September 2008 - 04:04 AM
A Question for Craft Distillers: Where’s the Craft?
Friday, September 5, 2008
A Question for Craft Distillers: Where’s the Craft?
by Chuck Cowdery
All of a sudden, in the past few years, small "micro" distilleries have popped up all over the country. The first ones were associated with wineries and made brandy. More recently, and in much greater numbers, people with brewery backgrounds have begun to make grain spirits.
There is no question that these operations are universally small. A few years back, one of the big distilleries tried to pose as micro, but was quickly exposed. No, the micro distilleries really are little.
But are they really craft? Are they truly artisanal?
In most cases, the answer is no. If you add the word "traditional" to the equation, that no is even more emphatic.
To reach that conclusion, compare the practices of micro-distillers to those of America’s big distilled spirits producers, whiskey-makers such as Jim Beam, Jack Daniel’s, and Wild Turkey; rum-makers such as Bacardi and Cruzan; and brandy-makers such as Gallo, Christian Brothers, and Paul Masson. Who employs more craft, those big guys or the micros?
This critique is not across the board. A small number of craft distillers take a back-to-basics approach, with no short cuts. More common are the ones who put a lot of craft emphasis on one or two parts of the process, but also use short cuts. An even larger number use every short cut they can to make products that barely meet minimum legal requirements for distilled spirits, let alone qualify as craft or artisanal.
One issue is ingredients. Rum, by law, is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane, but for hundreds of years the actual base material in rum production has been molasses, a by-product along the way from cane juice to table sugar. Molasses can be hard to handle. It’s much easier to dissolve table sugar in water and ferment that, which many so-called craft distillers do. Bacardi and Cruzan don’t, they use molasses.
But at least the table sugar-users do their own fermentation. Many of the micro distillers who make whiskey buy their wash—beer before it has been hopped and carbonated—-from a brewery. Of necessity, this means they are making malt whiskey, like they do in Scotland and Ireland, rather than corn whiskey like Jim, Jack, and all those other guys do here.
You can’t entirely blame them. It’s what their fledgling trade association tells them to do. "Why reinvent the wheel?" asks Bill Owens, President of the American Distilling Institute.
He recommends that you put your distillery next to a brewery, contract with them for wash, and start making whiskey. There’s nothing wrong with that idea, except where is the craft in buying your way past two-thirds of the process? It’s exactly like buying frozen bread dough, baking it in your oven, and calling yourself an artisan bakery.
Every industrial-scale, grain-based distiller in America, from the makers of Kentucky bourbon, to vodka-makers, to the folks who make fuel ethanol for cars, starts the process with whole grain, but not Bill’s guys. How come?
Micro distillers who make brandy and rum don’t mind fermenting, but it’s harder with grain. Fruit juice and molasses are fermentable just as they are, but grain starch is not. It must be converted. For that you need enzymes. In Scotland, the law requires distillers to use endogenous enzyme systems only. That’s a fancy way of saying you have to use malt, which is barley that has been malted, i.e., sprouted, to produce the necessary enzymes.
Some large American whiskey distillers use supplemental enzymes, which are permitted here but not universally used. No one has abandoned endogenous enzyme systems altogether except micro distillers, not because it’s better—-it isn’t-—but because it’s easier.
Another issue is equipment. Most micro distillers make a big deal about how they use pot stills, not column stills. What they actually use are hybrid stills. They are batch process, like pot stills, but instead of an alembic (the simple, one-piece still top that’s shaped like a tear drop), their pots are topped by...columns, exactly like the ones that give column stills their name.
Part of the problem is that these hybrid stills aren’t designed to make whiskey the way Americans make whiskey. They are European and designed to make brandy and other fruit spirits. They will distill a grain wash okay, into whiskey or even vodka if that’s what you want, but they can’t handle an American distiller’s beer, which contains husks and other undissolved grain solids. Even a wash made from corn and rye, instead of just malt, will give these stills fits.
Then there’s aging. Except for vodka and other clear spirits, most distilled spirits are aged in oak barrels, typically for years, occasionally for decades. Most micro-distillers can’t wait that long, so they sell unaged or very lightly aged products. There’s nothing wrong with that. There always have been unaged and young spirits sold, but aging is another part of the craft and most micro distillers give it short shrift. Virtually all bourbon whiskey is aged for more than four years. I know of only one micro distillery whiskey aged that long and it costs $300 a bottle.
It gets worse. Some micro distillers don’t make anything. They buy bulk spirits and bottle them. They have a distillery, or plan to; it’s making something, or will soon. The bulk goods are just a bridge until their own product is ready for sale, they say, but several have been saying that for years and not exactly publicizing how the only product they sell is one they didn’t make and probably can never duplicate.
The moral of this story is caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, especially if you think you are buying an artisanal product and that matters to you. Do some research, ask questions, be skeptical. Most producers won’t lie to you outright, but you have to ask the right questions and listen to the answers very carefully.
Do these practices make these distillers, or their products, bad? Not necessarily, but that’s not the question. The question is, are these practices craft? Are they artisanal? Are they traditional? That’s where many of these new micro distilleries have issues.
Posted 15 September 2008 - 06:30 AM
One is the matter of economics. A "craft" distiller may be forced to employ economic "shortcuts" in the production of his product. He may utilize exisiting equipment at another licensed facility to produce a part of his ingredient. I think this is Bill Owens point. An example of which is fermenting at a brewery. They have already invested in equipment to complete this process and as long as that is done under the control and direction of the craft distiller meaning his recipe and his yeast selection etc then the location of the fermenting tank is a minor detail in my opinion.
Moving down the production line many young micros are distilling unaged spirts by necessity to bring in a little cash flow during which time they can develop an aged product. Nothing wrong with that. I think it is up to each distiller as to what he should call "artisan" or "craft" and Chuck's comments should be taken to heart here. I think you will find in most cases that the products produced use local and/or natural ingredients that larger distillers don't which make those products unique and exceptional.
Last I would take issue with the term "tradition" in Chuck's blog. This would also include the comment about stills. Most of the distilling technology is at least 100 years old including of course the potstill(which is even older) and the European hybrid stills he is referring to. Are you telling me that there is no room for improvement or innovation in the area of still design and use? When single malts and American whiskys were being developed these stills were not available so the age old pot still was used and is still used with great results. That doesn't mean that another still cannot affect the same, different or even better results. If no one had the balls to try something different then we would all still be drinking mead. As in any industry it is those willing to take risks that make the innovations and evolution occurs as a result. The use of wood chips instead of barrels breaks with tradition and may make perfect sense if better or different results are achieved. I am not making an argument for their use only as to trying something different. If you want to make a traditional whiskey then go buy a mothballed distillery in Scotland. But if some one wants to experiment with different wood finishes, toasts etc. and they make something that tastes unique I certainly would call that crafting a spirit. It is not a measure of fideltiy per se to tradition and I hope that Chuck's observations of our emerging segment can embrace that very important element of its character.
Posted 15 September 2008 - 10:16 AM
On the other side of the coin, I'm a big believer of "just because you can doesn't mean it's a good idea." Hmmm...say, let's make durian flavored rum!
I disagree. I take Bill's statement to be more like: Instead of milling your own flour or churning your own butter, buy the flour and butter. Or, worst case, contract another bakery to make dough for you, using your proprietary recipe, because you don't have the room or equipment for that portion of the process in your own bakery. In terms of business these days, "contractor" is very nearly synonymous with "employee" anyway  And two-thirds of the process? Let's see...mashing, sparging, fermenting, distilling, cutting, aging, blending. Wait, step-wise, I get only one third, and time wise...a few hours out of potentially years? Poor analogy IMHO.
In general, I take the commentary to be a bit disparaging to those who are just starting out and have to find ways of putting the pieces of a very expensive puzzle together in order to follow their dreams. Personally, my wallet (or credit) can't handle funding a facility from scratch. So, I'm going to find workarounds  with the absolute minimum of compromises. I'm all for conceding that a brewer will make a better wash than I (at least now) and if I can have my wash made the way I intend by that brewer, who cares if it's done at his place or mine?
As a whole, I find valid points in the commentary, and it's a means of keeping perspective...perhaps even helping to form a perspective. While I disagree with a lot of it, I definitely appreciate the time and effort taken to assemble its points.
 Just my personal bit of cynicism here...and me being a contractor, go figure.
 I don't see "workaround" being synonymous with "shortcut," either. Quite the opposite, in some cases one might have to work longer and harder to get past a particular obstacle. Granted, a workaround may not achieve identical results as the originally intended plan, it could be better or worse. Just sayin'...
Posted 15 September 2008 - 07:10 PM
In that article, I ask a lot of questions but I don't draw conclusions. I don't know the answer. My personal attitudes about this are evolving as this young industry evolves and I hope I'm participating constructively in that evolution by raising issues that deserve the kind of careful consideration you plainly are giving them.
On the StraightBourbon.com board, I asked some people who were discussing Ralph's Baby Bourbon if it mattered to them that he uses industrial enzymes instead of malt in his mashing. The responses were not simple yes or no, but very thoughtful. That group is generally well-informed. One guy, who I love because he just always thinks the best of people, speculated that Ralph might be using some even older, more traditional technique to convert his grain.
I'm all for experimentation. Would it be so wrong to call yourselves experimental distillers, if that's what is most important to you? Again, I emphasize that I am not judging, and I'm certainly not damning, I'm wondering. I salute all of you guys for crawling out on this limb. I appreciate that it's your dime and you didn't start your own business so somebody else could tell you how to run it. I'd like to think there is a place for someone whose goal is to duplicate as nearly as possible the processes and products of some earlier period, but I'm not saying that's the only way to go. Let 10,000 flowers bloom.
Ultimately, this discussion is important because of consumer expectations. What you or I mean when we use terms like "craft," "artisan," or "tradition" is beside the point. What does the consumer expect when those terms are used?
Part of what I'm doing is comparing so-called industrial distillers to so-called craft distillers and asking, "who is more craft?"
I do believe a "maker" has to control the process. Can you really control the process if you're buying wash? Not only are you bypassing a big chunk of the process (let's not argue about 2/3), you are bypassing the stage where all of the flavor is created.
I am also concerned about compressing the definition of "distiller" into somebody who operates a still. A person who runs beer through a still isn't a distiller, that person is called a still operator. Every distillery has a still operator, but it's not the distiller.
Posted 16 September 2008 - 04:22 AM
I'm tossing in my feedback while dealing with insomnia. Bear with me and take it with a grain of salt.
The counter to this would simply be buying an unfermented wash that the contract brewery has already developed, or did without the input of the spirit maker. Then yes, I too would consider that step bypassed.
I still contend that despite the best wash (no matter whose creation it is) the stiller's cutting plays just as much a role in the flavor of the final product. Though, you're absolutely right in that it must start with the wash. GIGO  or "you can't polish a turd."
-I'm trying to imagine Bob Ross describing the process:
"...and we'll put a happy little malt over here. Yeah, that's nice...and now maybe a little yeast. However much is up to you, after all, it's your wash..."
 Garbage In = Garbage Out
Posted 16 September 2008 - 06:02 AM
Posted 16 September 2008 - 05:37 PM
First, I'm talking about at the major American whiskey producers; Jim, Jack, et al.
Second, even before the title Master Distiller was in use, every distillery had a Distiller. Every distillery also had a Still Operator. They almost never were the same person. That continues to be the case.
Third, I'm talking about the beer still, which is a continuous column still. I can't say I've ever heard anyone talk about operating the doubler.
The Distiller usually is the manager or overseer of the whole distillery. He may or may not have responsibility for the warehouses but is responsible for grain acceptance, milling, mashing, yeast preparation, fermentation, distillation, and barrel entry, as well as overall quality control of the finished product. He is there supervising all of those stages every day. Today, some Master Distillers are primarily quality control, but there is someone, maybe called the plant manager, who has all of those day-to-day responsibilities.
The Still Operator is a hand who operates the still. He starts it up, monitors it while it runs, makes periodic adjustments, and then shuts it down at the end of the run. At some distilleries (e.g., Wild Turkey), the still operator sits or stands next to the still, monitoring its gauges, listening to and feeling its rhythms, and adjusting its valves. At others (e.g. Heaven Hill), the still operator sits at a control panel in a nearby control room.
Lots of distilleries have had the same still operator or operators for decades. I've never heard of a still operator becoming a distiller.
Posted 16 September 2008 - 09:34 PM
Most of this discussion has focused so intently on making whiskey, vodka—and to a lesser degree, rum and brandy—as end products, as if those are the only products which qualify someone to call themselves a distiller. I'd like to get a clear idea of where you stand on products like gin, aquavit, liqueurs and absinthe. I'm an absinthe distiller, so I'll use it as an example.
The time-honored and traditional absinthe making process is:
The absinthe maker chooses the spirit he feels would make the best base for his product. As far back as the beginning of commercial absinthe (the 1790) the traditional craft undertaken by the absinthe maker has begun with neutral or near-neutral spirits. This was, to the best of my knowledge, always produced by a different distiller—one whose craft and apparatus is focused on distilling spirit to neutrality.
He selects—and in the case of some brands actually grows— the botanicals. After a time of experimentation he develops a proprietary recipe.
The selected botanicals are portioned out and macerated for a time in the base spirit. This charge is then distilled in a pot-still—not a column or hybrid—recovering the clear absinthe, making cuts in a similar fashion to other spirits. Additional flavor, aroma and color is imparted by a second maceration of different herbs. The result is filtered, aged and bottled.
This is precisely the process I follow. Some would say—based on the fact that I purchase grape neutral spirits, that I'm not a "craft" distiller. I submit that I put as much craft into making my product as any whiskey distiller, but that my craft is focused on different skills and sensory-based decisions. And isn't that what "craft" is all about, applying learned skills and judgment?
When discussing the notion of hiring a brewery to make one's wash to make whiskey, you seem to assume that a guy just goes up to a brewery, buys a few thousand gallons of beer and then distills it. You don't take into account a working relationship with the brewer. If a Distiller hires a brewer to make his wash for him according to his grain bill and yeast choices and oversees and approved the production, who cares what building fermenter is in?
I will agree that I cannot call someone who buys GNS and simply adds flavors and color a "distiller" of any sort. But it seems to me that this discussion has been polarized in such a way that one would think that whiskey, vodka and cheap artificially flavored spirits are all there is.
Neutral spirits is an ingredient to me, and requiring me to make my own in order to earn the title of Craft Distiller is—as Paul suggested—like expecting an artisanal baker to grind his own flour. It's great if you do, but should hardly be required.
If my craft doesn't require the skill set or apparatus necessary to make neutral spirits, I'll be damned if I can see why I should lay out a few extra $100,000 for a column still, especially when the medieval style copper rig I use to make absinthe—my end product—only costs around $3000.
And ain't I a Distiller?
Posted 16 September 2008 - 11:01 PM
Gin, akavit, and the base for many liqueurs can be made the same way. I consider that distilling and would contrast it with the person who buys GNS from one supplier, liquid flavor concentrate from another supplier, and pours the concentrate into the spirit, and maybe stirs it. That's a rectifier, not a distiller. Historically, a rectifier might do some redistillation, but the present meaning of the word is just mixing stuff together.
Posted 17 September 2008 - 11:09 AM
I am sure that their profit margins are much better than mine.
I think the real issue is how are we going to define the term ‘Craft Distillery’. Is a Craft Distillery one that starts with the grain and works it to the finished product or is a Craft distillery one that buys from ADM, filters, adds additives, flavoring and bottles?
It is not so much an issue for us as ‘distillers’, but could prove to be a major issue in the market place: consumer perception. This would help, down the road, to educate the public.
Many great products are out there, where one buys in bulk, mixes, blends and re-packages and there are just as many great products where one buys raw material, cooks, and package. But the definition can hurt as well as help in the market place. The guy that contracts his product from start to finish is a marketer, not a producer. In my experience, the marketer takes too many ‘short cuts’.
I don’t want to infringe on those that take wash, made to their specs, and begin the process of creating something fun and unique. But at the same time, one that has no control over the process, one that never touches the grain, mash, wash or bottle (other than in the liquor store) should not be classified as a Craft Distillery.
My two-cents anyway.
Mystic Mountain Distillery
Posted 17 September 2008 - 01:19 PM
I disagree with that statement in the most strongest way. I, like Gwydion, make absinthe and gin in my distillery following the age-old methods he describes. To make a superior gin or absinthe requires me to use the best neutral spirits. Craft definitely comes into play in the growing and/or selecting the botanicals that I use in my craft of gin and absinthe making. Craft comes into play while distilling in my alembic, making cuts, and secondary infusions (in the case of absinthe). It's utter BS to insist that what I do is not "craft."
Posted 18 September 2008 - 07:00 PM
I agree that there is "CRAFT" involved - I said that anyone that does not touch the product, other than at the liquor store!
We have a couple of Craft Vodka makers here in Colorado - made and bottled (basically a private label), yet they market themselves as a local distiller!
Posted 19 September 2008 - 06:03 AM
Posted 19 September 2008 - 11:33 AM
Distiller - one who distills.
Stillman, still operator, still monkey, whatever...I see them all as "distillers" as they distill. They actually perform the act of distillation.
Master distiller - I wholeheartedly agree that a qualifier of "master" is one bestowed by others. It's like giving yourself a nickname, only professional-er...no, seriously
Head distiller - perhaps the middle ground we're reaching for that describes the distiller in charge. Again, in our scale, we're not likely to have a whole crew just to fire up the hardware...quite the opposite, we'll be wearing multiple if not all hats. However, if we have the benefit of additional hands working the copper, then it would be logical to call the one in charge the head distiller.
Blender/Mixer/Macerationst? - Those who don't distill. There's no phase change between liquid, vapor, and back to liquid again in the methods they employ. There's a distinct art to making the right blend or the determining the right amount of fruit, berries, rodents, etc. for a product that has *just* the right whatever it is. By no means do I want to marginalize the skill required for this, but it's NOT distilling in any form. I wouldn't think it reasonable or logical to call them a "distiller."
In contrast, I think the word "craft" is starting to become a little moot in the terms of terminology. Gluing googly eyes on a piece of felt is also called "craft" so the word's meaning is pretty open ended and subjective. If one is making hundreds of thousands of proof gallons in the course of the year, despite one's "craft-ness" of the product, it's not really micro. If you're buying ten thousand proof gallons of GNS and adding it to your family recipe kool-aid, you're micro, but not necessarily "craft."
In my opinion, there's validity to the simple principle that there should be distinction among methods, possibly even to the point of labeling. On the other hand, COLA issues are difficult enough without having to add additional criteria and verbiage to labels that are already hard enough to compose. Even so, I think that in the current state of the industry, we need to pick our battles, and the tax legislation is higher on the list of priorities than somebody blending pre-fab GNS calling themselves a distiller...though I don't like it either.
As far as perception...a huge portion of that is how one is marketed (or markets themselves). That's a skill that I will definitely need to cultivate. I see it as a combination of consumer education, advertising, and general PR rolled up into one word.
Posted 19 September 2008 - 02:13 PM
I consider myself a Distiller at a Craft or Micro distillery. We are family owned and operated... in fact, there are only two of us, my father and myself. Why do i give myself this title, because not only do i do 95% of the production at our distillery, but i do everything in between from supply chain management to product delivery. I feel i have earned the title because i am trusted with the day to day operations of the distillery, regardless of what that might entail. My father, the master distiller, does not have to be around for our business to continue running, operationally that is.
He is the Master Distiller A) because he has the time and experience behind the still to come up with all of the new recipes and protocols our distillery follows, and because he earned the title from those that taught him.
People are getting too caught up in these titles though.. while i wear the title as a badge of honor, beause i know the effort i put into getting it, but mostly, it is an apt description of what i do... i distill.
Still operator = distiller = still operator, anything beyond that is just self-inflation.
Posted 23 September 2008 - 12:19 PM
In this context, perhaps one of the defining features of a 'craft' distillery is that, at least sometimes, the distiller _is_also_ the still operator. That would make 'craft' distinct from 'macro', if it's true, as Chuck asserts, that the roles never overlap in the 'big' distilleries.
Something like this comes up in the cider circle 'I Art Craftier Than Thou' discussions. As a cidermaker, I'm not the applegrower. But I do get out into the field and monitor the ripening and do the occasional picking. I'm not the press operator - but I _have_ been. As _the_ cidermaker at AEppelTreow, my most important job is to make sure that everything is cleaned properly. Mostly by doing it myself :-)
Posted 23 September 2008 - 03:25 PM
Posted 23 September 2008 - 04:05 PM
Then again, I'm in automation and such geekery appeals to me. I've been tempted to put together a completely automated, continuous rig just for the sake of doing it. I know an automated continuous still seems absolutely contrary to the spirit of the thread, but if you built it yourself? Now that's some craft, donchathink??? Eh?
I know...too late in the day for coffee to be kicking in. Even so, I'll have to give them a call and find out how much one of those whizz-bangs are.
Posted 23 September 2008 - 04:08 PM
Provided it is accurate enough, it sure beats the hell out of parallax or reading through the meniscus.
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