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Craft Certification Update

A call for greater truth in labeling

As of press time, the Certified Craft Spirits™ database has swelled to 874 brands by hundreds of distilleries in 44 states and Canada. The list of American craft spirits has now reached critical mass and can be taken to the next level in building a bring from the producer to the consumer.

On Monday March 31, ADI staff met with an advisory board of distillers to discuss possible changes to the ADI definitions of Certified Craft Spirits™ and how to handle certain products that may fit within the spirit but not the letter of the rules, and to consider possible changes to the craft certification program. Present were ADI staff members Andrew Faulkner, Nancy Fraley, Eric Zandona and Matt Jelen, and distillers Darek Bell of Corsair Distillery, Ryan Hembree of Skip Rock Distillers and President of the Washington Distillers Guild Steven Stone of Sound Spirits. This was followed Tuesday April 2 by a panel discussion featuring Bell, Hembree, Stone, Faulkner and Jim Blansit, of Copper Run Distillery.

Primary topics of discussion at the meeting were the definitions of Certified Craft Distilled Spirits™ and Certified Craft Blended Spirits™, and if the craft-blended designation was necessary or denigrating to the program. Also discussed were more than 70 spirits that had applied for craft certification but had not been approved because of minor variations from the rules. The vast majority of these were spirits that stated “produced by” instead of “distilled by” on the labels. The panelists weighed in on the distilleries and spirits using their personal experience and knowledge to determine if they fit the definition of craft. Most were approved conditionally, which is to say they are placed on the database but denoting that their was an variation from the rules that had been discussed by the advisory board.

Many distillers have a large stock of printed labels that may say “produced by” or “handcrafted by” and it would be costly to reprint these. Good news coming from TTB is that distillers need not re-apply for a COLA to change these words to “distilled by”, if indeed they do distill what is in the bottle. Methods to handle such variances in the future were discussed and solutions include changing label wording, inspection of the distillery by ADI personnel, or review of the TTB-approved formula.

The most interesting proposition put forth both at the meeting and at the panel discussion, and one that would further promote truth in labeling, is for producers to print the DSP number of the distiller(s) on the bottle, similar to the NOM that Tequila producers must print on their labels. This would clear up any confusion on where a spirit had been distilled. ADI advocates that moving forward, craft producers should all put the DSP numbers of all distilleries that had a hand in producing the spirit in the bottle. This push to further extend “Truth in Labeling” could clear up confusion regarding the pedigree of a spirit.

Another issue of contention is the Certified Craft Blended Spirit™. The distillers on the panel moved for the elimination of this designation saying that it muddied the water. At issue is how to exclude producers who simply watering back neutral spirits to produce vodka or release Kentuckiana whiskeys under a label implying they were created in-house. Germain to the idea is whether the flavor of the spirit is significantly altered by the artisan. The vast numbers of gins start with a purchased spirit that is then macerated and redistilled by the producer. There is no doubt that the flavor profile of the spirit is produced by the hand of an artisan, but many of the distillers feel the crucial step in determining what is craft is that of transforming a fermented product into a distilled product. Many fantastic liqueurs with the aesthetic imprint of the hand of a creator begin with bulk spirits produced on the open market.

Most DSPs think the definition of craft should describe exactly what they do. Farm distillers are entitled to feel that they have a greater degree of craft because they grow the raw ingredients they ferment and then distill. Those that ferment have a hands-on contact with the process to a greater degree than those that purchase wine or wash for distillation. Those that distill from scratch can feel a greater sense of involvement than the creator of a redistilled spirit from NGS (as is the case with most gins and liqueurs). All these steps connote a greater or lesser degree of involvement in the process of creating spirits. Some distillers who have built their own stills have expressed the opinion that those distilling on purchased equipment show a lesser degree of craft.

At the panel discussion, the conversation was passionate and diverse with most of the sentiment echoing that a spirit is created in the act of distillation. Toward the end, John Wilcox of Rogue Spirits took the microphone for a thought provoking opinion that created laughter and applause.

“I want to make sure we don’t forget that we are all artisans,” said Wilcox. “We are all tied to a very lengthy history of art. And when we think about art, we have to think about all the artists that have come before us, outside of distilling, in all the various different trades they were part of. Once upon a time, artists used to make their own tools. They used to grind beetles to make cadmium. They made their own brushes out of whatever, … Picasso is very well known in the art world for making wash, but he also used found and common objects for his collages. And of course all artists decry the presence of Duchamp and his very-famous Readymades, which are still elevated to fine art to this day. Art is not dead, mind you. It is still alive.”

“What we have to focus on is that we are artisans and the big people are not, … ‘cause they’re using weird science, and computers and, … God is dead,” with laughter from the crowd and the speaker.

“The question should never be who is more craft than the others. There is an element of craft distilled, but I think we should be focusing more on artisinally-produced or artisinally-whatever because there are amaros being made with NGS; there are gins being made with NGS but they are being transformed. We don’t have to crush our own beetles to make cadmium anymore. We don’t have to do that. We can buy that at the store, and you can still make amazing paintings, but does that make that painting less valuable because you used store-bought cadmium with artificial color in it? Just a thought.”

“Let’s all celebrate the art of what we are doing and not celebrate the division and the elitism that we are dealing with here. Let’s all bind together and take out the people who have killed god,” followed by rousing applause.

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