Distillers debate relevance of ‘craft’ in gin8th January, 2016 by Melita Kiely
The unsolved definition of ‘craft’ is affecting all categories, but arguably none more so than gin. We ask, where will the term go from here?
*This feature was initially published in the July 2015 issue of The Spirits Business magazine
“Craft” has been the undisputed buzzword of the spirits industry over the last year, but somewhere along the way the term has turned into somewhat of a contentious connotation. Even its sister labels of “artisanal”, “small-batch” and “handcrafted” have found themselves in the firing line for criticism, and brands are being called out left, right and centre for “misleading” consumers with alleged marketing trickery.
From one producer to the next, the interpretation of the word “craft” varies vastly, and with no legal clarification it’s difficult to determine a craft brand from a crafty marketer. Gin is no exception to the conundrum; new start-up distillers and established players alike are all vying for their right to sit under the “craft” umbrella.
“Craft distilling should not just mean small batch,” insists Alex Nicol, managing director of The Spencerfield Spirit Company. “It means so many things to different people, but it’s not something that can be defined by numbers – it’s not the difference between making 60,000 litres or 6,000. Craft is about quality of distillation and innovation. The big distillers simply don’t have the time to innovate on the scale we do, and so I find it difficult to accept them as craft gins.”
Diageo is one such company that has no qualms about describing its brands as craft. Charlie Downing, head of gin for drinks giant Diageo, confidently credits Tanqueray and Gordon’s as being craft gins. He explains how Tom Nichol, retired master distiller of Tanqueray, refused around 90% of juniper berries delivered to the distillery in Scotland because they were not of good enough quality.
Craft ‘applies to Diageo’
“I kind of reject the notion craft needs to be small because every single batch that’s produced of our brands is what I would consider as crafted,” he asserts. “Craft means a sense of care; real care in your liquid and packaging. Care in how you execute in store and in how the world sees you. I think craft absolutely applies to Diageo’s gin brands.”
There does seem to be an implication from some distilleries shouting about their small scale, hands-on, craft distillation methods that producing smaller batches of gin means better quality. Whether there is any truth in the matter, though, remains subjective. As David Wilkinson, head distiller at The Spencerfield Spirit Company, explains, a more hands-on approach to distillation does not directly correlate with a better product – it’s more about being the most practical method for quality control.
“When done on a large scale where output is very high and there are hundreds of previous batches to compare, there is clearly a benefit to using the data to design computer programmes and automate procedures,” he says. “On a small scale each batch is more sensitive to small changes, for example the ambient temperature of the still room in different seasons. Due to this it would be very risky to automate processes and have consistently repeatable results.”
Sizing up production is not as simple as multiplying a small-batch recipe to fit a larger still; some botanicals deliver a stronger flavour when distilled on a large scale and as such, the ingredients needs to be modified to allow for this. In which case, really, when it comes to the end product, size does not matter.