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“Craft” Gin

Written by Gin Foundry

We’ve been looking to post a full feature about a couple of subjects close to our hearts for a while now. With too few hours in the day to writeup all the amazing gins sitting around in Gin Foundry HQ, we’ve been brewing up a series of features that cover topical subjects playing out in the gin world right now.

To kick it all off, our editor-at-large, Olivier Ward, penned a few words about the necessity to stop using the word “CRAFT” so loosely and what he felt was the true meaning of the word. Get ready folks, it’s time to go to church as there’s a sermon on the way…

I’ve been seeing the term craft being used more and more ubiquitously across the spirits industry. In many ways the rise of craft distilling is the driving force behind this and many brands are right to use the term to describe their spirits.

Such is the quantity now available, one of Gin Foundry’s Ginvent calendars was entirely dedicated to craft gins, all of which we as a team, can standby and defend as being so. Craft spirits are starting to have their day and assert themselves on the market. This is great news, however what does craft actually mean and represent? Why should we care about the term? More importantly, why is it important to ensure that the bigger brands don’t hijack the word as a way of misleading consumers into thinking they are smaller, more unique and perhaps even more desirable as a result?

Much like the term “boutique” was coined in the hospitality industry by small independent hoteliers and then adopted by the bigger hotels capitalising on the idea of individuality and intimacy – the moniker of being “crafted” is suffering. Saying that something is crafted is an easy way for cynical marketers to attribute value to an otherwise disposable consumer good. Much like the phrase “boutique” did for the hospitality industry, craft’s connotations imply small scale production, attention to detail and individuality. These merits are true of all properly artisanal products – they are imbued with all of these qualities. Because of this, calling something craft is a strong indication that the product will likely have been made by a small producer, passionately grafting away somewhere in the world with each precious drop being lavished with their individual moment of attention. This is now under threat and soon the term will be made redundant.

Please let me tell you what I think “craft” means in the context of spirits and in particular, gin. I’ve been fortunate to meet many of these craft distillers over the years and while they are all different, they all share a similar ethos. They all combine an unusual mix of great theoretical understanding and technical knowledge with an indelible passion about their craft and what they are doing. This understanding is usually not just derived from books, but from other distillers, in some cases it is even passed on from generation to generation or for the more experienced, earned out of the many hours they spend refining their skills. Usually there are two common denominators to distillers who truly “craft” their products and it involves their attitude towards their work. They share enough humility to know they can always improve and have an infatigable drive to do so.

For many of these craft distillers, it’s not about the money either. I’m not saying they consider it charity work - it’s a business - but it’s not “just” about the bottom line. It’s about working for themselves, making something they love – it’s personal. It’s about respect and the love of being connected to what they make and who they make it with.

As a result, “craft gin” is as much about the people behind the product as it is the finished spirit. The human story is the very reason consumers can relate with the end product. It’s what gives a gin that extra dimension. Someone once described a niche craft brand that they were drinking at the time as having “soul” imbued into the gin. It may sound like a strange concept but I agree.

In the truly authentic cases of craft gins, this ethos of care and attention goes from grain to glass where at each stage, the distiller will personally know the farmers, growers, pickers etc… Everything is traceable. Each ingredient has provenance and is made by people who share similar values and are all working towards the same goal.

Unfortunately, these people are few and far between as for every one craft distiller who shares the values I’ve just pointed out, there are countless others who shamelessly misuse the term.

Too many call themselves craft distillers but simply unravel under the pressure of a few questions and demonstrate exactly why they could never be considered as such. For example, how can you make a crafted product if you have no idea where your neutral spirit came from or where your juniper was picked? I’m not talking about just temporarily having a mind blank on the day when a pesky blogger comes round to ask geeky questions– but to genuinely not know…?

The very human nature of craft distilleries means that “Craft Distilling” as a term can’t be solely considered to be about the scale of production either. Too many have cross-associated the terms “small batch” and “craft” as being the same thing. They are not. One is an ethos and a way of working. The other is just a reference to the scale of the operation. Before calling something craft, I wish people were reminded of these distinctions and then left to form their own judgment on whether they felt it was still an appropriate term. I feel it is possible to be larger brand and still be truly “craft gin”

I’m not going to name and shame as that’s not my point here – you, the consumer, should be the one demanding better use of the term and be more discerning - but if you’ve followed new gin releases over the past year these three brands might be quite obvious to you. I have paraphrased what they do to show you just how badly the idea of “craft” has been butchered…(Tweet me @TheGinBlog if you think you know who I’m referring to, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts).

- A newbie distiller, having suddenly discovered a love for gin, bunging a load of ingredients that they bought from a giant supplier into a small pot still and switching the heat on does not make it “craft gin”.

- Something that is made by an industrial third party distiller at the request of a company, but call it craft because they make it in small batches. This does not equate to being “craft gin” either.

- Tea-bagging an already finished gin with a botanical then bottling it is definitely not “craft gin”. Not even if you call it a bouquet-garni.

There are many more I could point towards but you catch my drift. Many brands have claimed the term so as to envelop themselves with the credibility that is hard earned by other genuine distillers, who spent years learning how to make their gin, just to make a quick buck. The most offensive thing about the continued misuse of the term craft, in the context of gin, is that when big brands and cynical marketers hijack the word they devalue all the hard work those genuine craft distillers have put in and all the trust that has ever been built between consumers and brands. I’m not a naive idealist – I have worked in drinks PR and marketing for years now - I get that positions are accentuated to showcase brands in their best possible light. However, when one brand lies and inevitably gets busted, when the next one says the same and is telling the truth, consumers don’t care anymore and I include myself in saying this. Everyone is worse off for it. Yes, it’s the crying WOLF story and all…

It’s all too easy to band the “C” word around, but as gin fans we should be very defensive of it. Truly crafted products have resonance. They ring true in a world that has become obsessed about instant gratification and mass-produced commodities.

If it continues, we will drive the already scarce amount of true artisan ginsmiths out there to an even smaller number – but here’s the crucial part – we will loose what it actually means to be a craft distiller in the first place. Those who believed in it to begin with will become jaded and no new distilleries will want to adopt their artisanal practices, as they won’t be perceived as something worth replicating.

It will be lost to the realm of marketing bullshit and all those who have dedicated their lives to making truly amazing spirits, packed with soul and character, will just be lost having been stripped of their identity.

Rather than having been celebrated for bucking the trend and for having created something unique, we as gin fans will have opted to reward those seeking to make homogenous products using an iPad and a giant set of machines. We will have done the gin equivalent of equating a real life friendship to being the same as being “friends” on Facebook. We all know that we don’t really have 490 friends and that’s why the real deal is still valued. All I ask is for all of us to make an effort so that we don’t have to make the same distinction between real craftsmanship and the expression “craft” on the side of a bottle.

Demand that the term is protected by refusing to accept those who use it to splash it about on their advertising without having justification to do so. Ask questions. Hold people accountable and please, use the “c” word with care when you refer to a gin.