I like words. I like their sounds and their shapes. I like their specificity and the nuanced differences in meaning between synonyms. I’m a sucker for onomatopoeia and an etymology groupie. Words were probably my first love. They are the reason that when children on the playground chant “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” I struggle to agree. I remember my 10th grade English teacher telling me I would probably never be a good writer. That hurt. In fact it still hurts so many decades and words later.
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about one particular word: “craft.” Craft has been causing a lot of trouble. Craft – or more precisely our inexactitude in defining “craft” – has a number of people upset. What is craft? Does it matter how we define it? In the distillery community, “craft” has become a touchy subject.
I’m writing this from the Victoria Whisky Festival (in beautiful Victoria, BC), where last night I participated in an event showcasing eight of British Columbia’s craft whiskies (hosted by Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast). The tasting was fun. I found several new favorites and came away with a bottle of The Laird of Fintry single malt (which I solemnly swear to drink rather than resell – let me know if you want to help me fulfill that vow!).
The distillers chatted throughout the tasting about the meaning of “craft” – and what benefits are available to BC producers who achieve (and abide by) that designation. To be considered “craft” in BC, they are required to use exclusively the agricultural products of British Columbia in their process. As a reward, they are afforded a bit of a tax break as well as some increased ability to self distribute their product.
All in all, this isn’t too dissimilar to the “craft” designation available in Washington state. But in Washington, the distinction of craft v. non-craft has led to infighting among some within the distilling community. If it has led to similar turmoil in BC, there was no explicit mention of it at last night’s event.
So what does “craft” actually mean – and is it important? Merriam-Webster leads off with the definition of “skill in planning, making or executing” and then moves on to “an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.” Oxford Living Dictionaries includes this nugget, when “craft” is being used as a modifier: “denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company.” And, of course, “craft” also means whatever a relevant statute (whether in BC, or Washington or any other jurisdiction) says it means.
But does it matter?
I don’t think it does. I believe that the craft v. non-craft distinction is a very simplistic way of looking at a very nuanced situation. I do not believe that the Laird of Fintry (or any of the other delicious drams sampled last night) require any more “skill in planning, making or executing” than the bottle of Laphroaig with which it will share space on my shelf. Further, that bottle of Laphroaig was made through some very traditional methods (such as the distillery having its own malting floor) not used by any of the “craft” distilleries on display at our event last night. Does that make Laphroiag more “craft” than those craft whiskies? Alternatively, does the fact that Laphroaig produces millions of liters of spirit a year (albeit in a very traditional process) mean that it cannot be considered “craft”? Can we all agree that these are ultimately silly questions which serve only to promote false distinctions?
Let me close by offering my own thoughts. And I emphasize that these are my own, and do not reflect the thoughts of my employer, the Washington Distillers Guild (on whose Board I have the pleasure of serving), or anyone else for that matter.
“Craft” is a distraction. It is a meaningless term in the context of whisky. But the argument around “craft” serves to focus small producers on one another instead of focusing their attention on competitive threats from large out-of-market producers and the fact that (at least in the United States) state and federal tax obligations make it very difficult for those small producers to survive. I am not sufficiently paranoid to believe that this situation is by design – but do believe that this is the result.
What if, instead of focusing on “craft” we simply focused on size and offered some manner of legal and/or tax accommodation for companies producing (alone or together with their affiliated entities) less than a certain annual volume of spirits? Wouldn’t that make more sense? As a consumer, I really don’t care whether something is labeled “craft.” But I do care deeply about supporting local small businesses and about the ability to develop personal relationships with those brands and the people behind them. Isn’t that relationship – and the authenticity of the experience – what we’re really trying to achieve by thinking about “craft”?