The Lie of Craft Liquor

The Lie of Craft Liquor

I just got back from a craft distillery that makes vodka, gin and whiskey... except they don't actually make vodka. In fact, I've yet to sample a vodka from a craft distillery that is actually vodka. This is because American liquor crafters imagine themselves to be clever when actually they're just afraid of difficult marketing. Let me elaborate:

A craft distiller is a dressed-up way of saying a liquor company that makes a product in batches small enough to not have to standardize it. Companies like Absolut and Jack Daniels have a market that allows them to sell millions of bottles of their product, but only if every batch and bottle is the same. They have to make their product in batches so large that automation is 100% necessary at every step, so the subjective little twists that go into subtlety and character are impossible to achieve. A craft distiller makes (maybe) thousands of bottles a year in a production space that occupies one room and can be operated by a skeleton crew. They have small enough outfits to futz around with the details. And so they do. To a maddening extent.

The results have typically been the following, in ascending order of annoyance:

1. Sub-par whiskey that is sub-par specifically because it leaves out one or more of the essential components of the whiskey-drinking experience and mistakes that for artistry.

2. Gin that makes it its business to hit drinkers in the face with one, extremely insistent flavor like juniper, pine or cardamom because the crafter is more interested in their product having "personality" than achieving balance.

3. Vodka that has more incidental flavor than a mouth-open ride through the R&D department at Ben and Jerry's.


I can excuse craft distillers for being sophomoric in the case of the first two problems. Craft distilling in America is new enough that we can expect folks to think they can reinvent the wheel. The third is inexcusable, though, and I'm downright sick of it.

Let's get something straight: Vodka is, by definition, neutral grain spirit. It is ethanol and water with nothing else in it. The world of drinkers and distillers decided this a long time ago because it's nice to know what you're getting before you order it. People like having a consistent experience when they order a glass of vodka for the same reason they like a consistent experience when they order a hamburger. A hamburger, as human civilization has decreed, is ground beef served on a plain bun. If anything about this formula is augmented, the server is obligated to inform the eater of the changes. Order a barbecue bacon cheeseburger and you know what kind of weird, screwed-with burger you're getting because it's right there in the name. For a little while, this was true of vodka, too. When a bottle of vodka was going to taste like lemon or chocolate or espresso, this fact was indicated right there on the bottle. No surprises.

That's not the case with these candy-ass craft distillers. These jokers have decided to bottle a product that, in addition to ethanol and water, has a bunch of additional flavor compounds in it but they still call it plain vodka. This breaks the code our species keeps concerning the mutual comprehensibility of language. We, across many cultures, understand that vodka is neutral grain spirit, not just the liquid product of fermented stuff. All alcohol is the liquid product of fermented stuff. Changing the distillation process and more or less forgoing the filtration process does not result in clever vodka with "character", it results in overpriced moonshine.

I get where this habit comes from. Making something new and actually giving it a new name means having to overcome the marketing hurdle of getting people to try something they've never heard of and establishing recognition from scratch. So, craft distillers have hid behind the term "vodka" even though they're bottling and selling something that, by experience, doesn't actually taste like vodka and by definition really isn't. To cover their asses, they've promoted this idea that their craft vodkas are complex and special, made for discerning palates and liquor foodies. The result is an ever-expanding wall of vodkas that don't taste like vodka and a vast field of disparate products all going by the same name.

I stand behind the principle of craft distilling. I like localism and flavor complexity, but I want to see a distiller who has the courage to do one of two things-- Either make an ester-filled, complex spirit and give it a unique name or make a real, neutral vodka that's cheaper than mass market vodka. This business of bottling something with a wild flavor profile and calling it neutral grain spirit just because nobody added any infusions after the fact is straight-up nonsense.