When That ‘Local,’ ‘Craft’ Liquor You Pay Big Bucks for Is Neither
on 27/05/13 at 10:24 amSpirits
Last winter I visited a small new distillery housed on the ground floor of a Dickensian industrial building in a run-down part of an American city—exactly which city doesn’t matter, because I guarantee there’s a building just like it near you. It was occupied by what my friend Karen Rush has dubbed YUTs, or “young urban tradesmen”: that leather-aproned, sepia-tone breed of ironmongers, tinsmiths, papermakers, and the like who have embraced urban industrial homesteading with the same zeal their parents once brought to rural cheesemaking in the sadder parts of New England.
The distillery’s operators, a trio of agreeable, Oliver Twist–ish young men, had just launched a new vodka, which I’d seen in local bars and on liquor-store shelves. But when I looked around, I didn’t see any of the equipment one might expect to find at a vodka distillery—no gleaming column still, or storage bins for grain or potatoes, or even tanks for fermentation.
It’s a little-known fact, but you don’t actually need a still to call yourself a distiller. The vodka makers I visited had adopted a simple and surprisingly common business model: buy a large quantity of potable alcohol from an industrial supplier (one vendor of neutral spirits offers it “in drum, truckload and railcar quantities”), run it through a tall charcoal filter to remove any trace impurities, cut it with water, decant it into bottles, and then slap on a label touting it as a local craft product worthy of its premium price.
For the time being, the craft-distilling movement is basking in the summery sunshine of congeniality: it’s still young, and rising tides are lifting all boats. Eighty-one craft distillers launched last year in the U.S., bringing the total to 315, according to a white paper by Michael Kinstlick, a co-founder of Coppersea Distilling, a new operation in upstate New York. The movement is following the same upward trajectory that microbrewing blazed some two decades ago, and Kinstlick foresees more than 1,000 small distillers nationwide by 2021. But already some markets are getting crowded—Brooklyn alone is home to at least 10 distillers—and a debate is commencing over what constitutes “craft” and what constitutes “local.”
The hard-core, “grain to glass” distillers grow their own grain and do their own distilling, blending, aging, and bottling. That’s an expensive way to make a bottle of liquor, and the product is priced accordingly. So, understandably, they get a bit grumpy when competitors buy alcohol by the railcar and then repackage it as a “vodka handcrafted in Brooklyn” or a “Texas blended whiskey.” “The next phase of the market is going to be distinguishing the makers from the fakers,” Kinstlick predicts.