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CRAFT vs SCALE

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14/03/2019
Written by Gin Foundry

The term ‘craft’ has, in our opinion, long lost any real merit. It still holds the ghost of a once potent resonance amongst many drinkers, but overuse has become mis-use, and the claims, counter claims and general misinformation about what it is isn’t craft (or even if the label matters), has stopped the term holding much weight.

As this happened something far more damaging to it regaining any semblance of meaning also occurred; Craft stopped having any distinguishable metrics, let alone the common consensus, on which to be evaluated by in the first place. Worse still, things that shouldn’t matter have become significant barometers in the eyes of many.

As journalists who’ve dedicated a decade of thought to Gin as a category, we are now so numb to the word that we’re almost oblivious to its inclusion in every second sentence on many a brand website. We don’t really subscribe to the term at all if we’re  being honest, but it’s put in there as a hallmark of trust and superiority, so it’s high time we really analysed it a little further.

In almost all circumstances, scale is used as an indicator of craft.

We hear about hand-made, gently-warmed, lovingly bottled (that’s our favourite nonsense term. Do you whisper sweet nothings into the spout?) gins, with the general view being that the fewer bottles there are in a batch, the more care and attention paid to each one. Craft and scale are inter-related as concepts, and the size of operation is often the first port of call to justify whether or not something can be considered Craft.

We, however, really don’t think it’s that hard to separate the two. While brands may like the shroud of mystery and while journalists like to imply that something small is something precious, we know that there are (and need to be) so many other factors at work here. We also know that some of the best gins in the world are made en-masse, so it’s fair to say we’re wading into this argument with more than a little bias…

Size matters to many

It is naïve to think that the term craft does not have any romantic connotations to most drinkers, and that this connection relates to the perceived scale of enterprise going on. It clearly does.

Small is traditionally associated with accessibility. Small is traditionally associated with being personable. Small is traditionally associated with being relatable and small often genuinely does involve a more labour intensive, manual process.

It’s also clear that once everything reaches a certain scale, the level of automation and industrialised procedure means that the human qualities and touches that are intrinsic to products made at smaller scales are lost, even if that also means the human errors are ironed out too.

The issue with distilling, especially with gin, is that many of the elements that are scaled are redundant to the parts that take skill. Does washing a bottle and applying a label really need to be done by hand for something to be deemed more crafted? Where is the skill in that? Automation isn’t always the enemy and while it might look industrial, it isn’t actually taking away from the parts that really matter.

THE PROBLEM with size

The issue with judging craft by using the metric of scale is that size rarely reflects quality. A complex series of decisions, actions and intentions goes into every gin, no matter the size of the operation. Thus, if you don’t judge all of the other factors, you are essentially saying that it’s neither quality nor a pursuit of excellence that defines craftsmanship, and that any crap can be craft, so long as it’s a small operation.

Food and drink is one of the few industries for whom the term craft is the exclusive preserve of the small. Take building on the other hand, and one would never assume that because you could make sheds you are a craftsman, while those who work on cathedrals are jokers. Quite the opposite, it is the larger edifices of architecture that are more frequently deemed to be masterfully crafted wonder pieces – not the quirky yet lovingly made huts at the end of a garden.

In art, sculpture and almost every other creative medium where something is being made, the scale of something isn’t what’s being judged, it is the workmanship, artistry and attention to detail the defines whether something is considered to be well crafted or not.

Food and drink are clearly perceived differently. But why? With food and farming it’s a little easier to state why, as the scale of operation plays a huge role in the realities of welfare and how much attention to detail any given product can reasonably have.

But why is distilling – something by and large done via industry-standard equipment –  considered the same, and why is it not acceptable to have a big still and be a finely crafted product?

Is a Bentley less ‘craft’ than a high performance Go-Cart due to its scale? Of course not, and yet for gin makers, a small and often rudimentary pot still is considered an important part of a maker’s craft credentials. Just because it is hard to fully appreciate the sheer complexity of an operation once it reaches a certain size, it doesn’t mean we should discount the workmanship involved and the meticulous attention lavished on all the components that come together.

Attitude aside, at what point does one even calculate the scale? Measuring the size of a still, or the volume of fluid produced off each run of a still (or by bottle batch, or by yearly output, or, or, or…) each makes for some very subjective and easily exploitable criteria.

For example, if you were to say that to be considered ‘craft’, the still size would need to be less than 500L, or that the volume of fluid would need to be limited to a hearts cut of 300L per run, producers could easily just move to a multi-shot method and concentrate their recipes. We’re actually seeing this happen a lot anyway, as smaller distilleries cannot afford to re-invest in infrastructure and so look to increase the efficiency of their spirit runs.

For context – using those figures there, there is currently a British producer who makes between 15 and 22 thousand bottles a batch depending on the recipe and the client needs. While it’s an impressive bit of technical distilling, 22 thousand bottles of gin made each and every batch from a comparatively small still that only produced 300L of useable fluid is an obscene fact to marry-up to the fact that it would constitute being a ‘craft’ product.

The size of the still had nothing to do with the scale of batch. It may look small, but the concentrated dosage makes for a completely different reality once you look at the wider process and what happens thereafter.

If you measure the batch size in either fluid off the still or in finished bottle equivalent, this Single vs Multi-shot process dilemma makes deciding what number is appropriate very tricky, and it can disproportionately favour one style of production or the other and more inopportunely for those who peddle these messages, certain types of producers with specific agendas from which they look their best. Meanwhile, those who create separate distillates to then blend together become nigh on impossible to police.

For those who would like to go the American way and don’t look at batch size but focus on yearly output only – this is equally fraught with issues. Mostly, it is punitive for those doing well. Isn’t the point of all of this to build successful thriving businesses?

Capping someone to a level of culturally acceptable achievement and then handicapping them thereafter seems more of a punishment and less a celebration of decent products performing well. Especially as for most who reach that threshold in the US, nothing will have changed in the way they make a product – they will either have got an additional still, or finally pushed the distillery to its actual capacity, as opposed to when they start, where most only distil once or twice a week. It’s nonsensical in every way.

Bombay Sapphire kills the argument that small equates to Craft

Bombay Sapphire is a single shot distilled product. Their process is literally no different technically speaking than anyone else who distils with a small apparatus, it just happens to be done at 1000 times the scale. It’s gargantuan, but it’s the same process and the same raw material in terms of spirit and botanical.

Their procurement ethics, their sustainability and their environmental footprint however are far more scrutinised, therefor greater care has been taken than with smaller brands. With power comes responsibility, and also the financial capabilities of bankrolling a good conscience.

Bombay Sapphire’s botanical consistency, the testing they undertake on each component and the level of research they apply to each element of the chain is far greater than any micro-distillery. They have the same direct relationships with suppliers, just as the tiny one man bands do. All the factors that matter – the endeavour, the attention to detail, the passion are the same if not (cumulatively speaking) more acute, as there are more people who get to apply their entire focus on smaller areas of the process.

The scale is the only different factor and so we ask, if judged on all the other factors involved in production, how is Bombay not a craft product? Surely these other factors are more important than the size of their operation.

Craft is more complex

It is clear that judging crafty’ness is complex. In the case of Bombay Sapphire, the craftsmanship is more easily apparent in the sourcing, the consistency and the monitoring of ingredients, their environmental protection processes and their ability to recreate an identical standard each day, 24-hours a day. That level of precision is, when fully understood, truly admirable.

On a small scale however, it is less about those elements and much more about attribute the craftsmanship of the distiller. How they operate their apparatus and how they, the individual human at that end point on the production chain, define the outcome.

Those who say these small lone distillers do what all of the bigger players do, but they just do it all themselves and so display greater craftsmanship are talking absolute nonsense.

There is no room, no time and no funding for them to put each ingredient through chemical analysis; they don’t have to do the same evaluative process to monitor performance, nor manage the staff they manage, nor deal with the volumes of fluid etc.

While it can feel that a one-man band is the definition of craftsmanship, don’t fool yourself into thinking they do to the same level as if each component had an expert dedicated to just doing that one thing alone. There is not enough time, nor resource to be able to do that. As size grows, the level of craftsmanship and understanding to deliver consistency needs to grow too.

It’s time we all accept that in both situations, humans define the outcome. For the larger producers, more individuals play a smaller but more defined detailed role at impacting the final product, whereas in the small distilleries it is fewer people who share a bigger burden of the craft of making exceptional spirit but spend less time drilling down into each facet along the way.

The craft is deferred elsewhere away from the sole individual; it is different as it is applied to other areas and for each person as we showed above, it is about very specific sets of tasks – but it exists all the same.

Size is not a valid metric for craft

We were once told the difference between a builder and a craftsman was attitude, experience and skill set. By this definition size has no place in the equation. Just as with the builders, it is time we judge the action, the endeavour and the finished result, not just the scale of the tools being used.

For those who say gin making is a far more artistic creation than building, then consider this: All art has craft and vice versa, but craft seeks perfection whereas art seeks expression. The craftsman’s job is to make something identical each and every time. That’s why there are not two Mona Lisa’s. By these criteria, the judgement surrounding Craft is therefore one that is made about the ability to replicate something consistently. This has nothing to do with size.

Another good example of this is Beefeater Master Distiller Desmond Payne. He’s been in the game for over 50 years, and while he produces one of the biggest and highly industrialised, most far-reaching gins on the globe, he is undoubtedly a master of the craft, able to tell if a gin is up to scratch merely by sniffing it.

It is time we start looking at scale in a different way and accept that just like building cathedrals or creating monolithic sculptures, it is possible to make something big and bring in the kind of personnel, procedure and integrity that can in the right circumstances be considered Craft with a capital C.