A version of this article originally appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Message on a Bottle.” Subscribe today

In early 2014, Templeton Rye was one of the country’s most exciting young whiskey brands. It had a handsome bottle, an old-fashioned label and a great hook: its amber-colored rye was made using a “Prohibition-era recipe” favored by famous mobster Al Capone. It was especially disappointing, then, when all that turned out to be bogus: Templeton was buying aged rye whiskey from MGP, an Indiana-based industrial spirits supplier, blending it with “alcohol flavoring formulation,” cutting it with water, and then labeling it “Small Batch” in big black letters on the label.

“Sourcing,” as the practice is called, is not itself a sin in whiskey making. Some brands practice it to great effect: beloved labels like Willett Distillery, in Kentucky, have built sound reputations on buying other people’s juice and adjusting it, either through aging or blending or both. But being less than truthful about sourcing is blasphemy in the whiskey world. Templeton Rye faced three class-action lawsuits, and as a result, it was forced to remove “small batch” and “Prohibition-era recipe” from its labels, as well as refund buyers three dollars a bottle for up to six bottles.

Templeton’s story is extreme, but it’s also just one footnote in a wider debate about what constitutes a “craft” spirit at a time when that designation is increasingly attractive to a liquor industry with over $3 billion in annual sales. One would imagine that, in the wake of the scandal, whiskey makers would have rushed to set a definition of “craft whiskey” — for self-preservation if nothing else. Instead, five years on, no one can seem to agree what those words mean, or should mean. For distillers and those in the spirits industry, it’s been cause for frustration, division and distrust; for consumers, who are inclined to pay a premium for something they think is made with extra care, it can be damn confusing, and, in its worst cases, outright misleading.

“You can tell these words mean different things to different people, but you’re not sure what they mean and why,” says Chip Tate, the founder and former head distiller at the award-winning Balcones Distilling, who now heads his own brand, Tate & Co.

Thomas Mooney, inaugural president of the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) and founder of Westward Whiskey, likens the debate to “talking religion.”

The ACSA tried, in 2014, to set a sort of definition for a “craft spirit” by limiting voting memberships to labels that adhered to certain volume limits (750,000 proof-gallons per year) and ownership restrictions, including signing an ethics document committing to transparency. The problem came when, in an attempt not to stifle future growth, the association set the production limits so high as to be effectively meaningless.

“In the room that day, when we decided what size thresholds should be, the decision we made was: big enough that we wouldn’t have to up the volume ceiling as everyone got bigger,” Mooney says. “In hindsight, we aimed laughably high.”

The ACSA wasn’t attempting to be a governing body; it just wanted to create an organization for the small(er) guys. But this optimism created a massive umbrella under which even the largest commercial-grade distillers (that is: Jack Daniels, Beam-Suntory, Heaven Hill and Four Roses) can lay some claim to the “craft” designation. Most don’t waste the opportunity.

Adam Harris, American whiskey ambassador of Beam-Suntory, which owns Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and a handful of Scotch and Japanese whisky brands, including Laphroaig and Yamazaki: “We practice the craft every day with everything that we do.”

Conor O’Driscoll, head distiller of Heaven Hill: “At Heaven Hill Distillery you will often hear people say we were ‘craft’ before craft was cool.”

Part of the conundrum stems from the fact that the term carries a lot of weight in other food and drink circles — especially beer.

“The lines are very stark between craft beer and not-craft beer,” says James Montero, the general manager for Dogfish Head Brewery’s growing spirits line. But whiskey is not like beer, where “small” can often be treated as a synonym for “good,” or at least “considered;” even the largest whiskey distillers are among the most respected practitioners in the world, consistently releasing great products, largely at affordable prices, including the occasional gems that win major awards.

Medium-sized distilleries seem to be running from the term. Dogfish is an active member of ACSA and refers to itself as a “craft distillery,” but Montero avoids the term “craft” to describe his spirits (he prefers another made-up term, “scratch-made-goodness,” to describe Dogfish expressions). Michter’s, a popular new brand that both sources and distills its own whiskey, similarly does not call itself craft. Founder Joe Magliocco considers the term empty and wants people to focus instead on the specific whiskey-making process.

Then there’s the small guys, the ones who round out the bottom-end of ACSA’s definition. For some, being a craft distiller is about the freedom to experiment, to take risks the big companies won’t, and to work hands-on with small batches.

“What’s essential to ‘craft’ has mostly to do with a frame of mind,” says Chip Tate. In his mind, that means whiskey that is artistically and creatively motivated, rather than driven by market research or consumer studies. “What’s the difference between a fine-arts painter and a person who does really nice interior work? One person asks the client what they want, and then paints to please them. The artist is making the art for themselves — and then, maybe, it pleases the client.”

There are of course small distillers who could profit from using the “craft” label but can’t be bothered with all the noise. “I’m not worried about this ‘craft’ business, which has become mostly nonsense,” says Jedd Haas, founder and distiller at New Orleans-based Atelier Vie; his distillery clearly falls under the ACSA definition but he says he “punts” on the craftsmanship label. “I just try and create art.”

And where are consumers in all this? The general whiskey-drinking public doesn’t know or doesn’t care; Templeton, which now distills its own whiskey, only grew further after settling its lawsuits, and in 2018 opened a $35 million distillery complete with a museum. Meanwhile, enthusiasts continue to be asked by the industry to define “craft whiskey” for themselves. This is the industry punting on the term; it’s a tacit erosion of the definition of craftsmanship for short-term profit-chasing.

Across the country, fantastic whiskey (along with mediocre and poor stuff) is being made by both large and small distillers. Whether “craft” is on the label is mostly moot. For the time being, the term belongs right where we put our empty bottles: in the trash.

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