What is Craft?

The Human Element:

Toward a Definition of Craft Spirits

By Peter Sears, Kansas State University

As a growing diversity of craft spirits are sipped and stirred in homes, bars,
and restaurants around the country, we wanted to know what it means to
be “craft.” By exploring this concept with people engaged in craft distilling, a
new definition emerged that highlights the human dimensions of
production and the intricate connections between people, places,
communities, histories, and the beverages we consume. We found that
these complex human elements are important parts of what makes a
beverage “craft.”

This project was conceived and commissioned by Toby Blake, owner of
Indiana Small Batch, in collaboration with Dr. Ryan Klataske, an
anthropologist and ethnographer. These two who first met as classmates
during undergraduate studies at Kansas State University, where they gained
an appreciation for the power of anthropology as a toolkit for understanding
the world. Blake later sought out Klataske with a question: how might
anthropology apply to the world of craft spirits? While teaching at K-State,
Klataske guided his student, Peters Sears, in an applied anthropology
internship experience with Indiana Small Batch to explore this question and
the world of craft spirits. Peter graduated in 2022 with a double major in
History and Anthropology.

It has long been understood that the production and consumption of alcohol is one of the great universal experiences of humankind. From the ancient Egyptians to the modern era, humans have placed emphasis on the care and quality that goes into the making of their drinks, and lauded praise on those who have mastered the craft.

This term, “craft”, carries great weight in the alcohol business, though the ever-evolving world of spirits production has given rise to some debate regarding what qualifies as “craft”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “craft” as follows:

Craft (noun): skill in planning, making, or executing an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill

Crafts (plural): articles made by craftspeople

Craft (verb): to make or produce with care, skill, or ingenuity

However, there are many who believe that this definition is too broad to define what craft spirits mean to the people that make and consume them. After all, any successful producer of alcohol must put work into what they make to be successful. This project aimed at developing develop a working definition and meaning for “craft”, in hopes of providing guidance and inspiration to those in the alcohol business.

At the beginning of this project, the initial framing point was the question, “What does it mean to be craft?” While this served as an excellent pointer for us, we determined that such a broad question needed to be divided into smaller pieces to be meaningfully researched. After some discussion and preliminary research, we arrived at four basic categories that can help define craft as an industry.

  1. Origins: Where did the craft industry come from?

  2. Definition: What makes a product or producer “craft”?

  3. Present: What defines the industry right now?

  4. Future: Where does the industry seem to be going?

These questions were the guiding principles of this project, in the hopes that the answers produced would be useful and enlightening for everyone involved in the craft industry, including distillers, distributors, and consumers. This project involved ethnographic observations in distilleries and the craft spirits scene in my hometown of Kansas City, as well as interviews with distillery owners, head distillers, employees, and others involved in the production and consumption of spirits in both Kansas City and Indiana.

Many distillers got their start in the craft brewing business, though I spoke with people from business, engineering, and hospitality backgrounds as well. Throughout all the interviews, it was clear that nearly all these people view
craft distilling as a labor of love, directed both inward towards the development of their industry, and outward towards the satisfaction of their consumer base.

Many of the places I visited sported polished gray concrete floors and large windows to provide a view of the stills and other production equipment. The scent of grain, fermentation, and spirits processed and unprocessed often
permeates the air in these places, along with the ever-present hum of production equipment and temperature control. Many spaces are decorated in styles evoking the Prohibition era that defined much of Kansas City’s early
liquor culture. Even in those that pursue a more modern aesthetic, the ever-present Edison bulbs, leather-upholstered furniture, and reclaimed wood fixtures emphasize the vintage, the unique, and the handcrafted.

By listening to the stories, perspectives, and experiences of people engaged in the world of craft spirits—and by observing the places they work and interact with consumers—several key themes began to emerge. While the
exact meaning of craft is varied for everybody, we identified three key themes that focus on the shared human elements of a definition of “craft” and the way they are made manifest through the human aspects of the distilling

The most prominent theme was the idea of quality over quantity. While it might be easy to assume that this refers to the smaller batches that craft producers make, this topic ended up having far more nuance to it. According to several people we interviewed, the idea that “craft” equates to “small-batch” has its roots in the early days of craft beer, which was defined by DIY or part-time producers. Even though craft beer has moved beyond these scale limitations, the small-batch association has remained.

This is most evident in laws such as the Craft Beverage Modernization Act, which set different taxation rates on spirits based on gallons produced. However, many interviewees stated the quality and care put into a spirit says more about the “craft”-ness than the number of barrels. According to Nathan Perry, head distiller of J. Rieger and Co. in Kansas City:

“Craft is a verb, not an adjective.”

By this, he means that a craftsman’s understanding and respect for their process and product is the most important element of craft. Nathan emphasized respect for the consumer as a key aspect of craft, specifically that

“Craft is about making something that people will enjoy, not just being different for the sake of being different.”

A second major theme that emerged was the idea of locality and its impact on producers. This idea takes a couple of different shapes, though there are two major ones.

  1. Many distilleries pride themselves on their use of locally sourced ingredients
  2. Others heavily emphasize a connection to local history and culture, specifically to the Prohibition era.

Many interview participants mentioned that fierce local support is one of the key factors in starting a successful distillery, as the tendency of people to support local can open doors to expansion and collaboration that can do a great deal to bolster a fledgling operation. However, it is worth noting that labels alone do not make a craft beverage. According to Susan Spagnuolo of Bear Wallow Distilling, there is often a question of “Making vs. Marketing” when it comes to whether a product can be called craft. For many interviewees, in-house production is the most important element of this designation. Anyone can slap a “local pride” label on a bottle, but the contents of the bottle are the true deciding factor.

The third important piece of this puzzle is the idea of independence as a defining feature of craft. Though typically unique to each person or organization, much of this sentiment stems from the same places as the idea of craft locality. In some cases, the independence stemmed from the company’s history, relating to origins during the Prohibition era, when many distilleries were forced to go out of business or operate outside the law. In others, distilleries take pride in their reliance on locally sourced ingredients over grains shipped from far away or pre-made base spirits meant for blending.

Interestingly, this tenet of the definition seemed to be the most flexible of all of them. While I received an almost universal sense of disdain for the use of blending agents from a leading supplier of distilled spirits, there was less disdain for the other large companies of the distilling world, such as Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam. This calls back to the idea of quality as a key aspect of craft. Nathan Perry emphasized that these larger companies do not make bad product by any means. However, according to Matt Logsdon of Indiana Whiskey Company, even though larger companies are known to produce experimental craft-sized batches, such a scale of production is far closer to “process chemistry” than craft distilling.

With these things in mind, the challenge became synthesizing a single definition that best encapsulates the craft world. After careful review of the information we gathered, the following statement is the result.

In the distilling business, the term "craft" refers to any liquor for which the human element is an especially prominent part of the production process and final product. This can manifest in several ways, including intense focus on quality, independence from larger producers, or particularly strong connection to local culture or history.

We reached the conclusion that craft is most defined by the people connected to it, more so than any mechanical or numerical aspect of production. Though the question of things like batch size, recipe, and production technique are not out of the equation, it is people who make these decisions, thereby making the human element the most defining aspect of the craft process.

This project sought to define the term “craft” as it is actually used by the craft spirits industry.In doing so, we interviewed and interacted with industry professionals to provide a more cohesive and beneficial definition for those who exemplify this concept through their business practices. However, this project also recognizes that craft liquor is a rapidly evolving industry, and there are many possible definitions of craft that differ from the one presented here. To that end, we welcome any feedback or constructive criticism that the wider craft world has to offer.

Furthermore, it is our hope that this exploration into the deeper meanings of this concept and the various people involved in the industry could become an ongoing research initiative. Such a project would yield a fantastic amount of information on the world of craft distilling as it continues to grow, providing continuous insight to everyone involved, both established producers and those attempting to get started in the industry. Perhaps our findings might also help to encourage ongoing dialogue among industry stakeholder about what “craft” means, how to define, and how to promote it.

A Brief History of Craft

When diving into the current definition of craft, it is worth taking a moment to examine the historical factors that gave rise to the current landscape. In the early days of alcohol production in the United States, there was a proliferation of small producers, born out of the influx of immigrants who brought their brewing and distilling traditions to this country from overseas. According to Jeff Evans, a Kansas City distiller descended from a German family of spirit-makers, brewing one’s own alcohol was akin to making one’s own bread, giving rise to a sort of “proto-craft”. However, the onset of Prohibition in the 1920s meant that most small-time producers were put out of business, occasionally by force. Despite this, many producers continued their distilling in secret, planting the seeds of a criminal mystique that is sometimes key to the marketing of modern-day spirits, especially craft brands that claim bootlegging as their heritage.

Even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many of the small-time operations (and even some larger ones, such as the original J. Rieger and Co.) that had closed were unable to return to prominence. This culling of the industry would lead to a later development of creativity in the cocktail area, a wave that would last until the 1980s. After the diminishing of the cocktail craze, several interview participants cited the “myopic” landscape of alcohol at the time as the impetus for the early 2000s development of craft beer titans such as Sam Adams and Boulevard, along with a glut of homebrewers. Finally, as the craft beer world continued to grow towards the point of saturation in the early 2010s, the eyes of the alcohol world began to turn towards harder stuff, unearthing or recreating recipes and brands that had been dormant since the Roaring 20s.

Nowadays, craft distilling has firmly established itself as its own industry. Many groups have risen out of pre-Prohibition or Prohibition-era establishments or brands, with others are creating their own new innovations to drive the industry forward. Many brands have worked to grow their small-time productions into regional fixtures, often with visions for greater expansion. As this industry continues to grow and evolve, the question of “what is craft?” will become increasingly relevant, leading to a far greater need for deeper exploration and insights to guide the craft spirits world into the future.