The American Craft Spirits Association represents independent licensed distillers across the U.S. (Photo: American Craft Spirits Association/Facebook.)

Words have weight, until they don’t anymore. A college friend once shared a bit of personal philosophy: “My father taught me that the word ‘awesome’ was reserved for God and the USC football team.” As a Stanford grad, I might take issue with her latter assertion, but it’s nice to know that she would never refer to the advent of Starbucks pumpkin latte season as an “awesome” development. That word, in its all-too-common usage, has definitely lost much of its impact.

The same can be said for the booze-industry buzzword “craft,” which has probably outlived its usefulness as a descriptor of spirits and beer.

The brewing industry was the first to embrace the term in the mid-1980s, primarily to differentiate smaller, locally marketed breweries that used traditional methods and ingredients (operations now commonly called craft brewers) from the mega breweries at Budweiser, Miller, Coors and that ilk. However, there was already pushback against the term by the middle of the next decade, as breweries like Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams reveled in their crafty status while growing to the point of surpassing the million-barrels-per-year mark.

In the world of distilling, “craft” is a newer term, although no less controversial. Several class-action lawsuits have been filed against producers such as Tito’s and Maker’s Mark over their use of terms like “handmade” and “handcrafted,” although eventually the manufacturers prevailed or the suits were thrown out of court. Even though one of the industry’s major trade associations has the word “craft” in its name, there is still plenty of discussion about what the term actually means.

A group of distillers came together recently to discuss the topic as part of BevCon, a major beverage-industry conference in Charleston, South Carolina. Noted spirits writer Lew Bryson moderated a panel that featured Christian Krogstad from House Spirits, Paul Hletko of Few Spirits, Lance Winters from St. George and Scott Blackwell of Charleston’s own High Wire Distilling. While the debate was spirited, the general consensus was that it may just be time to lead the term “craft” behind the barn like Old Yeller.

Moderator Bryson was pretty explicit in his assessment: “Craft is dead! Find another term.” While it used to at least be useful to marketers and statisticians trying to carve out segments of the overall beer market, Bryson asserted that the term devolved into describing the producer instead of the product sometime around 2006. “The term is now of limited utility,” he said. “You’ll only end up fighting over it.”

“The term tells the consumer in five letters whatever it is that they are looking to hear. They want the people making the product to be artisans — so small that they are not making enough money to feed their families.” —Paul Hletko of Few Spirits

House Spirits’ Krogstad agreed that the term has become quite murky, and compared it to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of pornography: “I can’t exactly define craft, but I know it when I see it.” Despite the fact that his Aviation American gin is often described in the press as a craft product, he feels the word has been “diluted and deluded.” Kragstad suggested that it is up to the customer to decide what is craft and what is not. “Aviation used to be our favorite product. Now it’s the consumer’s product.”

Few Spirits’ Hletko also put the responsibility in the hands of the drinker instead of the distiller, but he further noted that producers must be open and honest about their processes and ingredients for the consumer to make an informed decision. “Craft is in the eye of the beholder,  but they need truthful, honest information to make that assessment.” Left to their own devices, Hletko joked, producers like him will describe craft as “exactly what I’m doing as opposed to everyone else in the industry.”

St. George’s Winters entered the industry 34 years ago, long before anyone was calling themselves craft anything. He described the need for honesty in advertising as a health and welfare issue. “This is a product that you’re going to be putting in your body!” In his case, “craft can be defined as idiocy.” He distills St. George California Agricole Rum, a product made from sugar cane instead of molasses that costs 100 times more to make than traditional rum. The result is a robust and grassy spirit that he called “super funky, the Rick James of rum.”

But the extra effort and expense of creating something unique is its own reward, even if it’s not a huge moneymaker. “That’s why we do it. It inspires the creator. Artistic expression is more truthful when it comes from internal inspiration.” In the end, Winters clung to that old cliché: The proof is in the product. “If you can’t get it through the tasting, ‘craft’ doesn’t matter at all.”

High Wire’s Blackwell was the relative newcomer to the industry with only three years of experience after a career spent in the food business. In his former gig, he had already grown suspicious of overused terms that had been co-opted by marketers. “We avoid words like ‘gourmet,’ ‘specialty,’ ‘small batch’ and ‘artisan.’ We prefer to just refer to ourselves as what we are, a small distillery.”

Paul Hletko (left) of Few Spirits and Scott Blackwell (right) of High Wire Distilling discuss the merits of the “craft” label during Bev Con in Charleston, South Carolina.

Blackwell compared the spirits label debate to the struggles that the music industry is going through to carve out specific artists by genre. “What is Lyle Lovett? Is he country? Americana? He is what he is, and ‘craft’ is about the action, not about the words.” Pragmatically, Blackwell described craft as “useful shorthand. It’s how you convince someone that there is value in the category that is worth paying extra for.”

Hletko agreed, albeit more cynically. “The term tells the consumer in five letters whatever it is that they are looking to hear. They want the people making the product to be artisans — so small that they are not making enough money to feed their families.”

If the BevCon debate proves anything, it’s that labels still matter. But if the “craft” label is truly dead, then how do indie distillers distinguish themselves from the conglomerates of Big Booze? According to Bryson, the “ideals are still worth fighting for” even if the term itself is bunk. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon these producers to make high-quality elixirs that stand out on their own merit, regardless of the marketing language on the bottle.

That’s how you become the Sierra Nevada of craft spirits — or whatever you want to call it.