What is a craft distillery?
You are not alone if you feel confused about what is a craft distillery. As ardent followers of all things craft there are many elements of craft that we have come to love, respect and also expect. When you think about craft distillers, a handful of names will surely come to mind. But what exactly do we mean by craft distilling?
In this article we shall tackle the question head-on, to shine a light on the hand-crafted elephant in the room. The answer may not be as straightforward as you may hope, but by the end of the article you will have the tools that you need to come to a clearer answer. So let’s get started by firstly unravelling the question.
The challenge of defining craft
Craft for us summons up that rare talent combining skill, imagination and passion, with the power to shake up an industry. Take the Riva boat builders of Italy for example, their iconic handmade wooden boats of the 1950s brought a new level of craft to the boating scene. They were so exquisitely crafted they easily seduced the celebrities of the day and acquired the status of design and lifestyle icons. Valued applications of skill, dedication and attention to detail. This same sense of authenticity inspired craft distillers to begin creating alternatives to the mass-produced sea of Saturday night tipples. It followed a general trend towards higher quality products that empowered artisan producers from all sectors to upscale and sell to larger markets.
Where the best premium gins, premium vodkas and single malt scotch whiskies had occupied the top steps, suddenly craft distillers offered something else, something more enticing, something more artisan. While the term craft gin has become a household term, defining what that means has apparently become more tricky than learning a craft itself.
It is commonly agreed that craft should be associated with quality, skill and hard work at the very least. Various associations and governing bodies around the world have tried to define what that means, with varying success. So rather than attempt a definitive gospel according to the Crafty Distillery, we shall explain what being a craft distillery means to us and why it’s important to you the customer.
Craft Distilling means doing things in-house
A craft distillery should be an extension of those people in-house who make the distillery what it is. It’s the people who answer the phone, the people who greet you when you visit, the people who run the stills, the people who developed the taste, the people who designed the brand and the people with the passion to drive it all forward.
This is what many of us think of when we consider a craft distillery that makes artisan and handmade spirits. It has everything to do with being hands-on and applying in-house skills rather than outsourcing the skills of others.
Why go to the effort to make handmade spirits?
Having all the necessary skill-sets in-house has many advantages. It has allowed us the freedom to be in charge of our own destiny, because we built it, researched it, developed it, designed it, sweated over every detail and distilled it, from start to finish. We challenged ourselves to do it this way because we did'nt want to be swayed or led, but wanted to forge our own path.
It’s not any easy approach, but very rewarding when you have total control over every aspect of the distillery, and can proudly say you truly crafted it. Our unique Hills & Harbour bottle is a great example. It’s something that we designed ourselves in-house. It would have been much easier to reach out to a proven design agency to help us, but we wanted to craft it, to challenge ourselves, to see what was possible and to create something unique.
Having a true hands-on approach brings many benefits for you too, because it has a big impact on quality, taste and value. For example we have unusually long fermentations of 68 hours for our Billy&Co Single Malt Scotch Whisky, which sounds crazy by commercial standards as it means we can only produce around half of our potential. Or the fact that for our Hills & Harbour Distilled Gin Cocktail, we burn 100s of kilos of fresh oranges with a blowtorch and smoke fresh pineapples by hand at the distillery for every single batch. Why?, because that's the only way to tease out the best flavour out of the fruit. We go to these lengths because quality and taste is our goal, and if it takes longer or costs more then that’s what craft demands.
Craft distilling means a sense of place
As much as craft spirits are about the people who make them, they are also about the place where they are made. We decided from the outset that we would also go the rare extra mile and craft our very own base spirit from local grain. To do this you need a lot more equipment, people, skill and time. Even our distillery is true Galloway through and through. We designed it in-house, in Galloway and without the use of an architect. It was constructed by a local man, the father of the distillery’s founder. The distillery building and visitor centre utilise local timber and materials that were all shaped by hand and came from a local saw mill. Something you will spot when you visit for a tour and a tipple.
Craft distilling means innovation
These important details point towards one further aspect of craft distilling – innovation. For a craft distillery innovation should only be used to improve taste, quality, accessibility, efficiency and sustainability. Never to cut corners.
A good example is the way we developed our spirits. It would have been easy to design the taste around a marketing niche or seek industry help. Instead we spent years learning and trialling recipes to get to a place we wanted to do something innovative, to ensure that we arrived at the kind of taste that was vibrant, but also accessible for all. To achieve this, we trialled the many gin recipes and whisky experiments with hundreds of the public. Based on their feedback we narrowed the taste profiles down to our final products. In this sense our spirits were designed by the people, for the people.
Passion, skill & innovation under one roof
So what is a craft distillery? We believe it is an amalgamation of the people, the place, the spirit. Bringing together passion, skill and innovation under one roof. Not taking the easy route or relying on the skills of others to build your craft story, spirit and experience. We're driven by our desire to bring new ideas and new approaches to the industry that can ultimately delight customers from all walks of life. And bring it all together with integrity and pride. Combined, this is what we call authenticity, which we can surely all agree is fundamental to being a craft distillery.