Pure Gould on what it means to be handcrafted

Patience Gould looks at a titan of the vodka world and how its ‘handcrafted’ approach is appealing to the Millennial generation

It would seem that the single most important and potent word in the marketing-speak vocabulary at the moment is ‘handcrafted’. For some extraordinary reason it makes the product or brand more worthy than its mass-produced counterpart and if you are able to add two more words, ‘locally produced’, the whole statement practically guarantees instant fame and fortune.

So what does it mean? Well, literally, handcrafted is a variant of ‘handicraft’ and means fashioned by hand. So why would that alone instantly boost a brand’s credibility?  The most probable reason is that it makes the purchaser, ergo the consumer, feel good and whether that’s to do with the notion of supporting the ‘local’ community or something to do with a sense of history or indeed feeling that you are supporting the ‘smaller’, more artisanal producer is a moot point, but nevertheless it means that the consumer has instant connectivity.

I have to say I’m with Germaine Greer on this one when she said that seeing the word ‘craft’ always made her feel slightly nauseous – poor woman, because these days it must be an ongoing sensation. I mention all this because, along with the dreaded ‘organic’, it’s been a growing trend in the food world for some years and now it’s spilling into the drinks arena.

Indeed the avalanche of microdistilled this and that which is sweeping the US has prompted a Rabobank Global Spirits Report Q2 2015 to note that: “Consumers are looking for new experiences, and Millennials (also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y) especially are pushing the boundaries of the sector in an effort to find new brands and products. 

“In the US, the shift in consumer behaviour is mirrored by the rapid rise of craft spirits, and is creating structural challenges for established spirits players. The rapid rise of upstart brands, like Tito’s Handmade (vodka) and Templeton rye, have fuelled discussions among major distillers and craft spirits producers alike.”

To date these discussions have focused mostly on the definition of ‘craft’ – wouldn’t you know – but in Rabobank’s view it’s essential that spirit producers sit up and take note that the US consumer is changing, and that they need to “figure out how to tackle the structural changes following from that”. 

So what is so special about Tito’s Handmade (read handcrafted) vodka – what is the attraction here, and why is this brand beginning to upset other producers? 

Tito is a Texan, who used to be in the oil industry, and has turned his attentions and undoubted talents to vodka – and it looks like he’s struck it very lucky.

 As a brand of vodka Tito’s could not be more different to that other marketing vodka sensation which was Grey Goose – the super-premium contender that made history when Bacardi acquired it from Sydney Frank for over US $2bn back in 1994. In those days Grey Goose was the order of the day and sales, in spite of its US$30 price tag, boomed – it was a question of the brand you order says more about you than money ever can.

Line extensions, including a cognac/vodka combi weighing in at US$74, are all geared to bolster the brand’s progress Stateside after a 5% slide back in 2013, but it has to be said that the multi-million dollar Fly Beyond campaign is curiously out of sync with today’s consumers, who are really buying into the Texan ‘homespunness’ of Tito’s Handmade brew, which costs an attractive, not to say competitive, US$20 a bottle. 

Just consider the offerings on its website store, I hasten to add these are not for Ms Greer’s eyes as she would be feeling more than just nauseous. 

You can buy a VFDP (that is Vodkafordogpeople) 32oz dog water bowl on the premise that “you aren’t drinking alone if your dog is around right?”. Or a set of 12x16oz mason jar mugs, billed as “perfect for Tito’s Handmade vodka’s handcrafted cocktails (there’s that word again)”, or Tito’s Custom Copper Mug so that you can “learn to be a master and maybe one day you can take Tito on”. 

Apparently there are several folk who would like to do just that, and some are beginning to question Tito’s ‘handmade’ claim, which is not surprising if you look at the brand’s figures. 

Total volume last year was just under the 2m case mark, a colossal increase on its 200,000 case tally back in 2007.

All of which sounds very homespun and handcrafted. And way outside the production capacity of the original 16 gallon pot still. Success means that Tito’s Handmade is now produced on a 26-acre production site that boasts 10 floor-to-ceiling stills and, for however long you discuss the meaning of ‘handcrafted’, the final definition would never encompass the growing size of this operation. 

Tito has his work cut out – but in the meantime it’s all hands to the handcrafted pump.