Ethical Concept: Craft Vodka

Consumers love ‘craft’, but are producers abusing the notion? Holly Hotion investigates


THE DEFINITION OF ‘CRAFT’ is fluid and as such is open to misuse and abuse. “The industry is struggling to put a lasting definition on ‘craft’,” says Adam Rogers, manager of information services at Beverage Information Group. 

“In one way, the concept is being used as a catchphrase to lure consumers to purchase. This is why so many products are encountering class action lawsuits claiming that they are not handmade or small batch.”  

Thankfully, for American Craft Spirits Association president Thomas Mooney, the concept is rock solid – a craft distiller is one who actually produces something, who is smaller than the industry’s largest players, is independent and operates with the highest ethical standards. 

Rock solid, but there is room for adjustment at the margins, Mooney says. “The 315,000 9-litre-case volume limit will one day be too small because of market growth and the evolution of the craft segment.”

Not quite as rock solid as initially thought. It’s easy to see why a 26-acre operation that produced 850,000 cases last year, raking in an estimated $85m in revenue, is being asked to justify its handmade claim. 

Some think taking the craft method and multiplying it on a larger scale bastardises the notion of handmade, whereas others are more amenable. 

Lucy Shannon, global brand manager at Reyka – a small batch vodka hand-crafted in Iceland, according to its bottle – says: “It is a very delicate subject and I think where craft excels is when it is honest. 

“Brands such as Hermes have been successful as they have consistently communicated their brand presence within that category. They do it so beautifully at scale but it hasn’t damaged the brand.”

Craft vodka contributes only 0.3% to total US vodka sales. Whiskey and gin each contribute 2% of sales in their respective categories, according to ACSA. 

A tiny slice of the action, but analysts predict that craft spirits will contribute at least 10% of industry volume within a decade.

Vodka’s growth is less encouraging, according to Mooney. “Most craft distillers see little reason to go into a declining category due to tremendous disadvantages in terms of marketing and distribution, where product differentiation is marginal at best.” 

The ACSA asks its members to lead by example and says it “works to diligently resolve” any misleading statement but acknowledges there is work to be done to tackle the issue. Mooney adds: “There is rampant abuse of the terms ‘craft’, ‘small batch’, ‘artisan’ and ‘handmade’ among others. And, producers large and small have chosen to mislead.” 

Craft is powerful and signs indicate it will continue to gain in popularity as a counter culture and a desire for higher quality prevails. 

If producers and consumers alike struggle with the definition of craft and handmade, perhaps quality will
be the focus rather than costly battles on a “rock solid” meaning that is, at best, permeable.