The commercialisation of craft

Vodka, though, is different. Kersley picks up the point: “What I really disagree with is craft vodka. It can be vodka purchased at a cost of £1 a litre approximately, diluted, redistilled, diluted again and bottled. I think that’s an abuse of the craft definition, as there’s very little the distillery is doing in terms of crafting the spirit.” Rook agrees: “Rectifying just polishes out flavour. They don’t do enough to justify £30-£35 a bottle. We won’t make vodka until we buy the equipment to make it [from scratch].”


Because craft is open to interpretation in production terms, some spirits companies have avoided it altogether. The 86 Company from the US was an early adopter of plain English. Targeted at bartenders this could be the future for the packaging and marketing of spirits.

“The 86 Co is doing its best to avoid misleading or meaningless marketing terms to sell our spirits and by providing as much useful and honest information as possible,” says company co-founder Simon Ford. “Before we’d even made our first spirit we wanted to create a culture of transparency, create labels with information a professional bartender would want to know and we wanted to cut out the marketing jargon. 

“I couldn’t find any reason to use terms such as craft, artisanal, small-batch, handmade or some of the older and fancier terms such as ‘deluxe’ and ‘prestige’, because they don’t have common, defined meanings that everyone fully understands. All those terms paint nice pictures for the consumer so I understand why marketers use them, but I want to use the brief moments we get to communicate about our products to educate people.”


The market for craft exists, so how do big companies get in on a trend that their global brands can’t easily satisfy? Diageo and Pernod Ricard have clearly thought this through. 

Pernod Ricard has collaborated with entrepreneur Åsa Caap with the brand Our/Vodka. Caap’s idea was to develop a local vodka brand, using local ingredients and involving local entrepreneurs. She was working with Absolut when she made the observation: “Everything was about local. I had to put it to one side – it was not something for Absolut. But I started to think of a global brand truly relevant to local senses. You cannot cheat on local”. 

Meanwhile Diageo was busy with its own strategy. It launched Distil Ventures in 2013 – a semi-autonomous arm that invests in start-up spirits businesses, helping them with costs along the way but pre-agreeing a buy-out option at a pre-agreed time. Frank Lampen, the chief tasting officer, says the strategy has two struts: to target specific areas of the spirits business “that will develop over the next five-10 years” and to be a “low-cost and low-risk way of placing a side bet in areas Diageo might not be in”.  

At the heart of this operation is the appreciation that a spirit brand’s independence is key to the consumer appeal, so Diageo’s shareholdings remain a minority, up until it might decide to buy the company out – which is no given. With investment projects now into double figures, it is paradoxically a targeted yet scatter-gun approach. There are two ways to look at this.

The anti-big business argument might venture that Diageo is using its wealth and might to cherry pick successful small businesses, buying them out at what could be a lower than market rate. The counter would be that Diageo takes on the risk and cost of supporting these businesses, and so long as they remain automatous and insulated from corporate targets, their investment and expertise act as a vital leg-up in the most difficult phase of a business’s growth.