With the recent surge of popularity in premium spirits, one could argue that there has never been a better time to purchase high-quality alcohol. Yet the irony is that it seems more confusing than ever for consumers to know exactly what they are buying.
By inspecting offerings at an average liquor store today, the customer is bombarded with buzzwords such as "small-batch" and "artisanal," but most shoppers can only assume what these terms actually mean. Because of the nature of what these words imply, many of us think that these phrases—and of course higher price tags—somehow signify quality.
... many of us assume that these phrases—and of course higher price tags—somehow signify quality.
Though it might come as a surprise, the reality of these words, and many others like them, is that they are absolutely meaningless. Although, the US government goes to great lengths to govern age statements and alcohol content, catchphrases like "small-batch" and "craft" are looked upon purely as marketing jargon. So, as consumers, how are we to know if this "craft" product is any better than the brands from our grandparents' liquor cabinet?
Veteran bartender Sean Kenyon of Williams & Graham in Denver ignores the hype behind branding and stocks his bar solely on the integrity of the spirit: "I think that superb quality amongst micro-distillers is more rare than it is prevalent. For example, I don't carry local spirits at Williams & Graham just because they are local. I carry quality spirits regardless of their place of origin."
This attitude is quite common among experts in the cocktail community because, although many of them wish to support the "underdog" in the distilling world, too often many of these brands do not yet have the necessary experience to put out a world-class product. But that doesn't meant that all small scale distillers are making bad booze. Two small producers with great juice are Portland, Oregon's House Spirits and New York's Brooklyn Distilling Company—however, there are plenty others that are selling a lackluster product.
"I want to support the little guy with a big vision down the street, but if he's charging twice as much for his early efforts ... I can't justify using him versus a brand that's been historically excellent for 200 years," states Joaquín Simó, proprietor of Pouring Ribbons in Manhattan. The issue becomes even more convoluted when one discovers that many of these self-professed "micro-distillers" don’t actually distill anything at all, and are simply buying their spirit on the open market as though it were a commodity, such as oil or natural gas. This has long been a tradition in the spirits world, but it becomes an issue of contention when a brand's identity as a "craft distiller" is the entire sales pitch.
This lack of transparency is only exacerbated when a "distiller," who claims to be one of the little guys, is actually buying liquor from one of the big distilleries and rebranding it under a different label. That is not to say that the spirit will taste bad, but it is unfortunate for the consumer who is duped into paying a higher price because of marketing.
... it is far too common for a large producer to market a bottle as premium despite the fact that it contains a bland and uninspired spirit.
"The fact is, a lot of these small distilleries have an awesome story behind them and that is the engine that drives sales, not the juice itself … So it's a question of the story or the actual juice. Ideally you should get both in the same bottle," says Ivy Mix, bartender of newbie Leyenda in Brooklyn.
However, this by no means allows the big boys off of the hook because it is far too common for a large producer to market a bottle as premium, despite the fact that it contains a bland and uninspired spirit. This is typically justified with a questionable tale artfully spun to encapsulate as many buzzwords as possible.
The overuse of misleading language is evidenced on everything from whiskey to vodka. And this proliferation of cryptic spirits labels shows no sign of stopping thanks to executives that strive to create a product which appeals to consumers who care about what they drink, yet are too busy to dive into the minutiae.
Unfortunately, this leaves much of the burden on consumers to navigate the fine print on the back of labels in attempt to ascertain who is truly making their hooch. However, if there is one lesson to learn here, it is that one should always make purchases based solely on the merits within the bottle and pay no mind to the marketing behind it.