Distilling 101: How Craft Is The Bottle You’re Drinking?

We all know it. When it comes to alcohol the word ‘craft’ is often misused, misunderstood and misrepresented. The world of distilling might honestly be the most confusing of all. Why? Well, because there are a lot of different ways to get that liquid in the bottle.

Depending on your own personal values and definition of craft, they may not all be up to your standards. While we’re certainly not here to judge, The Crafty Cask IS here to help clear up confusion and give all of you the information you need to make your own craft sipping decisions. And, of course, it’s important that you know where we stand on these topics as well. We appreciate you turning to us for your craft alcohol stories, education and entertainment so we want to make sure you can always trust us. What’s a relationship without trust, right? So let’s jump into the sticky spirits debate and talk about the different distilling approaches…

First things first. Let’s define the broad spectrum of making distilled spirits. The approaches across this spectrum that we’ll be exploring today range from: Purchasing to Contracting to Distilling yourself. And even within those endpoints and middle point there are nuances. One key point to remember, the word craft itself is not regulated and therefore not really believable. So if you want to make sure you’re drinking craft the information we’re sharing here will help you get there. Sorry it isn’t easier, but this is going to be a fun one for you alcohol geeks (like us!) out there. Ok, grab your favorite craft spirit, pour yourself a drink and keep that bottle close. Then let’s figure out where they actually fall on this spectrum, shall we?

Purchasing Finished Spirit

Generic Spirits Label

While some of these may certainly be delicious, there is nothing craft about that particular branded product. And since it’s pretty hard to find out who actually made the liquid and if they used any craft methods themselves it’s pretty safe to say that this is not craft…at least not in our book. It’s highly unlikely that the actual producer is using craft methods since a big motivation behind this approach is to keep costs down. I can confidently say that you will never hear about a product from us that fits in this category. Worried you may be buying a product like this? Look at the back label – if it simply says “produced by” or “bottled by” you know it’s really just a marketing game for that particular product.

Side Note! Brands vs. Products

Did you pick that up? I said product, not brand…because, honestly, it’s important to note that there are many brands that have products that fall across the spectrum of production methods we’re talking about today. So they may have a seed to spirit vodka but a fully purchased whiskey. At least for a while. Why? Well, it takes some time to make good whiskey. So some newbie distilleries may choose to buy a spirit they love to have a whiskey right when they open. In the meanwhile they may be raising capital for barrels and may, indeed, be working on creating a truly craft whiskey themselves to launch in 5 years or so.

We personally don’t love this strategy though and wouldn’t ever advise distillers to go this route. Understanding the rationale, though, can help you see that these production decisions are not as black and white as it may fist appear. That being said, I’d rather they jump to this next production method at the very least…

Purchasing Neutral Grain Spirit

Generic Bottle of Spirits

Neutral Grain Spirit, or NGS, is often viewed as a dirty word in the spirits industry (outside of Gin, because every Gin has to start as a neutral grain spirit legally). But I think it deserves a little understanding before you make your own decision. Instead of buying a finished spirit that’s ready to sell, this is when a distiller purchases the base alcohol for the spirit they plan to create. So a clear, neutral flavor spirit made from any of the commonly used grains or ingredients used in alcohol distillation (wheat, corn, potato, grape, a blend of a few, etc…).

Now, what can they do with NGS to make it fit the craft definition? Well, if they’re adding flavoring elements (gin) or doing any barrel aging or blending they are using expertise, art and science to create a finished product. It might be helpful to revisit The Crafty Cask definition of craft. We consider them craft as long as the distiller is independently owned, the owners live within driving distance of their distillery (hands-on is key!) and there’s some level of art on top of the science (all machinery with no judgment is not craft).

So starting with a base spirit and then layering on craft and focusing your energy where your passionate is not a problem to us. Especially since even selecting the base spirit takes some art and judgment itself. Not all NGS is not created equal. I, for example really prefer corn NGS to grape NGS as a base when I’ve tried them straight…but I have no clue if corn NGS would make a better gin for my palette than grape would! That’s what my friendly craft distillers are for. When it comes to shopping, these bottles will typically say “blended by” or “made by” because while they didn’t distill the spirit they did something else to it beyond just bottling or producing it. In the case of Gin, however, often the producer is actually redistilling as well.

Contract Distilling

Hands Shaking - Collaboration

Contract Distilling is the best of both worlds for newly starting out distilleries, in my opinion. It helps them keep their start-up costs low but also gives them more input and influence into the final spirit. Essentially contract distilling is when distiller A asks Distiller B, who has their own in-house distillery to make their spirit for them. Distiller A gets input and Distiller B gets to experiment to make something different and new. Win-win! Sometimes this could simply be a partnership to create that base, NGS-like, spirit with a bit more input. Other times it could be a more complete production collaboration with Distillery B not only creating the liquid, but also helping with the blending, flavoring and aging in accordance with Distillery A’s input. Usually it’s somewhere in between those extremes. This is also a great way for Distillery A to learn before investing in their own distillery.

Now, to be clear, you won’t know who distillery B is because NDAs and contracts are signed to keep their brand name out of it. It’s truly just paying them for their expertise and resources. These bottles, similarly to the last category will often say “blended by” or “made by” or sometimes “bottled by” if they truly leaned on Distiller B to do everything for them (with their input & guidance along the way). As you can see – it gets a little tricky to figure out who’s who in the zoo with this stuff! That’s why we always encourage you to visit the distillery or tasting room and ask all of these questions yourself to really know. Or drop us a line and ask and we’ll figure it out for you.

This is one of many types of collaborations that occur in the craft alcohol world. But that word gets misused a lot too.  We’ll be doing a whole piece on “collaboration” in a future editorial piece, so stay tuned for that (video sneak peek on whiskey/beer collaborations here)!

In-House Distilling

Hand Drawn Still

This one is pretty straightforward. The brand on the label is also the same people distilling the spirit. Usually their stills are on site with the rest of their operations and they have a distiller on their payroll. This, is what most people think of when they’re drinking a distilled spirit. As you can see, however, there are lots of other ways to get that spirit into your bottle. When shopping for bottles the back label will always say “distilled by.” Often it will say “distilled and bottled by” if they have the whole operation in-house.

Keep in mind just because you have stills in-house doesn’t mean your doing everything yourself. Technically they can still be starting with NGS to re-distill or they can move into one of the two higher levels of production we’ll jump into next…

Grain to Glass Distilling

Hand Drawn Steps of the Distilling Process

Ah, we’re getting to the holy grail. Or maybe the holy grain! This is what we all want craft spirits to be deep down. Visions of rolling fields of wheat under the slowly setting sun magically being turned into a golden whiskey sipped slowly from our glass. I blame it on the wine industry. Ha ha. All those visions of vineyards while sipping wine. Somehow breweries have been let off the hook – no one’s asking them about the strain of barley they’re using to make their beer! I wonder why that is? And keep in mind LOTS of wineries buy grapes and don’t grow them themselves…very similar to purchasing NGS in the spirits category. I digress.

This is similar to the farm to table movement in food. And, yes, there is something to be said for using local grains. Or those grains with a unique sense of that land’s terroir. It is important to note, that just because a distillery is grain to glass (or grape, corn, potato, etc…), it does not mean they are growing the grains themselves. It simply means they are choosing the grains, milling, mashing and eventually turning them into that spirit you love.  A lot more work, but it also means a lot more control over every single step of the process. Which many believe leads to a better final spirit.

I think of it like cooking. The higher quality ingredients you have and the closer to their pure form they are, the more flavor you can add at every step.

Seed to Spirit Distilling

Hand drawn grain seed varieties

Seed to spirit is something we’re starting to hear more and more about. I bet the grain to glass people were like, seriously?! But yes, we are serious…there are those overachievers who are taking it a step further. So far we’ve mostly seen this in the midwest where the majority of our country’s grains are grown. Which makes sense given the deep farming history there. Recently we featured a distiller, Silver Tree, who is doing this in IL. So to use them as an example, this typically starts with a distillery that has a deep family farming background. Not only do they grow their own grain or produce but they have also spent years perfecting the seeds. To the point where it has a unique flavor profile and is practically a proprietary strain.

Remember when heirloom tomatoes really became a thing? This is kind of the same thing. For generations all of our grains and produce have been so heavily mass produced that it really all tasted the same. But farmers are taking pride in their craft and starting to grow heirloom varieties and unique, proprietary strains of grains. I have to be honest, when I first started hearing about this it sounded like marketing games to me. But the vodkas I’ve tasted from Silver Tree and others doing this? And yes, I just said vodka…the simplest of simple spirits that supposedly taste like nothing? They’re incredible. More body, texture, flavor…to the point where I only sip my seed to spirit vodka straight. It’s that good!

The back label on both grain to glass and seed to spirit bottles will say “distilled by” or “distilled and bottled by.” Usually they’re so proud of these extra steps that you can find grain to glass or seed to spirit on their label as well.

So Should I Only Drink From The Top Of The Spectrum?!

No! Well, actually, it’s up to you. While it’s unrealistic to hold all craft distillers to this standard it is pretty special when you find the ones that are doing this and creating a special sip just for you. And yes, as you move up the spectrum the spirits may be a bit pricier…but think of how much extra effort they’re putting in? This is the kind of attention to the craft that is worth a slightly higher price.

So if you’re paying a bit more than you prefer for a bottle? Do your homework and make sure you’re not just paying for a brand name with some well-spun marketing story. That’s why we wanted to share all of this information with you. To ensure you’re getting those bottles that represent true craft, quality ingredients and just the right amount of extra effort for your palette!

As much as we would LOVE to see all craft distillers at the top two categories of grain to glass or seed to spirit it’s just not realistic at this point in the spirits category. Both from a financial perspective and from an agricultural/land availability perspective! Some of the other methods we discussed are, indeed, viable for newer distilleries to get started. And for some it’s the way they’ll always operate, and that’s ok. It’s simply important that you know what you’re drinking, are comfortable with the approach and think it’s delicious!

The Future of Spirits is Bright

The fun thing about these last two categories is that there’s potential to talk about spirits like we do wine. Know that you love Spirit Works’ Whiskey made from Red Winter Wheat in Sacramento Valley? Well now you can be on the lookout for other whiskeys using that grain to compare and contrast. Imagine the whole huge world of spirits differentiation and flavor profiles that will start to open up! It’s pretty exciting, even if it is a stretch goal for many distillers. But that’s ok – because we need great spirits at all price points. And some of those other approaches allow distillers to keep costs down while still creating amazing spirits for you to enjoy.

So did you figure out what production method the spirit you’re sipping on is likely using? We hope this was helpful as you dive deeper into the world of craft spirits. Remember, make sure to ask your bartenders about the local craft spirits just like you do with beer and wine. And then ask them about the distiller themselves or to look at the back of the bottle. It’s the only way you can learn, figure out what you like and what really matters to you in craft alcohol. There’s no right answer, but as those old-school PSAs always said, ? The More You Know… ?

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