What are craft spirits?

The craft spirits market in the US is young and growing quickly. Starting from next to nothing ten years ago, craft spirits were 2.2% of the spirits market in 2015 (using the broad ACSA definition). That same year there were almost 1300 craft spirit producers, which has been growing at a 16% compound annual growth rate since 2007. Some of those newly issued distilled spirits plant (DSP) permit holders may not have started production or may not have product ready to sell, but those are still some impressive numbers.


That kind of growth is fantastic for producers, distributors and retailers — and consumers who now have more opportunities to go beyond well-known national brands and try more locally produced artisan brands. It also raises the obvious question of what exactly makes something a craft spirit?


Craft Brewers Led the Way


Craft brewers got a much earlier start and growth picked up in 1976 after a tax cut on the first 60,000 barrels sold, as long as the brewery produced fewer than 2 million barrels a year. The market took off again after going mainstream in the 1900s when The New York Times and others started publishing stories about microbreweries.


Looking back, craft beers in the 1990s looked a lot like the craft spirits market of today as craft beer was also about 2% of total sales back then, today it’s around 12% of total beer sales and growing.


Those of us drinking beer in those earlier days could have pretty easily identified what was craft or not. But it wasn’t until 2005 that the newly formed Brewers Association defined a craft brewer as (1) an independent company, (2) making two million barrels or less, and (3) using traditional ingredients and methods. That definition was updated in 2014 – with lots of controversy – to six million barrels and there’s more “flexibility” on ingredients. (add link)


Defining Craft Spirits


The most well known definition of the emerging craft spirits market comes from the American Distilling Institute (ADI), which looks to have used the Brewers Association as inspiration. The ADI’s definition is sure to be debated and modified over time too, and there’s already a separate certification for craft blenders. But this ADI certification of craft distilled spirits is a start:


  • Distilled by the DSP: The spirit must have been run through a still by a certified craft producer, and the TTB-approved label must state “Distilled By” followed by the name of the distilled spirits plant.
  • Independently-Owned: Less than 25% of the craft distillery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by alcoholic beverage industry members who are not themselves craft distillers.
  • Small-Scale: Maximum annual sales are less than 100,000 proof gallons.
  • Hands-on Production: Craft distillers produce spirits that reflect the vision of their principal distillers using any combination of traditional or innovative techniques including fermenting, distilling, re-distilling, blending, infusing or warehousing.


Another way to identify craft spirits is to rely on your common sense and your gut and, to paraphrase the late US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “to know it when you see it.


The emphasis is on authenticity and craft. We humans have a historical and innate sense of when something is made by a craftsman or craftswoman. We can see and appreciate craftsmen’s direct involvement in the creation and production, a combination of art and science, of the final product. We can sense that something is lovingly and carefully handmade, and that it embodies the maker and where it was made – what the French call terroir. This is just as true with today’s craft spirits as it is with cheese, coffee and wine.


So use all your senses and your knowledge, explore and try new things, and enjoy yourself. At a time when everyone is increasingly aware of the dangers of over imbibing, there’s no better time to make what you do choose to drink really count!