The craft distilleries movement
Distillation is the process of separating ethanol from its vessel (fermentation) by evaporation. The process is both complex and fascinating, but the production of ethanol itself, by the means of sugar fermentation, is actually 9000 years old. Indeed, archaeologists found traces of fermented fruits in clay pots in China, bringing us back to the Neolithic. The intoxicating effect of alcohol has been known and used for thousands of years and has brought masses to rebellion whether it be for or against its use. Spirits can be a poison, we all know someone who suffers(ed) from it, but it has also been used to save lives to disinfect wounds or in medicinal concoctions with plants; think about Tonic to fight malaria or rum grogs to combat scurvy. One cannot imagine life without ethanol; it was used as lamp fuel from 1840 and Ford’s model T could run either on fuel or ethanol! Spirits are all about passion, fear and legends, it is part of our history as human beings, the Arabs brought distillation to southern Europe 1000 years ago.
Which brings us to today, thanks to a global resurgence of the passion of craft, the know-how that was lost during a time of fierce globalization has slowly made its way back into our lives. First mocked by many as a flash trend vowed to disappear, it has settled in our daily lives and people now take pride in doing things the right way, with patience and dedication. I find it to be a beautiful movement, maybe it is because I grew up as the son of farmers making traditional French cheese, but it is also because, with time and dedication, you can hardly go wrong.
Another beautiful thing that this movement has brought us is mass education. I am willing to bet that most of you did not really know how spirits were made 5 to 10 years ago, or what was the distinction between vodka and gin, between bourbon and scotch; now all these craftsmen have a voice and people drive long distances just to hear them speak and this, by itself, is the victory of knowledge.
Even though we have made big improvements since Prohibition, there is still a long way to go. Spirits have always been at the center of a tax war and have gone through times of free market to times of heavy regulated market. The Old Tom Gin was actually the result of a very regulated market in the United Kingdom where wholesalers used to cut ethanol with all kinds of acids and water, while also using sugar and additives to hide the terrible taste of this low grade booze. Thanks to an efficient food control board, these practices are now forbidden, but craft spirits remain “elitist” because of their high price point. The production of craft spirits is 3 to 5 times more expensive than industrial spirits so, with the heavy taxes, some distilleries just don’t have any other choice than to cut corners and mix industrial ingredients using craft processes to make ends meet. Hopefully governments will open doors to a fairer competition between real craft distilleries and the spirits giants, but it also goes back to education; once the consumer can make an informed choice, craft distilleries will thrive.
Quality over quantity, above all.