Vancouver is undergoing a craft distillery revolution right now so we asked one of its major players from the Liberty Distillery to give us an Instant Expert masterclass.
Lisa Simpson, MBA is a former international trade consultant, culinary/pastry chef turned corporate finance guru, who in 2010 turned her passion for spirits into a year of distillation study attending courses at the American Distilling institute, Michigan State University, and the Seibel Institute before co-founding The Liberty Distillery on Granville Island, BC with her husband Robert Simpson.
Micro, Nano, Craft, Artisan, Small Batch, Hand Crafted... all suggest the same thing to the consumer who enjoys spirits AND supporting local small business. But do these descriptors carry the same meaning? Phrases like "hand-crafted" and "hand-made" may be good marketing, but legally they carry no weight, in fact there are no rules or basic requirements by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on spirit labels to define 'Craft' to prevent misleading claims on labels. The sad truth is that today's spirit movement favours the concept of 'grain to glass' yet the word 'craft' can be found on labels from any 'crafty' spirit producer.
So how do you find out which is craft? Is there a definitive definition? The short answer is no, standards of identity are not consistent from country to country and province to province, let alone between distillers and within the craft industry itself. The devil is in the details and it's best to ask "what's inside the bottle? how was it produced?" so that you learn and then can decide for yourself. But first the basics - what do you need to know?
BC Craft Spirits Basics:
The Province of BC defines and awards a Craft Designation to distilleries that meet the following criteria: All products are fermented and distilled at a licensed distillery using 100% BC agricultural inputs. Products must be produced utilizing traditional distilled spirit making techniques. The use of neutral grain spirits in production is not permitted. Total annual production cannot exceed 50,000 litres/year. Currently there are no legal or mandatory labels in Canada which tell you whether it's a genuine Craft spirit, although the Craft Distiller's Guild of BC is working with the provincial government to change that and establish a VQA equivalent.
Some craft distilleries use neutral grain spirit ("NGS") which are bulk spirits typically made from genetically modified corn manufactured by industrial distilleries and then re-distilled. 90% of field corn planted in the U.S. is genetically modified. The key here - as always - is to ask questions or do a little research; look at their website, do they have production pictures? You're looking for a mash tun, fermenter and raw materials!
Visiting a distillery? Here's how to spot a grain-to-glass distillery:
The quickest way to determine if NGS is used at a distillery or not is to look for a fermenter on-site and count the number of plates on the distillery's rectification column(s) - it takes a minimum of 16 plates to achieve a clean pure vodka of 95% alc./vol.
So - armed with that basic knowledge, start asking questions before you buy. Sure, distillers may share a common passion but not necessarily the same education, skills, technical practices, or years of experience. Roughly speaking distillers can be split into two groups: those who start with raw materials, and those who start with a neutral grain spirit made by someone else, then add other ingredients and market it as their own.
To be clear: the argument is not whether products using bulk neutral grain spirit are good or not; the argument is around transparency to the consumer. If you buy what you believe to be a hand-made, hand-crafted bottle of spirits - created from grain to glass - that is exactly what you should get. If small craft producers are to survive, a policy of honesty and transparency needs to be adopted that allows the buying public to know exactly what they are getting and how it was produced.
This is important because the craft industry in Canada (as in the USA) is going through explosive growth right now, which represents economic benefits: creation of new jobs, invigorating local communities and more specifically, agro-culture and tourism in BC, provided that the spirits produced use raw materials grown in their local region. It also means exciting times for consumers who'll be able to taste and buy new made-in-BC products.
Alas, distinguishing what is truly local and craft-produced from what is 'crafty' will take time. Identifying what is (or is not) craft will be determined by the savvy consumer who educates themselves about what they are paying for. Ask questions! Find out what you're buying - the true craft distiller will be more than happy to tell you everything about their beloved products.