Diageo’s recent announcement to build a new big whisky distillery next to Teaninich has again – much like it was the case with Roseisle some years ago – prompted a wave of disapproval among whisky geeks. Many regard such huge complexes as soulless factories that threaten the traditional ‘”crafty'”or “artisanal” way of making whisky. Connected with this is the fear of smaller distilleries being closed should the current whisky boom fade away again.
This fear is certainly understandable, after all we saw a quite a number of new distilleries being built and others expanded in the 1960s and early 1970s; and we all know what happened in the economic crisis of the early 1980s. So far the whisky industry assures that this will not be the case anymore, but who knows what bean counters in the head offices will say should things really become tough.
But the notion that smaller, independent, “traditional” “craft” distilleries make whisky that is somehow superior to that of big conglomerate-owned ones is more a romantic myth than a fact.
A Look Outside The Box
In many areas the “craft is better than industry” notion is certainly true. But this is not universal and cannot be used as a rule of thumb. Furthermore, in many cases there aren’t even any “craft” products, and in others the “craft” concept is something entirely different than the one meant here.
Have you ever heard of a “craft” mobile phone? There aren’t any small corner shops where quality mobile phones are lovingly assembled by hand in the back room by skilled phonemakers. No, our Samsungs, iPhones, Blackberrys and whatnots are manufactured in huge industrial complexes, often in China and other “cheap” countries and often under dubious working conditions. Nobody cares as long as the the price is right.
Or take a look at the automotive industry. This has been one of the pioneers of massive industrialization, with the number of employees going into the hundreds of thousands sometimes. Some of the biggest brands here have the reputation of supplying very high quality. “Craft” cars? Yes there are some. Small manufacturers of luxury sports cars in the price range of €200,000 and above…
More related to whisky of course is the food industry. Here indeed we often find that industrial food products are inferior to those of small artisanal producers, not to mention the long list of scandals that keep popping up on a regular basis.
Now why are industrial food products often not as good as artisanal ones? The main reason certainly is that high production volumes and cost pressure often lead to the use of inferior ingredients, cheap substitutes and additives that would not be used in home cooking or in a good restaurant. With bad ingredients you cannot make good food, it is as simple as that.
The size of the production facility is only an indirect culprit here because the use of machines may require the use of additives like it is common in baking. But if traditional recipes and high quality ingredients are used, even big industrial producers can make high quality food. The real problem here is that high quality costs more, and with the volumes they are producing it is difficult to find enough buyers willing to pay the price. Thus, many producers try to maximize their sales by offering their products as cheap as possible in this cut-throat market.
How Regulations And Scalability Blur The Line Between Craft And Industry Whisky
Let’s take a look at whisky now. In a country like India where practically anything is allowed to be called whisky, the market is dominated by cheap rotgut. But traditional whisky producing countries have very strict regulations about ingredients and maturation that ensure whisky is made in accordance with tradition.
Proper whisky is made with grain, water and yeast without additives (forget about E150a for a moment…) and nothing else. The production process for malt whisky is essentially the same from Kilchoman and Edradour (“craft”) to Glenfiddich and Roseisle (“industry”). Granted, probably nobody outside of Diageo has ever tasted the Roseisle whisky yet which is 3 years old now. But the newmake is excellent, and provided good casks are used, the whisky should be of the same good quality as other Scotch single malts.
The people fearing a quality loss from big and modern distillieries should keep in mind that whisky production is completely scalable. A distillery with seven pairs of stills is nothing else than seven distilleries in the same building. As long as the raw products are of high quality, the volume has nothing to do with the quality of the spirit.
What about automation? Big and highly automated distilleries like Caol Ila or Laphroaig have proven to produce excellent whisky. On the other side there are less automated (“craftier”?) ones like Edradour or Glenturret whose whiskies often get less than enthusiastic reviews. Today most distilleries have some degree of automation or at least computer control anyway, so this does not seem to be much of an influential factor.
To take this one step further, just look at the grain whisky distilleries. Complexes like Cameronbridge are much bigger than the biggest malt whisky distilleries, and compared to the production process there, places like Roseisle look cozy. But yet, this industrial grain whisky can taste superb, if aged in a good cask.
Of course the casks play a role as well. An increase of whisky production can only work, if enough quality casks are around. Otherwise the quality of the whisky will suffer. But this is something time will tell; if Diageo had announced to build 10 small new distilleries, the anoraks very likely would have been less sceptical, but the cask issue would have been exactly the same.
And where exactly is the line between “craft” and “industry” in whisky? Things are getting pretty fuzzy. If you compare the whisky industry to other industries, even the biggest distilleries are small both in output and workforce. Let’s not talk about the true giants like Volkswagen or Apple, but also if you compare them say to the biggest breweries, they look like dwarves.
On the other hand, even the small “traditional” malt whisky distilleries have always been industrial because they all owe their existence to blended whisky. Single malt as we love it today was a very rare product in the past. Even today more than 90% of all Scotch whisky is blended.
It’s Not Size That Matters But The Philosophy
Yes, today we have quite a few small and independent whisky distilleries that don’t play the blend game. But they don’t make better whisky than the big players who also have distilleries in their portfolios that are just as small as them.
A “craft” or “artisan” approach to whisky making is pretty much unrelated to the size of the distillery or the level of automation. Much bigger factors are things like cask management, product range and also marketing, questions like “Do we want to please as many people as possible or do we want to offer unique products that set us apart from our competitors?” or “Is there anything beyond profit maximization?”. If “craft” only means “We make the same stuff the big ones make but only less, and we don’t hire an advertising agency.” it would not make much of a difference.
Let’s face it, the whisky industry in its entirety does not exist to supply us geeks with single cask whisky, we just benefit from the incredible variety this business has to offer. They want and need to sell their whisky – both blends and single malts – to the millions of casual drinkers in the world who do not care at all how many stills a distillery has.