The Anti-Craft of Letherbee Distillers

  The Anti-Craft of Letherbee Distillers Interviewed by Calvin Fredrickson Brewers use the phrase “craft beer” to connote authenticity and quality. In recent years, other uses for the craft tag have been popularized. Craft coffee. Craft pizza. Craft cocktails. But you seem to resist that tag, and you’ve gone on record as calling Letherbee “anti-craft spirit craft spirit.” What do you mean by that? “Anti-craft” is definitely a reaction to the spirits industry specifically. The world of craft spirits has quickly become so formulaic and standardized that “craft” has essentially become a meaningless buzzword. There’s a cookie-cutter effect ingrained in the business model of most new distilleries that does not conjure innovation or craftsmanship nearly as much as it fosters marketing plans, ROI, investor relations, brand building, etc. Big business (corporate) methods and philosophies are prioritized over craftsmanship and it’s all disguised as “craft” to get the enthusiastic consumers to buy. It’s a race to scale up as quickly as possible to attract a buyout or further capital investment. You have to also understand that the spirits world has less integrity than the beer world. We not only have to deal with brand reps and bartenders whose opinions are bought and sold, we also have to deal with marketing companies that simply source bulk spirits and sell it in shamefully misleading ways to convince the consumer that it’s being made at a distillery like mine. Can you imagine a local brewery buying bulk beer from A-B [Anheuser-Busch], then packaging it in their own bombers, and selling it as though it was a special craft beer? The brewers would be outraged! Violence would ensue! But in my world this is considered sound business. I think you’re starting to get the picture… I often ask myself, “Where are all the honest weirdos?” So, I envy the beer scene. How else have you seen craft movement appropriated? For good or for ill? Or are you Indifferent? I see it everywhere.  “Craft” seems to have found it’s way into pop culture. It’s ubiquitous, so I find myself indifferent.  But don’t get me wrong – I’m very grateful that it’s a movement.  I just hope it’s a sign that consumers have deeply become more curious and thoughtful. Constellation, A-B InBev, and other Beer Big Dogs have shown interest in successful, independent brands for their profitability and fervent fan base. Each month brings news of another buyout, joint venture, or consolidation, with the Big Dogs usually buying some part of the Little Dogs – and that’s got consumers worried. From a spirits side, how important is distillery/brand ownership to your average spirit or cocktail enthusiast? It’s building more and more. But the spirits fans have been slower to respond to craft spirits because most people drink whiskey, and most craft whiskey is not as good as the big brands. Look, your whiskey might be crafty as fuck, but it’s a crafty turd aged for a short time in small barrels and you are lucky people are so generous to support you by spending far too much money on your well-marketed turd. Imagine how slow the craft beer movement would have been if nobody could make better beer than A-B! The spirits world did not have the same quality vacuum that beer has had. So, new start-ups catching up to the value and quality of America’s Bourbon industry is no small feat. It will take a generation’s time and lots of capital. Keep your eye on Whiskey Acres in Dekalb, IL. If anyone has a chance, they do. Does distillery independence matter to you? Absolutely. The value that’s slowly been built into my brand is partly due to the fact that I don’t have to answer to anybody. Not one person. I’m sure you, at Spiteful Brewing, understand this. Our ideas don’t get watered down by other people who have input in the process. And we certainly don’t have investors to consider when we want to make horrible decisions! Another concern for beer enthusiasts is origin of liquid: “was this made by the brewery themselves, on their premises?” As a result, contract-brewed beer has long bore a stigma for critical drinkers, often on principle, a stigma with little regard for the liquid itself. Do you sympathize with that unease over contract scenarios?  I personally don’t like all the contracting stuff. But I envy the gypsy brewers. They live the dream, don’t they? I prefer the Spiteful model. It’s the same as the Letherbee model. It’s obviously much more authentic to build a little tiny production space in the basement of a shitty factory building. And this authenticity is the hot knife that cuts through the shit-butter of “craft” marketing. But does origin matter so long as the liquid’s good and the marketing is honest? Marketing honesty is the most important thing to me. Making delicious product is becoming easier and easier. Some asshole can make delicious beer but I won’t drink it more than once if he/she is an asshole. The rest of the story has to add up. I have much fewer reservations about drinking someone’s branded MGP [Midwest Grain Products Ingredients, formerly LDI] whiskey when they’re completely honest that it’s MGP-sourced. Tell me there isn’t dishonest marketing in the world of spirits! There’s actually more deception than honesty. It’s disgusting. People are sick. It trickles all the way down the supply chain, and the brand reps and bartenders that get their pockets lined are happy to perpetuate the deception. They’re all too shortsighted to understand that this behavior actually degrades their reputations and future possibilities as individuals. Craft beer consumers are more critical than ever, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Drinkers want to know what, if any, ulterior interests exist, and they are quick to abandon ship if they sense inauthenticity. Since craft beer consumers have so many options, brand loyalty takes a different form than, say, a macro beer drinker who drinks one brand for life. Craft beer drinkers drink hundreds of brands in a year and may feel affinity…

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