The Anti-Craft of Letherbee Distillers

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Photo by: Clayton Hauck for Letherbee

All Photos by: Clayton Hauck for Letherbee


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.

Clayton Hauck for Letherbee

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.

Clayton Hauck for Letherbee

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 for them all. What can be said of loyalty of spirits drinkers?

I can’t necessarily affirm we are headed in the same direction.  Again, I envy the beer world.  It’s passionately supported from the bottom up.  We need spirits drinkers to become more critical and investigative.  At the same time we need to nurture the idea that value and price are as important as “craftiness”

Clayton Hauck for Letherbee

Clayton Hauck for Letherbee

How about a political analogy? I think craft beer culture trends toward meritocracy; good beer beats mediocre beer. As permanent tap handles become scarcer, brewery clout becomes less important, while beer quality and uniqueness takes precedence. The spirits industry, however, trends toward plutocracy. Money and power yield inordinate benefits to spirit producers, the likes of which craft beer producers don’t seem as entrenched in. Should I send that idea back to the stupid pile or is there somethin’ to it?

I think you nailed it. Craft beer is a populist movement while spirits are still stuck in Reagan-era trickle down economics. I also like to make music analogies. Craft beer is reveling in the digital streaming era, while spirits is still stuck in the era of top 40s and FM radio. Cocktail bars are the radio stations and bartenders are the DJs, which is where the phrase “pay-to-play” actually comes from.

Within the spirits world, I seem to hear of
quid pro quo for beverage directors and bartenders more often than I do within the beer world. What kind of incentives are we talking about, and who is offering them?

It’s often simply cash.  We’ll write you a check for $1000 if you put our vodka in your well for the next year. Or the distributor’s sales rep comes into the bar and has no time to eat/drink so she simply has the bartender run the distributor’s credit card for $500 as a way to say “thank you”. Then there are the vacations. You want to go to Mexico and visit some mezcal distilleries, all expenses paid?  All you have to do is promise to make this your primary mezcal for the next year. You’re opening a new bar? We’ll pay for the bar build-out and installation of all the bar hardware (refrigerators, tap systems, etc.) if you sign this agreement saying that 80% of the product in your bar comes from our distribution company. This shit is “pay-to-play” at it’s finest.


Let’s talk local. How does Chicago stack up to spirits culture around the country? 

We’re solid. Just like we are with bars/restaurants, music scenes, art galleries, etc.

You guys are in Europe, too, right? Do they have “craft cocktails” there?!

Of course! Gin is huge in Berlin and in Spain. The company Letherbee Imports was started with my friend in Berlin. This way the whole thing stays familial and community (not industry) driven. He basically has a couple hundred cases of Letherbee products in the basement of his apartment where he’s built out a little tasting room. I think it’s really funny that we are not open to the public in Chicago but we have a dedicated tasting room in center of Berlin. This atypical method perfectly fits in our “anti” philosophy.

Are we still friends after this? This is long enough. Let’s be done now.

We’re good. I’ll see you at work tomorrow prancing around in your hot little short shorts.
Letherbee Distillers is located at 1815 W. Berteau Ave. Chicago, IL. 60613. For more information, see Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: /letherbee, @letherbee, and @letherbee_distillers.


December 2015
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