What Are Artisanal Spirits?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “Artisanal Spirits”.

When wrestling with making sustainable food decisions there are a lot of choices which it seems like a consumer can make which can directly impact the way our food is grown.

You can buy directly from food producers and distributors whose philosophies you share.

You can buy from food producers and distributors which source ingredients from within your geographic area.

With spirits and cocktails, it gets a bit more tricky. Not only are the final products more far removed from the Farmers, but often products only come from specific regions. Armagnac only comes from the Armagnac region of France. Cachaca only from Brazil.

I mean sure, there are grape brandies produced in the US. And some are even good. But few are close to those produced in France.

So what’s a body to do?

Well, first, I suppose, do source as much of your ingredients locally as possible. I have a somewhat precious idea about the fruits and herbs I use for cocktails. As much produce as possible is purchased from the Farmers’ Market. It is either organic or no spray. If I have to, I’ll purchase some products from independent groceries or markets, preferably also organic.

I really distrust “Organic” ingredients from the larger stores. From what I’ve read, it seems like the food industry in the US has gutted so much of the legislation related to the organic standard to give corporate farms and suppliers an edge, that I’m no longer sure that the label “Organic” means anything on food. To me, “Organic” should also mean “Sustainable”, not simply factory produced food created with organic fertilizers and pesticides.

Sugar is hard. Sugar is darn near impossible.

Cocktails are made using lots of sugar and there’s no getting around the fact that something like 99% of the sugar in the world is made by a few companies none of which are particularly admirable. For example, about 20 years ago I stopped buying refined white sugar. For a while I labored under the notion that somehow “brown” sugar was better than white sugar. That is until I discovered that what is sold as “brown sugar” in the US is simply refined white sugar with a bit of the molasses added back in. Ooops. Since then I’ve stuck with washed raw sugar. It’s usually in kind of large crystals, but if you give it a spin in a food processor or blender, you can easily make it smaller.

Spirits are even harder.

I mean, how much do the raw materials matter in something that is so highly processed and distant from its original source?

Vodka is distilled to basically chemically pure ethanol before it is diluted back down to strength and sold to the consumer.  If something is 99% pure ethanol, does it matter if the source material is organic or not?

I guess the only way I can look at it, is how I look at Coffee.

I have no direct impact on the plantations in South America that grow the beans I use for my coffee.

But I can buy it from a distributor and roaster who believes in similar ideas that I do. Supporting small farmers. Supporting sustainable farming.

Likewise, I think the same mindfulness can be applied to spirits and alcoholic beverages.

Everybody sez it’s just booze, don’t take it so seriously.

But ultimately alcoholic beverages are agricultural products, the same as the flour or grape juice that you are so carefully select.  If you’re going to bother thinking about those, why not think about your booze?

Or more importantly, if you don’t want to think about it, buy it from bars, retail outlets, distributors, and producers who do have the interest to think about these issues.

2 thoughts on “What Are Artisanal Spirits?

  1. Artisanal is really not the same as ‘local’ or ‘sustainable’, although it can be. It does has a lot of overlap with ‘small producer’. In fact maybe ‘exceptional quality small producer’ could be a definition of artisanal. To me the choices you are talking about often come back to ‘non-industrial’. Industrial organic is only marginally better than non-organic agriculture. And fortunately, non-industrial often achieves ‘local and sustainable’, although, of course, I do feel our lives are enriched by, say, imported artisanal products from Italy.

  2. Good distinctions, Sylvan! Thanks for the comment.

    I see these terms so often bandied about, it takes me writing down my thoughts to start thinking about the details. I just hope to inspire others to think a bit about the same.

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