The Bartender's "Bar"ometer: does "craft" really matter?

Below is an excerpt from the May 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine about Anno Kent Dry Gin. Every month, Craft Gin Club members receive a bottle of amazing small-batch gins accompanied by GINNED! Magazine which is full of features about the gin, the distillery and loads of fascinating features.

Every time we mention the word ‘Gin’, we are met with one of the same two quips: Gin is either ‘so hot right now’ or ‘that market is completely saturated’.

In the age of ‘craft’, there is a school of thought to say that smaller is better. It implies a more hands on production, more care and attention, products built on love and art, not corporate and scale. In the age of ‘craft’, small is powerful, ‘small batch’ as a label is worth its weight in gold. ‘Craft’ is king and the large established brands are quaking in their boots. We are in a aesthetic ideal.

Except for one thing: craft is unsustainable. In the cliquey world of hospitality, where bars and restaurants claw at each other for the attention of paying guests, artisanal merit counts for really quite little. In the world of hospitality, one way or another, profit is king. 

The hospitality industry is a cliquey industry. The vast majority of the chatter and excitement revolves around the same handful of bars, restaurants or hotels. A lot of what goes on is dependent on the momentum of reputation and many would argue rightly so. Those that show an innovative or imaginative edge, those that consistently perform to dizzying heights deserve their ongoing praise. Unfortunately, this celebrity system comes in the form of a two headed beast.

Brands vie over the bar-of-the-moment, competing to establish links and collaborations the hottest bartenders and the like. And herein lies a problem inherent with the system. A bar faced with the choice between an expensive hand crafted gin and a cheaper large scale money brand doesn’t really have a choice at all. Bars are expensive businesses. Like brands, they are an economy of scale, so, like the small batch, independents are destined to struggle or sell out.

As a bar owner and operator, I can fully appreciate the bars’ perspectives. Running a bar is extremely difficult. Consumers are fickle, and rightly so. The best products are often expensive, and beyond the means of the vast majority of drinkers. In addition, one cannot simply open a bar and offer the finest products. The environment needs to suit: the drinks need to match the surroundings. You won’t get many paying guests drinking champagne from a tea cup. All of which costs big bucks.

And so we end up in this gamble: a bar must find ways of affording the appropriate products and create an environment to suit. To do this, the bars need help. And who can afford to offer help? The larger brands with bigger budgets. Oh, the irony, when what these bars really want is the small batch.

At Merchant House, we are constantly faced with this battle. The answer is to find innovative solutions that benefit both parties, for the brand and the bar to take a risk on each other. If we do that, then ultimately it is the guest who will profit. It is their paying approval we both seek, and together we can create something greater than the sum of our parts. We can offer escapist worlds of luxury and entertainment. But in order to do so, we all need to celebrate craft for what it truly is: somebody creating for the sake of it. That should be enough.

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