The History of Craft Spirits

Product Trends

The History of Craft Spirits

From Prohibition to Present

Craft spirits may currently be the domain of the millennial hipster, but their history is a long and storied one. While the early 21st century experienced a boom in popularity, people have been making spirits independently throughout the centuries.

While the origins of independent spirit-making can be traced back to mediaeval monks and apothecaries making whiskies, meads and other such delights, the Prohibition eras are probably the birthplace of today’s craft spirit universe.

In the 1700s, the gin-swilling city of London decided that the gin issue was all too much, and promptly banned everything. A young Irishman named Dudley Bladstreet spied an opportunity, and began making his own gin illegally. People who wanted a shot would look out for a wooden cat above a doorway; when its paw was pressed and a coin was put in the slot, a shot of gin would pour down a wooden tube, in the style of a rudimentary vending machine.

Dudley’s cats caught on, and soon London was full of wooden cat signs, with hopeful clients calling “Puss, puss!” in the hope of hearing “Mew, mew” in return - signifying that there was gin to be had, and they should drop their coins.

The American Prohibition era, at the beginning of the 20th century, was similarly intended to curb the societal problems associated with alcohol consumption. Instead, it gave rise to a clandestine world of bootlegging and speakeasies.

During this time, the production of spirits went underground. Small-scale distillers, often operating in secret, continued to produce moonshine and other illicit liquors. These operations were rudimentary and fraught with danger, but they laid the groundwork for the spirit of innovation and resilience that would later characterise the craft spirits movement.

Alcohol flowed secretly through the United States at this time, with spirits being distilled in bathtubs and barrels and backrooms, smuggled in from neighbouring countries, and consumed joyously and illicitly by the people who knew where to look.

The lifting of the Prohibition rules in the mid-twentieth century turned things around for independent distillers. Large corporations immediately took over, and began to dominate the market. Smaller distillers were pushed aside and the industry went into decline, as industrial spirits boomed in popularity.

In the 1980s and 1990s, flashes of a craft spirit revival began to appear. Pioneers such as Fritz Maytag of Anchor Distilling in San Francisco and Jörg Rupf of St. George Spirits were instrumental in the early days of the craft spirits movement. They looked for local ingredients, and emphasised craftsmanship, creating small-batch premium spirits for a more discerning clientele. Their success inspired others to explore the potential of craft distillation.

It was in the early 2000s that today’s craft spirit industry exploded onto the scene, beginning in the United States and quickly reverberating around the globe. With a newfound interest in what they were drinking, consumers started to demand more original and unusual products.  Innovation played a significant role, with distillers experimenting with new techniques and ingredients to create distinctive flavours.

The emphasis on local sourcing also became a hallmark of the craft spirits movement, with many distillers using locally grown grains, fruits, and botanicals to produce their spirits. This commitment to local sourcing not only supported regional economies but also allowed for the creation of products that reflected the terroir of their origin.

The rise of social media and the internet also had a significant impact on the craft spirits industry. Distillers could now reach a broader audience through online marketing, building communities of enthusiasts and creating direct relationships with consumers. Social media platforms became essential tools for brand storytelling, allowing distillers to share their processes, values, and unique product features with a global audience.

Today’s craft world is a heady mix of the quest for originality and premium quality pioneered in the 1980s, with a lingering hint of the rebellious spirit of the outlaws who kicked everything off by defiantly making their own moonshine. With a continuously growing market, the craft spirits movement has really reshaped the beverage landscape, bringing attention to the artistry and dedication of small-scale producers.

Around the world, innovative producers are creating incredible new drinks at a breathtaking rate, pushing the boundaries of flavour and craftsmanship. Let’s all stop, look around, take it all in, and raise a glass in honour of Dudley Bladstreet.