The "craft" distinction can be valuable, and big distilleries want to capitalize on that, too.
"Everybody wants to play in the craft space," said Dave Pickerell, a distilling consultant who has launched dozens of craft brands, including Whistle Pig and Hill Rock. "Everybody wants to be called craft because people want to buy craft, and pay extra for craft right now.
"If I'm selling it all at $9.99 a bottle, would I want to be craft and sell it at $49.99 a bottle? Heavens, yes."
To get in the game, some big distillers have bought out craft brands, including Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey and Hudson Whiskey, to add to their portfolios. Others have launched their own craft brands.
Can a big distiller do a "craft" product?
Depends on who you ask.
"I'm often asked, what does a big company think about 'craft?' I think it's fantastic," Bill Newlands, president of Beam Inc.'s North American operations, said earlier this year. "It's forced companies like ours to be on our toes, to think ahead. ... This year we will introduce Jim Beam Signature Craft, a 12-year-old whiskey that reflects the craft element that has been going on in our business since 1795."
Newlands' statement raises a question that could start a good bar fight between distillers: What makes a spirit "craft"? Is it quality or quantity? Or something else entirely?
Whiskey experts and industry groups have wrestled with the question for years. No straightforward answer has emerged.
"If you're corporate, you're not craft," Pickerell said. "It's funny for Nabisco to say they are making an artisanal cracker. Isn't it just as funny for the big guys to say they are making a craft spirit? ... Most of these craft guys are filling one 53-gallon barrel a day. A big craft distiller is making two. There's clearly a ginormous difference between somebody that's making two and somebody making thousands of barrels a day."
Craft is a term of art, with a wide spectrum between purists who do everything from make their own stills to those who don't even make their own bourbon.
There is no regulatory definition for the word craft, so any distillery legally can use the word on its product.
The American Craft Distilling Association, which formed earlier this year, defines craft distillers as those whose annual production of distilled spirits from all sources does not exceed 100,000 "proof gallons" removed from bond (the amount on which excise taxes are paid). (A proof gallon is a gallon at 100 proof or 50 percent alcohol by volume.)
This works out to about 50,000 cases at most, which means bigger distilleries wouldn't qualify.
Distillers also split into two camps over how much of a craft product they make themselves. Some make every drop; other brands that consider themselves craft make little to none of what they release under their labels.
In July, the American Distilling Institute, another industry group, proposed two certifications: one for craft distillers and one for craft blenders.
"I drew the line in the sand, said we're certifying craft distillers — you have to distill and bottle on location," institute founder Bill Owens said. "And you can't put a mega-product against somebody who made it by hand."
But Kentucky's large-scale distillers disagree.
Woodford Reserve (owned by Louisville-based Brown-Forman) and Maker's Mark (once an independent brand but now owned by Beam Inc. in suburban Chicago) argue they create craft whiskies based on process and quality.
The new Evan Williams Bourbon Experience visitor center in Louisville, owned by the giant Heaven Hill, will have a micro-distillery that will create and release craft products.
"We feel that we're craft distillers as well," said Max Shapira, president of Heaven Hill, which makes Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbons. "You don't have to be small to have a product that is absolutely a craft product."
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.