Loyal followers of the iStill Blog surely have noticed my growing frustration with the environment in which new craft distillers have to operate. The craft distilling industry is mostly a domain that stifles innovation and hugely disempowers the businesses operating within it. It is time to change that toxic environment into one that empowers and inspires. It is time to flush out toxicity in order to empower business opportunity.
This manifesto supports to achieve that. To that end, this manifesto provides a positive example of what to aspire to, it analyses what currently holds the craft distilling industry back, and it lines out how a change for the better can be achieved. It is how I see the ultimate future of our industry. And you are invited to come along for the ride.
An example to aspire to
Comparing the craft distilling industry to the craft beer industry, as I have done in the past, helped me theorize that this lack of innovation and empowerment is the result of the high entry barriers to the distilling industry. Distilling equipment is more expensive and less sophisticated than brewing equipment and information is monopolized and monetized by a distilling industry-specific class of self-appointed "consultants".
The craft beer scene is a much better place to be at. It is more competitive, takes the battle to Big Beer, and it is actually fun to be a craft brewer. If we want to follow their example and create an industry as vibrant as theirs, what do we need to do? First, let's analyse what makes our industries different. Secondly, let us execute change to bridge those differences.
What craft distilling does different
Where craft brewers base their profession on huge amounts of hobby, amateur, and professional brewers that freely share what they learn (and that freely learn from what others share), the craft distillers are not so lucky. You need a "consultant" in order to be able to develop a recipe. And that "consultant", willingly and "unbiased" (more on that later), gives his or her opinion on what you need.
The craft brewing industry heavily relies on science. Beer making isn't about romance, but about the facts. Get the facts right and you get the beer right. Brewers discuss those facts intensely on open forums. And as most of them understand the fundamentals to brewing, they are all able to judge other craft beers. Not in terms of "I like it or not", but in terms of what procedures are applied, if the taste profile is correct for the beer style at hand, and what could be done different to further improve that recipe.
The craft distilling industry enjoys no such advantages. "Consultants" convince you it is all about the romance, preferably with their "magic" replacing the facts. Listen to the consultant and all will be fine. But those "consultants" usually are neither distillers nor scientists. They have preferences but not facts. They like some spirits better than others but cannot explain why. They are opinionated, but not objective. You can hire them to win medals, because they are the medal judges, not because they have any scientific facts or proven methods to improve your drinks.
In the craft brewing industry the brewers and/or beer drinkers rate the beers. How's that for democracy? In our industry, it's the judges that hand out the medals. The judges that also work as the "consultants" and that you have to hire ... if you want to win medals.
The reason the craft brewing industry hardly has any consultants, is because of the free flow of information and the high quality of that information. The lack of high quality and free flowing information in our industry is the reason why - for too large a part - the narrative is controlled by "consultants".
How do they manage to obtain a position of such great influence in our industry? And why do they defend that position so vigorously? Let's explore that a little bit.
First, distillers themselves come to the industry less prepared than brewers do. They have less experience and - because most of them haven't been trained on the scientific facts - are unable to objectively test and rate other spirits. That lack of knowledge and experience has quickly been filled by spirit judges and other self-appointed industry "experts". But these judges and "experts" were only better than you at one thing: at selling their services. Not at making great product themselves, because if they would have made great product, we'd know them as the craft distillers we look up to, instead of the medal movers that they actually are.
Secondly, why do those "consultants" not embrace the ever growing community, the associated free flow of information, and the scientific studies and models we have provided? The answer is pretty evident: the information monopoly they acquired serves them well.
The information monopoly
Marginalizing other available information keeps their monopoly in place. And it is this monopoly that makes the "consultants" a lot of money. "Don't listen to the amateurs, listen to the professionals!" And by "professionals" they mean themselves, the consultants, not the producers and certainly not the scientists. It is not just the consultants. Traditional still manufacturers also benefit. As long as they hire the "consultants" to consult with their customers, these customers stand to win awards, even with mediocre product at best. And then there is a third group that benefits and strengthens the information monopoly even further: conventions and expo's like ADI and the London Craft Distilling Expo.
Together they form an Unholy Trinity. The consultants facilitate the expo's by providing topics visitors think they need to learn about at those expo's. The expo's, in return, facilitate the consultants by offering them a place to sell their services. The traditional manufacturers facilitate the consultants by providing them with customers that need a lot of help and training on their retarded stills. The consultants, in return, advise new distillers to choose for those traditional still builders that provide them with the most customers. Copper still manufacturers facilitate expo's by sponsoring them. Expo's, and the "consultants" that organize them, in return, facilitate those manufacturers with preferential treatment in exposure and awards.
Consultants, expo's, and the traditional still manufacturers all cooperate to keep the information monopoly in place. Because, with this monopoly in place, you as a (starting) craft distiller have no other choice but to work with them and through them, if you want to gain access to the information you need (or think you need). This practice puts a neck choke around the industry. It is what stifles innovation and what disempowers the craft distilling industry. It is what prevents our industry from developing into the vibrant and innovative market place it should and could be.
iStill's efforts to change the industry
But is it that bad, really? Is that all there is to it? Well, it is all there was, until I started iStill. With iStill hitting the market, about a decade ago, things started to change. We brought advanced distilling technologies and scientific knowledge to the industry.
I remember how amazing it felt to bring a suite of innovations to the craft distilling industry. Our goal was (and is) to make distilling easier. Technological innovations where followed with an amazing educational facility, the iStill University. And after education was properly set-up, we created an outstanding recipe development department. Everything was aimed at empowering the craft distilling industry via a broad set of innovations. The applaus we got from "consultants", expo's, the competing still manufacturers? Silence, disdain, and maltreatment.
In any healthy industry, topics like innovation, education, and higher quality products would have been welcomed and would have flourished, as they would have propelled that industry forward. In the craft distilling industry that has not been the case. We have been met with suspicion. We have been maltreated. We have been threatened. Mind you, not by you, not by the craft distillers. Our customers are the most loyal and successful bunch one could wish for. Nope, you can guess it: we have been met with suspicion, maltreated, and even threatened by the unholy trinity of expo's, consultants, and the traditional still suppliers.
For over a decade my team and I have tried to change things. And, for a part, we have been successful. I mean, with over 1,100 customers that do not need expo's, that do not need consultants, and that do not need outdated and overpriced stills, we have created our own environment. An environment where the participating craft distillers cooperate, innovate, and flourish.
But the environment we created, well, it doesn't serve all. The old boys network of consultants, expo's, and traditional still manufacturers, this Unholy Trinity that we discussed earlier, is still very much alive and causing harm on an industry level.
The resistance we faced and the results we achieved
For over a decade I have tried to change this, inside-out. About two years ago, I started to realize that this strategy wasn't working perfectly, simply because the model I proposed was a direct threat to the existing consultants, their expo's, and their associated traditional still manufacturers. I mean, imagine: whenever we educate a new distiller at the iStill University, he is forever lost for the consultants. This distiller now knows more about distillation science than them. Does he need more information? He is part of a network of professionals - makers, not fakers - that support him.
Or another example: whenever we sell an iStill, well, that's a still not sold by the traditional copper boys. Also, since the iStill comes with education, is intuitive, and has automated controls, there is no need for a consultant anymore.
Another example: whenever we teach a new distiller how he can develop his own recipes, he does no longer need any of the self-appointed "consultants". Also, since he learned how to make the recipe in an iStill, the chances of the copper boys selling him a piece of overpriced antiques is now drastically limited.
With every still we sell, with every student we educate, and with each and every recipe we help develop, we eat away at the money the unholy trinity can make. We, our customers and us, are the antidote to Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. We are the antidote to consultants, their expo's, and their outdated still suppliers, that try to keep the industry imprisoned in the Dark Ages.
With over a 1,100 students educated, we took potentially over a thousand projects away from the "consultants". With over a 1,100 stills sold in a decade, that's over a thousand less traditional stills on the market. Prices of a traditional 500 liter set-up have tanked over the last decade: from 250k to 120k. Let that serve as proof of our success in changing the industry. And as a cause why so many hate us (especially the ones that sell rusty machinery at half the price now).
Yeah, great results, yet 60 to 65% of new still sales are of the traditional type. And still half of the new entries to our industry hire a "consultant". As stated above, things have moved and even progressed, with our inside-out strategy. But not enough. The consultants, the traditional still manufacturers, and their expo's are still main stream. Let's change that. Let's change that right now. Let's move towards an outside-in strategy, in order to change the industry. Let's tear down those walls they put up!
Why more change is needed
If we cannot change the industry enough from the inside-out, let's change it from the outside-in. Something has got to give, if our industry wants to become a real competitor to Big Alcohol. We need to remove the information monopoly and those that keep it in place - those that use the status-quo to suck you dry of your money and of a successful future.
If you still feel this isn't needed, if you still think our industry is in good shape, please allow me to propose the following thought-experiment to you, via a few questions:
As 60 to 65% of new craft distillers is being convinced, by the so-called "consultants", that they need to work with distillation technology from the 19th century, the answer to the first question must be "the craft distilling industry". And it is. Do you know any other industry that has resisted new technology so much? Imagine us baking bread in wood-fired ovens, doing transport with horse and carriage, or manage our administrative affairs with sharpened feathers, ink, and paper, instead of software.
The environment is an issue. Energy costs are an issue. Read the news. Now, try to imagine an industry where the environment and energy costs are not an issue. You won't come up with one. Even Formula One has an agenda that helps reach environmental goals and tries to make the sport energy neutral. Craft distilling? Oh no! For God's sake, let's convince new entries that they need to choose for a sloppy, outdated, and energy consuming technology. How many consultants have you seen supporting our alternative technology that saves 70 to 75% of energy? None? Only in the craft distilling industry ...
In a time where it becomes more difficult by the day to find qualified staff, why not automate? Well, not in the craft distilling industry. Let's start our business with a hiring spree. Let's put the owner behind the still instead of behind sales. Only in the craft distilling industry. It's like Henry Ford the Second looking at his father's achievement and say: "Nah, we don't need efficient production lines, let's get rid of 'm. We'll go back to the way it was with coach building: one at a time!"
Whoa! Wait! Is there a new technology that saves 1 to 1.5 FTE on staffing per distilling machine? Again, only in the craft distilling industry do new entries get convinced by people who haven't produced a drop in their lives that they should look the other way.
Variability of outcome in spirits production ... I have heard craft distillers, with outdated stills, say that it is inevitable and a sign of how much their craft is, well, a craft. It isn't! Craft beer brewers can actually replicate their recipes! Among brewers, recipe reproduction is a sign of quality, and rightfully so. But not in the craft distilling industry. At least not among those that listen to the old boys network of consultants, expo's, and copper still manufacturers. "Good riddance!", they must have thought, "As our consultancy and outdated technology cannot reproduce outcomes reliably ... lets convince new craft distillers that variability of outcome is ... something good! Something ... something ... wait, I have got it ... "craft" instead of crap!"
To understand the idiocy of this claim, now please look at your new car's pannel gaps. If they are too big and/or inconsistent, do you really go back to the dealer and thank him for providing such a well-crafted car? Right, I didn't think so either. Crap is crap, but somehow not according to the "leaders" in our industry.
Another example. Take your best friend to that craft brewery, where you enjoyed that amazing imperial stout. Order two. One for him and one for you. And if you don't recognize it, if you don't like it this time, please congratulate the brewer on his success. The variability in outcome must mean it is "craft" instead of "crap", right? He must be a master brewer instead of a messy brewer. If we are to believe the distilling consultant lingo, this brewer must be a true craft brewer instead of a crappy one. Again, really!?!
"Success is not handed, it is gained. Those that aren't makers, are probably fakers!" Wise words from a fellow craft distiller. If you want to learn how to make the best wedding cakes, you need to teach yourself how to bake wedding cakes. Yes, you could hire an expert. Yes, you could follow classes. But with whom? With an established wedding cake baker? Or with a "consultant" that never ever baked an actual cake, but - rumor has it - has part of a secret recipe, an amazing recipe, that is written down somewhere and might just be hidden in one of his pockets? For sure you will hire the baker. For sure you will enlist for a course with an actual wedding cake baker, to learn from the man or woman that already does it. To be trained by someone who is already successfully producing and selling cakes, instead of being fooled by an idiot with an idea of how to make himself money, but without any practical experience to add to yours...
But not in our industry. In the craft distilling industry we are all fooled (well, 65% of us) into believing there is a a magic brotherhood of "spirits whisperers", just waiting to help you out. Here's an eye opener: if they never had a successful distillery, they aren't makers and probably fakers. Leeches that are after your money. The only growth they support is on their bank account, at the expense of yours.
Now, imagine iStill trying to change that from the inside-out, like we have been doing. Why were we only partially successful? Remember how I described how "consultants", expo's, and traditional manufacturers all facilitate each other? See us operate in that field and it is easy to conclude why we never fully could (yet) achieve our goals:
A manifesto to permanently change our industry for the better
Do you start to see, like us, that we cannot win this fight from the inside-out? We need to step outside of the existing structures (something we have been doing and preparing for some time already) and create a new one. If it is better, this new industry structure, that we want to promote, will win. But it needs to be outside of the existing model, as monopolies are not changed from within.
Outside-in, how does that look like? How do we create a thriving environment for the craft distilling industry? What is needed to provide the craft distilling industry with an alternative universe? An environment where innovation serves to empower you and the community of fellow distillers that you are a part of?
Difficult questions? Not really, actually. The current model, the one we have been trying to change from the inside-out, offers all the answers. If our industry can be stifled by a monopoly of information, which is held in place by self-proclaimed "consultants", their expo's, and the manufacturers of outdated equipment, that should have gone out of business long ago, don't we simply need the exact opposite? It is the exact mirror of the current situation, that is needed to create the alternative environment, that I strongly feel our industry deserves:
New technology? Check! iStill is here and it ticks all the boxes. There you have it: the first condition for creating a vibrant, innovative, and successful future for craft distillers is already in place. Now that's a relief! Onwards to the next condition ...
The iStill University Facebook group has - over the last few years - experimented with peer-to-peer consultancy. Not a paid service, mind you! Distillers helping each other out under the condition that those that help can expect help themselves, when they ask for it. Does it work? Like a charm. It can serve as a blueprint for how our entire industry could collaborate and make the current "consultants" and their semi-magical services redundant. A network that helps boost our quality to the extend that we really can take the battle to Big Alcohol. Just like craft brewers have brought the battle to Big Beer over two decades ago.
We don't need expo's that serve "consultants". What the industry needs are symposiums by distillers for distillers. The symposiums should address the future of the industry and should provide practical information, that makes entering the industry easier. A brighter future combined with lower entry barriers. The symposium shouldn't have sponsors, it shouldn't be for profit, it shouldn't have exhibitors, and it definitely does not need "consultants".
Most importantly, it is the current monopoly on information that needs to be addressed. Let's open up all the information, so that the biggest entry barrier to our industry is brought down. Let us create that level playing field, where distillers can be in charge of their futures, because they have access to all the information they need. Instead of them being dependent on those consultants that only look after themselves and that take advantage of, and prey on, your insecurities.
Decisions by the iStill Management Team
To help realize the alternative environment, that a successful and vibrant craft distilling industry so desperately needs, the iStill Management Team has decided to:
We expect that, with our science-based knowledge freely available, nobody needs a "consultant" anymore. We believe that if you still feel you need answers and support, it is best given by your colleagues, as they have already walked the path in front of you. We think that a "Future of Craft" Symposium benefits the individual craft distiller and the industry as a whole, as long as craft distillers (both visitors and contributors) call the shots.
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