What is the difference between a craft bar and a non-craft bar? A craft bartender and a “regular” bartender? … a craft cocktail and “just” a cocktail? I’ve had this conversation a few times now and have yet to come up with a good answer.

Further complicating the question, I’ve recently seen several new appliances on the market that claim to make “craft” cocktails. But it just doesn’t feel right to me – a “craft” cocktail just can’t be made by an appliance – can it?

I think the real question is: What is ‘Craft’?

Seeing as how I’ve been mulling on this question for several weeks, I decided to cheat and outsource my question to perhaps the most trustworthy “crowdsourced” bartending resource out there: Facebook. (And since Chris has more bartending friends, I had him do the dirty work!)

What followed was a fascinating conversation that highlighted a couple “camps”:

“Craft” is Expensive

We got a couple comments immediately that referenced “Craft” as being pricey:

“Over $10”

“’Craft’ costs $4 more”

I’m sure some of these were tongue-in-cheek, but they highlight a point. “Craft” comes with a price.

This may be true – but so many factors go into the price of a cocktail. I’ve had a $20 Rum and Coke – and I’ll tell you right now, it was not craft. (It was in a tourist trap nightclub – so I was paying for marketing and rent, I suspect.) I suspect the “Craft is expensive” argument is more of a “correlation” than “causation” thing.

“Craft” uses Fresh, Handmade Ingredients

A few more comments focused on the ingredients. A “craft” cocktail is made with fresh ingredients. It avoids prepackaged, commercial products and things that have been preserved.

Perhaps Anthony, a bartender from Connecticut said it best:

I will be quick to agree that sour mix does not feel “craft” to me.

Is that because it’s made with preservatives and bought off a shelf? Or is it because the cocktail maker did not physically make the sour mix?

It’s very, very relative – but I think Anthony makes a really great point: when considering whether a cocktail is “craft”, it’s worth considering every ingredient that goes in the glass.

Side note: if most of the ingredients are craft, does that make a cocktail “craft-ish”? Is that a thing? Maybe we should make it a thing…

“Craft” is Care

I hadn’t thought about “Craft” as it relates to the word “Craftsman” – but Kala, (a bartender in Tennessee) highlighted the concept of “craftsmanship” in her comment, which I think was definitely one of my favorites:

… and Kala is absolutely right. “Craft” as in “craftsmanship” and “handicraft” is a term that implies that something is made by hand, with care and some degree of skill. She inspired me to look up the definition:
What’s most interesting to me is that the definition of “craft” doesn’t mention the result of the crafting, it’s talking about the activity itself. So, in theory, a “craft” cocktail could be made with great care – but still be absolutely awful.

Furthermore, it doesn’t mention exclusivity. The definition does not say “an activity involving skill in making things by hand … where every single piece of that thing has been handmade.”

So can a cocktail be “crafted” if great care and effort is taken, but the bartender uses pasteurized, shelf-stable sweet & sour mix?

Craft is The Whole Package

Frederic Yarm (of Cocktail Virgin Slut) brought it home with a great “all encompassing” reply: It’s the whole shebang.

So what is Craft then?

If there’s one thing I’m sure of – it’s that I’m not really sure. But it’s really important to note something before I go. “Craft” does not mean “better”. A “craft cocktail bar” is not better than a “cocktail bar” just like you couldn’t say a hotel bar is better than a restaurant bar. Using the word tells a story of how the cocktails are made – but it’s a very subjective story that means something different to everyone.

By the way – I still don’t have an answer to the “robot bartender” question. Does the craftsmanship of the folks who designed the robot count? … Not sure about this one.

At the end of the day, Craft is what YOU believe it to be. As for me? I know it when I see it.

What makes a cocktail “craft” for you? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Julia Tunstall

Julia Tunstall is the co-founder of A Bar Above and Chief Cocktail Taster. She's in charge of keeping things running smoothly around here, but you'll also find her stopping by on the Mixology Talk Podcast or hanging around the Craft Cocktail Club.