There doesn't seem to be a definitive definition of what constitutes a craft distiller, but distilling capacity and total volume produced annually give a good indication of whether the distillery can be considered a micro-distillery. So, while an objective test doesn't exist, I thought I would suggest 5 questions that can be asked of a distillery to help you determine if they are, in fact, a true craft distiller:
A craft distiller should be able to tell you what type of still they have, the manufacturer, and its size. For example, our still is a 450 litre pot still with two rectification columns, manufactured by Christian Carl, to our specifications, in Germany. Most micro-distillers are proud of their equipment and love to talk about it. Be very suspicious if someone claiming to be a distiller cannot or will not tell you this very basic information. Some "craft distillers" do not even posses a still, yet will talk about how they distill their products. Its only when you ask them for details on their equipment that you realize they don't actually create the alcohol themselves.
2. What are your ingredients?
Spirits contain very few ingredients. (Gin being an exception, since a combination of botanicals are used to infuse the alcohol.) A craft distiller should have no problem naming the few ingredients used. For example, we use 100% malted barley, yeast and water. (Again, gin is an exception and a gin producer might not want to share all the details of their unique botanical mix.) If a distiller simply says "grain" and is unable to give you more details, then be very suspicious. It could be that they are simply buying NGS, or Neutral Grain Spirit, from an industrial processor and then just filtering it or running it through their still to claim they distilled it. I do not consider that process to be true craft distilling.
3. What is your capacity?
This is a crucial question. A micro-distillery must be keenly aware of their capacity since they need to manage their resources and time very carefully. Someone that simply purchases NGS and further processes it and bottles it can scale capacity to a high degree. On the other hand, a true craft distiller is limited by their equipment and the natural time it takes to make their product. They should be able to tell you how many cases they can produce a week or in a year. They should be able to give you very specific information on the time it takes them to create a mash, do a stripping run, etc. They will be able to tell you the size of each tank they posses.
This is not a 100% accurate indicator of whether a producer is a true craft distiller, but gives some important information. Some micro-distillers will buy their wash from a brewery rather than making it themselves. Many do, however, produce their own mash in order to have complete control over the process. In either case, a micro-distiller will be able to tell you all about the process used. It is the creation of the wash that produces the initial alcohol used in the process. Therefore, we believe it is very important to do this ourselves.
5. Show Me!
The craft distillers I have met are very proud of what they do and want to show off. Ask to see how they make their products. Do they offer tours? Do they describe their process and/or show you what they do and how they do it on their website? Still Waters Distillery wants our customers to see how the products they enjoy are made and, even though we are not open to the public, we are anxious to show you how it is done at Still Waters Production Process.
There are so-called micro-distilleries that are licensed distilleries jumping on the craft distilling bandwagon without investing in the equipment or the expertise to create their own products from beginning to end. They are mostly marketing organizations trying to capitalize on the trend. The real test for a craft distiller is their ability to answer questions. Like craftsman in other industries, true artisan distillers take great pride in what they do and are eager to share with others.