A storm appears to be brewing in the spirits category and it's a storm borne out of marketing. Can spirits companies settle the terminology tiff before things get out of hand, or is it too late? Ian Buxton investigates.

"The term 'craft’ has been cynically hijacked by the new wave of marketing-savvy entrepreneurs who have come into the distilling world hungry for profit.” So I was told by one senior industry executive – from a large distiller naturally – who, sadly, was reluctant to be quoted directly.

What’s wrong with profit you might ask? After all, no distiller - be they huge, small or even ‘craft’ - is run as a charity, and we wouldn’t expect that. Nor, I imagine, does the consumer.

But, that self-same consumer might be confused by ‘craft’, ‘limited edition’, ‘small batch’, ‘hand-crafted’ and the various other feel-good verbiage that appears on labels and in advertising. I’m told it’s known as “romance copy” by the legal eagles who have to sign this off.

Such language is coming under attack from an increasingly cynical and disenchanted consumer. While our North American cousins may seem overly enthusiastic in their resort to legal action, and ready to sue at even the faintest hint of an ambulance siren, the various US class actions against Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Maker’s Mark, Templeton Rye, Jim Beam and others should perhaps be considered as an early warning of a gathering storm that could easily blow across to other markets.

While American spirits appear more loosely regulated than in Europe, producers on the side of the Atlantic should not be too complacent. Consider these two random examples: Bowmore has a ‘Small Batch’ expression and Tanqueray Malacca’s 16,000-case release is described as a ‘limited edition’. The latter is just the sort of limited edition volume a small batch craft distiller might aspire to sell in a year or more.

And, just to confuse matters further, both Diageo - at Stitzel Weller, where a ‘barrel a week’ plant will shortly open - and Pernod Ricard - with its Our/Vodka concept - are themselves small batch distillers when it suits them and when they too can sense a profit.

It’s not just me that’s confused (as I wrote here recently). As well as Pernod Ricard’s CEO, Alexandre Ricard, recently outlining his frustrations with confusing terminology, Åsa Caap, who leads the company’s Our/Vodka project, told just-drinks this week that ‘craft’ is an abused term. “I'm tired of the word craft," Caap said. "It's over-used. You can't fool consumers.”

While one might question, for example, how a crown closure on a bottle of vodka contributes to sensible consumption, it’s worth dwelling on the point. There is little enough space on a spirits label as it is without confusing consumers with debatable claims.

While it’s far from certain that Diageo’s recent plans to introduce nutritional labels will be delivered across the industry (Pernod has already expressed its reservations), if they do come into being, there will be even less space left on the back of a bottle. While the initiative has the wholly laudable aim to make it easier for consumers to make informed choices, it seems to me that it does sit somewhat awkwardly with the more extravagant marketing claims that they will find on the other side of the label, embossed into the glass or hung as an enticing leaflet round the neck of the bottle.

But, according to Jim Beam’s defence, the consumer shouldn’t take these claims literally. It’s just “common-sense” that the Bourbon isn’t “hand crafted”.

Let’s be clear about the direction of travel: on one side of the bottle the consumer is to be regaled with charming stories that some may know ro be little more than pleasing conceits. On the reverse side, meanwhile, they can seek out transparent, reliable and scientifically accurate information about the product they are about to consume.

What could possibly go wrong?

Before this ends in tears - or in court or, worse still, with yet more legislation - the spirits industry might do well to curb the enthusiasm of its more loquacious marketing practitioners. The time is right for us to get round a table and agree to craft some new vocabulary before the industry’s various and increasingly energetic critics take it on themselves to do it for free.