I have been having a nice, friendly, on-line discussion with some of the members of the American Distilling Institute (ADI) about my recent post here questioning how craft the new craft distilling movement is.
In the course of that conversation, I wrote: "I am also concerned about compressing the definition of 'distiller' into somebody who operates a still. A person who runs beer through a still isn't a distiller, that person is called a still operator. Every distillery has a still operator, but it's not the distiller."
One of the participants asked me to elaborate. I did. Here is what I wrote:
First, I'm talking about at the major American whiskey producers; Jim, Jack, et al.
Second, even before the title Master Distiller was in use, every distillery had a Distiller. Every distillery also had a Still Operator. They almost never were the same person. That continues to be the case.
Third, I'm talking about the beer still, which is a continuous column still. I can't say I've ever heard anyone talk about operating the doubler.
The Distiller usually is the manager or overseer of the whole distillery. He may or may not have responsibility for the warehouses but is responsible for grain acceptance, milling, mashing, yeast preparation, fermentation, distillation, and barrel entry, as well as overall quality control of the finished product. He is there supervising all of those stages every day. Today, some Master Distillers are primarily quality control, but there is someone, maybe called the plant manager, who has all of those day-to-day responsibilities.
The Still Operator is a hand who operates the still. He starts it up, monitors it while it runs, makes periodic adjustments, and then shuts it down at the end of the run. At some distilleries (e.g., Wild Turkey), the still operator sits or stands next to the still, monitoring its gauges, listening to and feeling its rhythms, and adjusting its valves. At others (e.g. Heaven Hill), the still operator sits at a control panel in a nearby control room.
I don't mean to suggest that the tactile stuff is lost in the control room. You don't have to be sitting right next to the still to feel and hear it.
Lots of distilleries have had the same still operator or operators for decades. I've never heard of a still operator becoming a distiller.
The whole discussion on ADI Forums is here. You have to register to post, but anybody can read the postings.