Saturday, May 9, 2015

Use of the 'Master Distiller' Title in Kentucky

I should have been clearer about this in yesterday's post. The Louisville Courier-Journal's headline, "Bourbon Leaders Debate Term 'Master Distiller,'" wasn't true. There is no debate. Nobody is talking about it unless a reporter calls around asking questions. As a distiller friend of mine commented, "real distillers are too busy to worry about titles."

That has been the history of the term's use in Kentucky. As Fred Minnick pointed out last year, its use was not unknown in the past. Minnick's Kentucky citations are to obituaries of people like Joseph L. Beam and Michael J. Dant, whose mastery no one would have challenged. He also cites to promotional announcements, in which producers tout the credentials of their staff. They used 'master' like we might use 'awesome,' as an amplifier.

In more common usage, the title was simply 'distiller.' Every distillery had at least one. In Sam Cecil's 1999 book, The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky, his Chapter 5 is entitled 'The Master Distillers,' but the word 'master' appears nowhere else in the five pages that follow. The men he writes about are simply called 'distillers.' Distiller was the job title. 'Master Distiller' was a term of honor informally bestowed by one's peers, usually near the end of a career, when the individual's mastery was beyond dispute.

No one would have been egotistical enough to to refer to himself as a Master Distiller.

But things changes. When I started in advertising more than 40 years ago, every advertising agency had one Creative Director. The Creative Director was the person responsible for the agency's creative product. Large or small, every agency had one and only one, just like every company had one president. Today, even small agencies have dozens of creative directors and the largest have hundreds. In all kinds of companies, every division head is now a president. That's just how it is.

I'll let others philosophize about why this is so, but Master Distiller is no different. Every distillery now has to have one. Some have more than one. A convenient justification is to define Master Distiller as the person in charge of a distillery, but in many cases that's not actually the Master Distiller's job. Master Distillers usually have the final word on quality control, but not always. Responsibilities vary by company.

In reality, the companies want you to look at the person they call their Master Distiller as the ultimate authority on production and quality, and the most prestigious guest you can possibly have at your whiskey event. Like it or not, that's what the title means today. I don't see how the small guys can resist using it that way when the big guys are unlikely to stop.

This use of the title can be embarrassing for all concerned, especially when the company is a non-distiller producer. A good rule of thumb would be to withhold all distiller titles until the person has actually distilled something. A person who reviews and approves liquid distilled by someone else isn't a distiller. The correct title for that person is 'customer.'

But is there a debate? Not really. Is anything likely to change? Probably not. Does it matter? Not very much.

But I will offer one small piece of advice and it's not just about the title Master Distiller. If you want to be in this business, it is in your best interest to learn and be sensitive to its history. This business didn't begin the day you became aware of it. History and heritage are very important. Newbies who immediately want to change everything catch a lot of grief. Spare yourself. Keep your head down, learn your craft, and get better every day. If you do all that, you'll probably like what people choose to call you.


Sam Komlenic said...


Erik Fish said...

Acronyms. Maybe we need acronyms. The guy or gal running the distilling operation could be the DIC, the distiller-in-charge. Their sidekick would be the ADIC, the assistant distiller-in-charge.

And Chuck, here's why that may be necessary; I quote from the latest Reader:
"Lunn's departure was announced a week before ... Kvamme named him as their new master distiller."
There it is, in lower case; even you are using the term as a simple job position to be filled, or at least are complicit in her use of it like that.
We obviously need a generally accepted term for that position if we want "Master Distiller" to retain a special meaning.

akendeall said...

Great read. I loved the kicker paragraph, especially. Excellent analysis as well.