This headline topped a story in today's Louisville Courier-Journal (C-J): "Bourbon Leaders Debate Term 'Master Distiller.'" (The article may be protected by a pay wall.)
Although it looks like the 'debate' was contrived by the paper, the subject is of interest nonetheless and comes up from time to time. Ever since the micro-distillery boom began, the industry has been flooded with self-appointed master distillers. There are many different opinions about what the term should mean.
This is where the history lesson usually goes, medieval trade guilds and all that stuff. The principle established there is that new masters are properly declared only by existing masters.
In Kentucky, the history of the master distiller title is much more recent. "Things have really changed in the past 15 years," said Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge to the C-J reporter. "I was a distiller working in the distillery. I wasn't out in the media. If someone came around and wanted tours and I was available, I would give tours. Now most of my time is spent traveling, talking to groups of people."
Rutledge comes from a tradition at the now defunct Seagram Company where distillers were formally and rigorously trained. Today, aspiring distillers get their training and experience where and how they can. Major producers tend to hire chemists or chemical engineers and train them in the specifics of distilling. Brewers often transition well because fermentation science is important to both professions. Still makers and dealers, technical schools, and trade associations all offer distilling courses and workshops.
It seems to have been the Kentucky Bourbon Festival that popularized the term master distiller in Kentucky. The producers bestow it, using their own criteria. Mostly and increasingly, they view the master distiller as the best kind of brand ambassador, someone who knows enough of the art and science to keep the nerds happy. What they actually do back at the plant is incidental, as far as the bosses are concerned.
A truly frightening prospect reported by the C-J is that the Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) may get involved. Another power grab by that bunch is the last thing the business needs. "We've had discussions within the association about whether Kentucky needs to develop criteria for master distiller," said KDA president Eric Gregory to the C-J. Nice of him to speak for Kentucky since, despite its name, the KDA is an association of companies, not distillers, and it only represents its members, who do not represent all of Kentucky's whiskey makers.
It also represents one very big company, Diageo, that distills no whiskey in Kentucky.
There is no association of distillers themselves, in Kentucky or nationally, and if anyone is going to define master distiller it must be working distillers and no one else. Otherwise, leave it alone and let consumers decide, based on individual resumes and the liquid in the bottle, who the true masters are.