Friday, May 8, 2015

What Is a 'Master Distiller'?

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.

UPDATE (2/13/23): Since this was posted, Diageo has built and opened two whiskey distilleries in Kentucky.


Carlton said...

It seems to me that the KDA is determined to become as onerous as the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association). Kudos to Sazerac for not being a part of the KDA.

Anonymous said...

Without any set criteria for earning the title "Master Distiller", I've always felt that only someone who is an undisputed Master Distiller (Rutledge, both Russels, Davis, K.Smith, Pickerell, Metze, Lumsden, McEwan Livermore, etc, etc...and no disrespect to the many others not mentioned) can grant me the title. To grant it to myself would be far too presumptuous. So that would fall in-line with the trade guild principle.

If that doesn't work, I read something once that I liked. Went something like "if you can call yourself a Master Distiller in-front of Jimmy Russel and Jim McEwan without them slapping you in the face, then you're a Master Distiller." The actual quote said it better.

-Rob Arnold

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that most micros consider the title to mean, "I'm in charge". It is an interesting departure from the description of level of skill. I feel strongly it is a title that should be 'earned' in someway, either via experience or certification. Other industries in a similar 'craft' boat have a regulated master title, which others who have not earned it seem to respect, and usually do not use the title. The examples would be MBAA/IBD for Master Brewer or CDR's Master Cheesemaker title in Wisconsin. I think a Kentucky led 'master distillers certification program would receive a lot of blowback from the small distillers. However something led by the IBD, who certifies Master Brewers might be more accepted. Either way, small distillers would be likely to continue doing what they are doing and ignore or complain about such things.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I don't like most certification schemes. The criteria tend to be arbitrary. They are determined by the certifying authority, which itself is usually self-appointed and self-interested. If the universally recognized masters don't do it, then forget it. Also, there should be hazing.

Anonymous said...

There MUST be goat! If there's no goat then it can't be official.
So says any member of the GBS, for whom I do NOT speak, other than myself, of course.

Colin said...

How about "the master distiller must set foot in the building where the stills are at least once a month to earn the title of master distiller." Oops, there goes half the list.

Anonymous said...

Or, the master distiller must be able to program the computers that control the devices that wash, sort, grind pump, saturate, heat, hold, ferment, distill, barrel, bottle , label. and pack all craft spirts, made by hand.

Erik Fish said...

The well-defined, time-and-skill-based apprentice-journeyman-master tradition as you find it in a lot of traditional crafts especially in Europe has developed over the better part of a millennium. You can't just decide to adopt that in a meeting, the way Americans are used to doing these things.

And nobody can seriously expect that everybody that matters in this country will ever agree to give any one institution the authority to "bestow" the title.

The only practical thing is to just keep it as a function: The master distiller is the guy in charge of the actual distilling operations of a distillery. That's how it's mostly being used anyway. Using the title as some mystical mark of quality is ultimately as precise and meaningful as all that Gold Medal stuff.

Tom said...

Here's my distillery to-do list for the next three hours: mill corn, repair a barrel leak, pull backset, empty the beer still, and run slop (to the dairy farm). Prestigious work, I know. Real distillers are too busy to worry about titles.

Anonymous said...

Depending on the size of the distillery, there's a difference between a master distiller and a stillman, mashman, leak hunter, barrel filler, and even sometimes the plant/distillery manager. Seems unreasonable to discount some and include others simply based on whether or not they turn the valves on a daily basis.

Each distillery has their own set of duties for their master distiller. Harlen Wheatley describes it here in this 2008 interview:

UNIV. KY LIBRARIES: Is the master distiller responsible for all phases of production of the product or primarily responsible for the distillation phase?

WHEATLEY: At Buffalo Trace, the master distiller is responsible for everything along the way from start all the way to the point of dumping it into the bottling tank. So you're responsible for all those production, all those production steps and processes. Um, other distilleries the master distiller might be primarily responsible for education for, for instance, but here, you know, I'm, I'm in the trenches. I'm responsible for all the work and then I also try to do educational, uh, work, too. So I try to balance those things, but yeah. We're, um, we're, uh, we're into a lot of different things, so you're responsible for production basically of all the spirits; not only bourbon but vodka, whiskeys and anything else we produce. So my whole team of people--we have about forty-eight people in the distillery and, uh, which to me is not a, not a lot--and, uh, we, we together as a team, uh, produce all these different products.

UNIV. KY LIBRARIES: So the master distiller is perhaps also in some sense the plant manager, being responsible for the whole, uh, sequence of steps from distillation through aging and dumping into the bottles.

WHEATLEY: Yeah. If you refer to the plant as the distillery, yeah. We have, you know, we have a plant manager here and, um, he's also responsible--not only do I report to him--but he's also responsible for distribution, shipping and bottling. So there's more to it, you know, at this site. We have, and everything on this site is done here. All the shipping and bottling is all done here, so everything we produce comes from here. We have over five and a half million cases that come out of here and, uh, all different products. And there's lots of processes and lots of steps, and, I think, we're up to about two hundred and fifty total employees. So out of the two hundred and fifty, forty-eight of them is on the distilling side where we do the, you know, production of the spirit, but then there's also the, all the processing and bottling and shipping and all those other steps that are involved so it just depends on what you call plant, I guess."


Unknown said...

I've gone through quite a lot of different industries in which "title inflation" was ever-present, especially in the tech business. You say, "if anyone is going to define master distiller it must be working distillers and no one else." I agree, in that I think it is an internal organizational decision. At Maker's Mark, the title "Master Distiller" most likely is bestowed upon the most senior, or one most deservant, of the title and who not only has distilling skills, but managerial skills. Conversely, I have seen a one-man craft distillery launch with one man sporting the title "Master Distiller." He may have no distilling industry experience, nor manage any distilling crew, but he is a self-proclaimed "Master Distiller."

Anonymous said...

As a distiller (DSP owner) I will freely admit that I am a master of nothing but a desire for perfection. Anything else is hyperbole and marketing hogwash.