About a decade ago, I had the immense privilege of having dinner with renowned chef Thomas Keller and a few of his friends. I was a cub lifestyle reporter and we ate at a Chinese restaurant in the Boston’s Chinatown where the décor was, to be euphemistic, well worn and the service a bit slapdash. As the men munched on chicken feet and scallion pancakes, they reflected on the state of the restaurant industry. Rather, they lamented. Nobody wants to be a line cook any more. Garde-manger? Yeah, right. These kids straight out of culinary school want to go straight to being head chef. They want to do sous vide and dehydrate everything before they know how make a pie crust.
I relay this story because this is precisely what has happened in the craft distilling industry. I’ve seen it in America, where I’ve visited nearly 40 distilleries, as well as abroad, where I’ve checked in on more than 40 distilleries in 14 countries. You may ask ‘what’s in a name?’ But when someone introduces him or herself as a ‘master distiller,’ it carries a lot of serious implications. Until it doesn’t.
Having started writing about spirits many years ago, I vividly remember when you could count the number of small distilleries in the US and ‘master distiller’ was a term bestowed on people, all men at the time, who rose up in the ranks. Typically they started working at a distillery because their fathers, themselves distillers, took them to work as kids. That’s to say nothing of Scotland and Ireland, where many men who claim the title started as teenagers sweeping floors and emptying bins, learning the business.
These days, pretty much all it takes is financial backers with cash reserves and confidence, space, access to water and electricity, and a know-how of the licensing process to open a distillery. Years of study, sensory training, notebooks full of hand-scribbled tasting notes, and an in-depth knowledge of chemistry are all optional.
They are so skilled that they know how much more they need to learn
I realise this might sound cold-hearted, as if I’m stifling or, worse yet, deriding the passions of enthusiastic entrepreneurs, but to forego the years of study and training, of serving as an apprentice or journeyman to an expert, and yet anoint yourself a ‘master’ is to belittle the prestige of someone who’s spent a lifetime in the spirits world, someone who’s at once a student, knowing that he always has more to learn, and a teacher, knowing he has the proven expertise to pass along an age-old tradition.
I’m always sceptical when a brand or a product or a restaurant claims to be ‘the best’ or ‘most authentic’ or ‘most’ anything. Those are judgements I make, not facts you can quantify to the point where it’s the core of your identity. Think about it: the more bakeries there are, for instance, that claim to be the ‘best,’ the faster that superlative loses its meaning. Same goes with ‘master.’
The situation is particularly astounding when you consider how much time and study and experience is required to become a master sommelier. There are, however a few institutions that are catching on and offering formal educations. Heriot-Watt University, which prizes entrepreneurship across its many programs on its international campuses, features the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling. It is perhaps the best known centre for aspiring alcohol-makers. They award Honours and Masters degrees, but nobody is bestowed with the ‘master distiller’ title when they graduate. The Institute of Brewing and Distilling, in London, offers a ‘master distiller’ course which is described as: ‘a measure of the level of a candidate’s competence in the technical management of the distilling processes. Although they are competence-based assessments, it is essential that the candidate has a background which includes a detailed technical knowledge of the scientific theory and principles that underpins the process'.
I have found in speaking to myriad distillers, long-time and newbies, those that typically have the most experience would never deign to dub themselves ‘master distiller.’ They are so skilled that they know how much more they need to learn.