What's in a Title?

What's in a Title?

Quite a lot, if you happen to be a genuine master distiller

Thoughts from... | 21 Oct 2016 | Issue 139 | By Neil Ridley

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Has anyone reading this taken a stroll down Harley Street in London? Aside from the beautiful stucco fronted buildings, it's an enlightening experience. At the side of almost every nondescript doorway, you'll find a small, highly polished brass plaque inscribed with a name, alongside a seemingly random set of capitalised letters, signifying the particular skill of the building's occupant. Here we find dieticians, osteopaths, brain surgeons, liver specialists and almost every other type of medical expert. For centuries, Harley Street has been the beacon of medical proficiency for those who can afford it.

By expert, I mean professionals with whom we would entrust our very lives, should the unfortunate need arise. As corny as the plaques are, the various different titles each of these professionals display fill us with confidence; they demonstrate the person in question possesses a deep understanding of their specialist subject; that their skills have been justified by a wider body of professionals and that they have undoubtedly spent many, many years practising their 'craft' to the point that they can legitimately practise with confidence and offer the very best medical care that money can buy.

What's in a title? In the drinks industry, with the continued boom in craft distilling, especially in the US - and now in Scotland, the title of master distiller has become synonymous with excellence in spirit quality… or has it?

Seemingly, a day doesn't go by without a new press release reporting on the progress of x fledgling craft distillery, including a quote from a proud 'master distiller'. Whilst it's vaguely admirable that brand new distillers hold themselves in such high esteem, surely the title of 'master' of anything should be one that is bestowed, earned and ultimately, gained through years of dedication to the craft, alongside years of toil, both successfully, and probably in instances, unsuccessfully.

For me, referring to one's self as a master distiller is an odd concept, and one which I am sure many 'genuine' master distillers would actually feel uncomfortable about. When I envisage a master distiller, I think of the likes of Alan Winchester at The Glenlivet - one of the most humble gents you will ever meet - and a man, who probably knows more about distilling Scotch whisky than any other human being on the planet. I also think about Dennis Malcolm at Glen Grant, who was recently awarded an OBE for his services to the whisky industry and Jimmy Russell, who has spent 62 years making Wild Turkey, with no intention of retiring any time soon.

These genuine 'masters' embody everything that comes with a title; life long dedication to their craft, alongside having a broad, cross-distillery experience and an almost sixth sense about the spirit they're making. Many years ago, Dennis Malcolm told me that he can tell if something is awry at the distillery simply by sniffing the air in the stillroom. If it smelled slightly different, he would know exactly what and where the problem was and how to fix it. That for me, demonstrates a skill far beyond the reach of us mere mortals and one that you certainly don't get overnight - or when you're first handed your distilling licence

from HMRC.

I was having a drink recently with a well known US craft distiller, who I have the utmost respect for, being a true artisan in his field and someone who, despite only distilling since 2008, is probably wholeheartedly deserving of the title of master distiller. When I asked him if he considered himself one, he laughed heartily at the thought of it and went on to point out the absurdity of it all and how the situation is getting so out of hand in the US, that it is in danger of becoming a parody of itself. With no technical way of legislating who can use the title, it makes a mockery of those who have spent their entire careers developing the necessary skills, earning the right to call themselves masters in the process.

In the decades to come we will see just how many of these new 'masters' are still around and whether their business cards still read the same - they might even have brass plaques by then…
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