What is a Master Distiller?

[This is an excerpt from the story by Nancy Fraley in our winter issue of Distiller magazine.]

The debate will be ongoing, and likely, controversial, regarding the role of master distiller. While the craft distilling community grows and its consumers multiply, Fraley poses the question, what is a master distiller, with her characteristic thoughtfulness. Instead of attempting to reach conclusions, Fraley explores the subject through conversation with three distillers who are deemed so by their peers: Hubert Germain-Robin, Luis Ayala and Dave Scheurich.
ayala Luis Ayala

“Traditionally, a young apprentice would be identified and selected for his or her potential and that person would spend the next couple of decades learning under the old master…”

In the rapidly growing craft distilling industry, no other question — save the definition of the term “craft” — triggers as much heated debate as the meaning behind the title of “Master Distiller.” Much has been discussed or written about new, inexperienced distillery proprietors who generously bestow the title upon themselves in order to enhance the marketability of their products. Even large, established distilleries have not been immune to the lure of (mis)using the title when it is convenient to do so.

Hubert Hubert Germain-Robin

For the job of a person who distills, though, the career path usually begins with attending a distillation school, then learning on-the-job as an assistant at a distillery. Traditionally, a son might follow his father’s, grandfather’s, and great-grandfathers’s footsteps into this role. Regardless of whether a person was born into the profession or decided upon it later in life… it usually takes somewhere between 7 to 10 years or more to fully master all the nuances of distillation.

Rather than becoming embroiled in the politics of the meaning of the title, let us explore what the term master distiller has historically meant by examining it in the context of three different cross-cultural distilling traditions: that of rum, Cognac, and bourbon. In order to gain a deeper perspective of the role of the master distiller, and more significantly, what it takes to become a “master” of the various professions within the trade, I interviewed three people from those traditions who are considered by their peers to be masters: Hubert Germain-Robin, Master Distiller and Master Blender of upscale alambic-style brandies; Luis Ayala, Rum Consultant, Master Distiller and Blender who works throughout the rum-producing world; and Dave Scheurich, a Master Distiller of world-class bourbon.
These men have more than a hundred years of combined experience, and have delved deep within each of their own distilling traditions. They have also in some way gone beyond the established boundaries within those traditions. Perhaps by profiling their careers, and by looking at their own definitions of what it take to be a “master,” we can understand the meaning more thoroughly.

Sheurich Dave Scheurich

“This individual,” Scheurich says, “should have a working knowledge of the following: microbiology, chemistry, mechanical aptitude, quality assurance, quality control analysis, lab testing, yeast propagation, environmental control, sanitation, budgeting, accounting, finance, human resources, personnel, legal, sensory judgment and analysis, agricultural, planning, forecasting, procurement, maintenance, power generation, boiler and waste management, security, contracting, leadership, fire protection, safety, OSHA, local, state and federal government regulations, emergency procedures and others.”

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