Jimmy Russell. Parker Beam. Jim Rutledge. Jeff Arnett. These are some of the most prominent names in distilling and they have all held the title of master distiller at some point. If you’re new to drinking American whiskey, you may not know these names just yet. But to many whiskey fans, the mere mention elicits awe and heart palpitations. Certainly you’ve heard of the distilleries where these gentlemen have held or currently hold the title: Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Four Roses and Jack Daniel’s, respectively. These master distillers are the liquor world’s equivalent to Jagger, Presley, Plant and Bowie. (Fun game: who would be Bowie in this scenario? Discuss.) But what is a Master Distiller exactly and how does someone become one?
Master Distiller Defined
It seems like a reasonable question to ask. What is a master distiller? But it’s a tricky question to answer because, depending on who you ask, the explanations can vary wildly. For many folks in the biz the general consensus is this: a Master Distiller is someone who can walk into any working distillery, take over, and be able to have it running on their own terms within a week. That doesn’t sound super exciting, but think about what that scenario really entails. This hypothetical distiller needs to have an immense amount of knowledge and experience in order to pull this kind of stunt off.
Former Four Roses Master Distiller Emeritus Jim Rutledge /Photo Credit: Four Roses
There’s a big world of distilleries out there and they all work differently from each other. To be able to walk into one at random and have it working at perfect pace within a week is a tall order for almost anybody. This kind of situation does occur from time to time when distillers are asked to take over after a staff reshuffle or the company changes hands. It pays to have someone supremely knowledgeable at the helm.
Masters of Their Craft
In fact, the kind of knowledge required for this type of hypothetical is exceedingly rare. Distilling is a complicated brew of sensorial art, physical chemistry, engineering expertise, quality control, and enough paperwork to make a bureaucrat cry. The aforementioned gentlemen are all folks with the talent for the task. They and a handful of others are masters of their craft. They are rightfully revered.
Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett /Photo Credit: Jack Daniel’s
So, how do you become a Master Distiller? It helps to work at a distillery. That’s a good starting point. After that all you need to do is have some business cards printed with the title master distiller next to your name. Yep. That’s all it takes. It turns out that there isn’t currently a way to regulate such things.
“Where’s Your Boiler?”
There’s an industry fable (supposedly true) that occasionally gets retold to illustrate this very point.
A new distillery was opening up and had purchased a nice still from a well known still manufacturer. After everything was installed, the master distiller called up the still manufacturer complaining that the still would not heat up. The manufacturer sent someone down to inspect the problem. Upon entering the distillery and speaking with the master distiller, the repairman turned around and asked, “Where’s your boiler?” Apparently, this “master distiller” had no idea that the still required heat from a steam boiler and had neglected to purchase that oh-so-essential piece of equipment. (It turns out that this particular “master distiller” had never distilled before.)
Wild Turkey Master Distillers Jimmy & Eddie Russell /Photo Credit: Wild Turkey
It’s a shame honestly, because the title of master distiller means something to the customer. This is someone who knows the ins and outs of every aspect of their distillery and trade. They can run the stills, the mash tuns, the cellar and the bottling lines with ease. They’ve paid their dues and passed their craft onto the next generation. These are the alchemists of the modern age, adept and influential scholars of the ethanolic arts that can create magic from the humblest of ingredients.
Experience alone is what makes you a master distiller. There are some not so great distillers out there who call themselves masters, but there are a lot of great ones as well. Likewise, there are quite a few talented folks who don’t or won’t use the term but are still making incredible spirits. The title master distiller doesn’t confer any magical abilities or knowledge upon the bearer. All the same though when you taste the work of someone like Jimmy—and now Eddie—Russell, you know you’ve come into something incredible. Something made by a true Master.
Now that we’ve answered the question “What is a master distiller?” it’s time to try some of their creations.
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