I am not a big fan of the term “Master Distiller”. It seems to me that it is being used so much that it is more of a show title without much meaning. To me it takes more than owning a still to become a Master Distiller. The idea of being a Master in any craft once meant that the person worked a long apprenticeship followed by more years as a journeyman before being judged a “Master” of the craft by their peers. You could own your own coopering tools and shop and still not be considered a “Master Cooper” until the other Masters in the craft judged you were ready to deserve the title. It also meant that to earn this title you would present to the other Masters a “Masterpiece” showing that you had indeed perfected the skills to be a “Master” in your craft.
There are many distillers working in the industry that are calling themselves a “Master Distiller” just because they own a still. Many of them are talented and will one day deserve the title. Caleb Kilburn at Kentucky Peerless is an excellent distiller who does not refer to himself as a Master Distiller, giving the reason that he still has a lot to learn before he deserves that title. I find his attitude refreshing and having tasted his whiskeys I have no doubt he will be deserving of the title when he claims it. The problem is it’s a title that anyone can claim even if they don’t even own a still. That was not the case in the past.
I was talking with some old friends that retired from the industry the other day and they can remember when the distilleries had three “Masters”: a distiller, a blender and a taster. The Master Distiller was in charge of making the whiskey from grain to beer to distillate. That person had to make sure it all went well at every step. The Master Blender was in charge of the aging process and selected the barrels to marry together for the final product. This person had to know where to go for the barrels needed to match the brands flavor profile. The Master Taster would be in charge of checking the work of the other two Masters. The Master Taster was had probably served in the position of Master Distiller or Blender, or even both before earning this position. All three positions were seen as important position and the final product was a team effort. Not all distilleries even used the term “Master” for these positions. They were jobs that had to be done to ensure quality of the whiskey, but it was not something that was marketed to the consumer.
The industry should set a standard as to what a “Master Distiller” really is or else it risks making the term a worthless title. Maybe there should be a judging by the peers as in the old days where a bottle of whiskey is presented to a group of Master Distillers to be determined if it is a Masterpiece. This would take time as I would think that a masterpiece whiskey would be at least two years old and most likely four years old or older. The judging should be done by distillers and not the public. Not writers, not bartenders or mixologists, but people who really know the process and can determine if that person has mastered the art of making whiskey. When that happens, then the term will really be a title of great prestige and honor.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl