Many skilled distillery workers are leaving their jobs at the established distilleries. It is not surprising to me. It is a job market that is growing rapidly. There are a lot of opportunities for skilled distillery workers. In the last decade there have been over two thousand new distilleries established in the United States. These distilleries need workers and if they have the money backing them, they will try to hire experienced workers from established distilleries.

In the 1990s, there were about a dozen established distilleries in the United States making whiskey, brandy and other spirits. That began to grow by the end of the century, slowly at first, but at a steady rate. By 2010, the growth of new distilleries was beginning to have explosive growth. The demand for whiskey is still growing and so is the number of distilleries being built. Talented distillers can easily find employment.

A first, there were many retired distillers who were willing to take on new projects. Steve Nalley went to Wyoming to help start the Wyoming Whiskey Distillery when he retired from Maker’s Mark.  Lincoln Henderson started Angel’s Envy with his son Wes. Steve Thompson founded Kentucky Artisan Distillery after he retired from Brown-Forman. Willie Pratt went to work at Michter’s after his retirement from Brown-Forman. 

At the beginning of the growth, the job market for experienced people was easily filled with such people. An experienced person could fill the other jobs needed with people who they could train, but they also saw a growth in schools who were training people in the distilling industry. The Universities started offering courses in distilling and related subjects. Moonshine University was established in Louisville and offered a quick training in distilling and establishing a distillery. Still, the demand for skilled workers was growing at a faster rate than these schools could provide trained workers. Besides, experience is the best teacher, so people working in the industry are in demand.

So why should a skilled worker leave their job? It can be for several reasons. In some cases, it is simply about money. If they can get more money working somewhere else, they will take the new job. But more often, I believe it is about the challenge and freedom of working for a newly established distillery. A distiller may want to be able to create new mash bills and experiment with different distillation and barrel entry proofs. 

Established distilleries have established brands that have been made one way for decades. They are not going to let the distiller change that, nor should they. Don’t mess with success! But, that could leave a distiller with a feeling of constraint and boredom. In that case, when a new opportunity comes open and they see a chance to create their own whiskey, they take it. If it fails, the job market is still strong and they can find other work.

Historically, this has happened before. In the last half of the 19th century there was a rapid growth in the distilling industry similar to what is happening now. Many experienced distillers were lured into new jobs at newly established distilleries. Others went on to open their own distilleries. E.H. Taylor, Jr. hired a distiller who had worked at the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery and trained under James C. Crow, to be his distiller at O.F.C. J. P. Dant took what he had learned working at his father’s distillery, J.W. Dant and started what would become the Yellowstone distillery. The Ripy family and the Beam family are full of examples of distillers hired to work at newly established distilleries. 

I am not surprised when I read about a person leaving a distillery to go somewhere else. It is a strong job market for their talents and it will continue to be so. Talented people will go on to new challenges and the industry is better for it. 

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Michael Veach