Master Distillers: A History, The Truth & Fake Bourbon

Master distiller is a commonly used term with no consistent definition.

Michter’s Willie Pratt and Bulleit’s Tom Bulleit are referred to as “master distiller” even though their companies are just now building their respective distilleries. (Note: Diageo does not market Bulleit as a master distiller, but he is commonly introduced as one in media and at events.) MGP Ingredients’ Greg Metze and Four Roses’ Jim Rutledge use the same title, but their duties are drastically different. Greg only makes distilled spirits, while Jim spends much of his time marketing Four Roses to consumers and media.

Craft distillers who started making distillate less than a year ago, former marketing managers and converted small business owners all call themselves master distillers right now. Perhaps, after taking a distilling class or receiving on-the-job training, they consider themselves qualified. But even if you disagree with their using the title, show me the contemporary position announcement that defines the job.

For such a specific title like master distiller, the duties range from talking to media and taking distributors to dinner and from smelling corn for mold to actually turning a knob for distilling. Hell, I could call myself a master distiller right now, buy six cases of bourbon and blend them for the “Old Minnick, America’s Smoothest Fake Bourbon” and nobody would stop me. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say I get away with the illegally making such a product, I assure you every newspaper story would title me as “master distiller” because they don’t know better. And why would I stop them? My master distiller title could help sell Old Minnick, America’s Smoothest Fake Bourbon.

Whiskey Women AdMaster distiller is catchy and authoritative. But it may surprise you that it is not new.

Believe it or not, master distiller goes back much further than the modern guys and gals signing bottles at WhiskyFest.

In my research, I’ve found several 1800s references to so-called master distillers. None were more poignant and defined than in the 1867 “Arts & Sciences” section of The English Cyclopaedia (Note: UK English spelling): “He tests the specific gravity of all the liquids as often as he pleases; he requires that the numerous pipes shall be painted, some black, some red, some blue, and some white, in order that he may know which is for the conveyance of wort, which for wash, which for the first spirit, and which for the finished spirit; he demands the aid of ladders and passages to give him access to every part of every piece of apparatus. In short, the master distiller is so thoroughly controlled in all the operations, that nothing but the prospect of large profits, arising out of a large business, would induce a manufacturer to wear such shackles.”

Even though it’s been more than 140 years, the above definition could still work today.

In the bourbon world, master distiller was frequently used before and after Prohibition. In the mid-1930s newspaper ads, trying to win over new post-Prohibition customers, Nicholas O. Blair championed himself the master distiller of The Blair Distilling Company in Chicago, Kentucky. “Nick Blair….was practically born a distiller,” a 1936 ad stated. “….Blair had been a full-fledged master distiller for ten years and was ready to carry on the business….”

Of the legendary Dant distilling family, Michael J. Dant’s December 27, 1956, obituary refers to him as the “oldest master distiller in Kentucky when he died….”

When Joseph L. Beam passed away, the former Heaven Hill distiller’s obituary lede: “A master distiller for more than 58 years…..” Interestingly, Joseph L.’s cousin, Col. Jim Beam, is referred to as the “oldest practical distiller” vs. master distiller in his 1947 obituary.

Nonetheless, the term existed in the olden days and was widely used.

It goes without saying that the average 1930s master distiller was more qualified than today’s. Back then, from what I’ve been able to gather in historical archives, Kentucky companies referred to their distillery hierarchy in this order: distiller, head distiller and then master distiller. They were actually distilling, too. Today, anybody can use the title, cheapening its meaning and worth on a résumé.

Popular brands like Jefferson’s, Pappy Van Winkle and Black Maple Hill are either contract distilling or purchasing warehouse barrels to blend their respective products. That doesn’t take away from their juice; it simply means they don’t have a true master distiller. (In all fairness, Julian Van Winkle informs people he’s not a distiller, but he’s commonly referred to as one.)

So, it’s just a suggestion: Maybe you don’t call yourself a master distiller if you’re not a master distiller. There’s no shame in mingling barrels together. In fact, I encourage all brands not distilling their own whiskey at their own distillery to create a new title–Master Mingler. That has a nice ring to it.


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4 Replies to “Master Distillers: A History, The Truth & Fake Bourbon”

  1. In older works, at least in the USA, you will see them called, “Master Distiller and Yeast Maker.” The ability to pluck a strong whiskey yeast from the Kentucky dew was at least as important as the ability to set up and run a distillery.

  2. Great piece Fred.

    I truly cringe when I see some of the folks carrying the title of Master Distiller, and it really diminishes the hard work of those who have legitimately earned the somewhat nebulous designation. While I may not know exactly what one is by definition….I know one when I see one.

    I have never claimed the title, and honestly, don’t believe I will ever learn enough in my remaining lifetime to own the title. Looking at the true Masters of the industry, the shoes to be filled are huge, and their legacies can be cheapened by throwing around the title loosely.

    Every once in a while, someone externally from our company will produce a piece of marketing material referring to me as a “Master Distiller”. While I have never made them take down the piece (and perhaps I should), I am quick to make the correction. I do this for two reasons. 1) I have not earned the title and 2) I honor those living and dead who earned the title.

    My belief that is Greg Metze is probably the closest thing we have in the industry to a true scientist/Master Distiller. Just like my father, until his later years, you would never see him out of his lab coat, and nobody on the planet had the global knowledge of the ENTIRE process like them. I see my son Kyle headed in the same direction, and while he is only 25 years old, I can see a time where he may earn the same honors.

    Unfortunately, Master Distiller is now a marketing designation, as opposed to a title earned with lifetime of knowledge in the industry.

  3. Completely agree with you. It takes time to “master” any occupation, and titles like that should be bestowed upon those who have earned it by those who have already earned it, for they are the only ones who can truly judge.

    In the rum world, the title of Master Blender is probably the most well-regarded–a title that is for the most part earned. Joy Spence of Appleton Estate is a prime example.


  4. There was a heated discussion on this recently in the American Distillers group on LinkedIn. Stephen Thomsen from Copoerhead Distilling had a very good idea of what HE wanted from the bloke wearing the “master distiller” title. Like Master Brewer anything else, without a universally recognized certification, the title is meaningless other than for marketing and clout, and those of us who know this poop are all slightly embarrassed to be considered a master when we are all too aware of how much we DON’T know. Maybe we should just take a page from the maritime trades, and just call the guy who is both the owner and the captain the “master.” Then he or she could marry couples in front of the still!

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