Columns 12 October 2020

Anyone can become a master distiller – and therein lies the problem

Unlike a ‘Master of Wine’, someone calling themself a ‘Master Distiller’ needs no qualifications, and the title bestows no authority. And that has rather got under our spirits columnist's skin

Words by Joel Harrison

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Aside from learning to make better cocktails, one of the benefits of spending so much time at home this year has been the additional focus I’ve been able to bring to my negligible DIY skills. That time-consuming sprucing up of the old homestead that was all too easy to ignore finally bullied its way to the top of the lockdown ‘to do’ list. It did so in the fashion of an airline passenger at passport control who is late for his flight. “Alright then,” you mutter, grudgingly, under your breath. “Go ahead.”

  My DIY kit is housed in my garden shed. To any onlooker, it would appear an unremarkable place. For me, it is a Pandora’s box of tools, acquired over time, that bamboozle and delight in equal measure. Tools I would love to be able to use effectively, but which often seem to make situations worse rather than better.

  But while I may, arguably, be a bad workman, I am not about to make the mistake of blaming my tools. Indeed I’m more than happy to admit that the tools are not the problem. Do I own an expensive electric screwdriver? Yes. Does this make me a master craftsman? No. 

 

It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry when you compare this self-styled new generation with the real thing

Yet in the world of distilled spirits, everyone, it seems, can be an artisan. Here, the simple act of purchasing a still and plumbing it in (ironically often in a shed, hipster-style) gives licence to anyone who feels like it to call themselves a ‘master distiller’. And by far the worst culprit? New-wave producers of gin.

A spirit flavoured predominantly with juniper and balanced with other botanicals, gin is easy to make, yet hard to master. If you wanted to, you could set up your own gin distillery – licence-pending – for just a few hundred pounds. Many have. This open-door policy has driven the growth in the category over the last decade, but has also allowed anyone who pleases to purchase a still, produce some juniper-juice and call themselves a ‘master distiller’.

It puts me in mind of that great quotation from Homer (Simpson, that is, not the author of  the Odyssey). In one episode, when he’s setting up his own business, Homer observes: “What really matters is my title. I think I’ll make myself… vice president. No! Wait! Junior vice president.”

Homer Simpson, junior vice president of doughnuts

Unlike the less ambitious Homer, however, the untrained, untested, uneducated and undeterred ‘master distillers’ of gin know no such modesty. Why would they, when Virgin Experiences offers the chance to ‘Become A Master Distiller’ in a simple day-long course. 

I have come across several ‘master distillers’ recently. It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry when you compare this self-styled new generation with the real thing. In the world of gin, there is no better example of the latter than Desmond Payne MBE, master distiller at Beefeater. He joined the production team at Plymouth Gin in 1968, moved to Beefeater in 1995 and has been there ever since. One of the most humble people you could ever meet, he is lauded on both sides of the bar as the ‘Godfather of Gin’. There is not a gin-lover alive who would deny that Payne is a master of his craft.

He’s not the only one. The likes of Dr Anne Brock at Bombay Sapphire, Charles Maxwell at Thames Distillers and Joanne Moore at G&J Greenall’s can all own – and I really mean own – the title of master distiller. There are others, but the list is not endless, and nor should it be. This is not a list you can simply join. Simply ordering a business card with ‘Master Distiller’ on it is not enough.

According to the 'experience' industry, anyone can become a 'master distiller' by taking a simple one-day course

Some people realise this. Alex Davies, whose career has taken in Chase, Cotswolds and now the Kyoto Distillery in Japan, where he is responsible for the lauded Ki No Bi gin, is a Master Distiller in the making. Yet at Kyoto he holds the title head distiller, despite a portfolio of award-winning gins from three much lauded distilleries. Davies knows he is on a journey; one that is long and winding. Some, however, are not. The slew of start-ups in the back gardens of the Home Counties, the railway arches of East London, or in Brooklyn kitchens are not giving rise to a new generation of true master distillers.

Sure, owning a camera can make you a photographer. Owning a pen can make you a writer. And purchasing a still to make gin can make you a distiller. But it is continued and sustained success, respect within the industry, and an ability to teach and yet still learn, that elevates one to the title of ‘master’.

Now, pass me my screwdriver. And I mean the cocktail, not the tool.

True masters of their craft: Joanne Moore at G&J Greenall's (left) and Anne Brock at Bombay Sapphire (right)

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