What do a former chef, police officer, wine taster, lawyer, home brewer, fireman, general contractor, and farmer all have in common? They all have become award winning distillers. With new craft distilleries opening every month, how does a startup find the right individual to run their stills? Given the shortage of experienced distillers, looking for the right candidate outside the industry may be the only option. What core skill sets would make a good distiller? What skills are crucial to running the day-to-day operations of a craft distillery? After the right candidate is found, how does this person begin a lifetime of learning?
A quick scan of the American Distilling Institute (ADI) Online Forums shows “Help Wanted” posts looking for distillers outpace the “Job Wanted” posts by almost 3 to 1 (http://adiforums.com/). Individuals with distillation experience, or even fermentation and brewery experience, are in high demand right now. Given the shortage of available experienced distiller candidates, some craft distilleries are connecting with professional recruitment services normally only used by larger distilleries. Even then, finding someone with real-world (and legal) distillation experience can be a challenge.
In the end, most startup craft distilleries will not be able to recruit an experienced head distiller. However, there are some key skill sets to look for when selecting this crucial member of the team. The most important and fundamental skill an aspiring distiller must have is a good palette. The ability to taste distilled spirits and identify subtle differences is critical. All the most advanced automated control systems in the world cannot replace the importance of being able to taste and smell spirits to make the correct cuts. The head distiller must also be able to evaluate the quality and flavors of spirits during barrel aging, determine what batches to blend, and even ensure the correct profile before the spirits are bottled. These skills sharpen with experience and training but must build on a core ability to taste and smell. Sherman Owen, Distillery Consultant and Owner of Artisan Resources LLC, says, “If you can taste the difference between Hunt’s and Heinz ketchup, you can learn to be a distiller.”
Besides having a strong palette, an aspiring distiller must be driven and have a strong work ethic. Eight-hour work days are a rarity in most craft distilleries. If there is an equipment breakdown, it may take twelve or more hours to distill a batch of spirits. Distilling vodka or gin may take a full day or beyond to completely finish. A distiller must be willing to stay with a project no matter what.
Another key skill set is to have a reasonable mechanical aptitude. If something is not running correctly, can they start to investigate what went wrong? Does the aspiring distiller have any experience fixing basic mechanical issues? Most craft distilleries do not have a full time maintenance staff. Instead of making the expensive call to bring in a mechanic or equipment vendor, can the distiller safely grab the right tools to troubleshoot the issue? A distiller doesn’t have to be able to completely rebuild a pump motor, but they should be able to identify if the pump stopped working because of a clog in the hose.
A distiller must not be afraid to get dirty. Distilling can be strenuous work, even with automated handling equipment and forklifts. Over half a distiller’s time will be devoted to cleaning and sanitizing. Commercial brewers can make good distillers not only because of their understanding of fermentation and alcohol regulations, but because of a brewery’s rigorous cleaning requirements. Grain left in an unrinsed fermenter is a magnet for bacterial infection. Once a distillery gets a bacterial infection, it can be very difficult to eliminate. If a bad bacterial infection gets in your fermenter due to a lack of cleaning discipline, it can stall your fermentation and kill your yeast. A distiller must be diligent to balance their time between running the distillery operations and cleaning up after each day.
Distillers must be open to learning new things. A distiller is going to learn something new every day. If a distilling candidate does not have distillation experience, they will be inundated with new experiences for the first several months. However, the learning never really stops. New distillers need to be like a sponge, learning as much as possible about all aspects of the industry. They should be open-minded about experimenting with new materials and tools. If there are issues with fermentation, they should learn what variables can be tweaked. Even the most experienced distillers will make mistakes, but the most successful distillers will learn from them and prevent them from happening again.
One of the many things that makes the distilling industry unique from most other small businesses is that it is highly regulated and taxed by the federal government, specifically the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Distillers must be organized and be able to keep copious notes. They must be able to learn and understand federal and state regulations to ensure compliance. If a distillery is audited and the distiller did not keep sufficient notes, the business could be heavily fined or shut down. The distiller’s role is crucial to ensure everything is organized and audit-ready. There are online systems to help track distillery production and federal excise tax liabilities, but the distiller needs to be disciplined and organized enough to enter the day’s transactions. It is also critical that an aspiring distiller who is thinking about getting into the industry knows that stealing or “bootlegging” cases from a distillery is a felony. This is a very important conversation to have with anyone thinking about getting into the business.
An aspiring distiller must be a leader. Owners and managers will lean on the head distiller to keep the pace of the team and distillery operations. Upstream, the distiller must ensure they have enough raw materials to cook, mash, ferment and distill. Downstream, the distiller must ensure they have enough empty tanks to hold the spirits. The distiller will drive the supply of spirits for filling barrels, batching recipes, proofing and blending, and even preparing for bottling. Each operation requires coordination, planning, materials, and labor. For many craft distilleries, it is the head distiller that provides the leadership that keeps all the working parts in sync.
A distiller must have charisma. Tourists, fans, locals, and other customers will patron a distillery for a chance to meet the distiller. When there are tastings at bars, liquor stores, distributors, or other events, the distiller should be there. To have a drink and chat with a head distiller is a highly coveted event along the bourbon trail in Kentucky. Consumers seek this unique experience from their local craft distilleries as well. Having a head distiller who is approachable and accessible will go a long way to create raving fans. They also must be passionate about what they are making. That passion and excitement will carry through when consumers come in for a tour.
Finally, a new distiller must completely understand the competitive landscape. Visit as many distilleries as possible, large and small. Build a good relationship with the surrounding craft distilleries. Go to a large liquor store and buy as many distilled spirits as possible and taste them all. Identify what is good and what can be improved. Find where your products fit into the mix regionally and potentially nationally. How do you want your product to taste? Can you tell the differences between similar product types? Subscribe to magazines with tasting notes of spirits. Research the award winning distilleries. Make the rounds and learn about the industry.
After finding the right candidate, where to begin a new distiller’s training? The best place to start is at a class focused on craft distillery operations. There are several classes available throughout the year including Six & Twenty’s Distillery Management Course in Piedmont, SC (http://www.letsdistill.com/), Camp Distillery at MB Roland in Pembroke, KY (http://mbroland.com/camp-distillery/), various American Distilling Institute’s (ADI) Workshops across the country (http://distilling.com/events/distilling-workshops/), and many others. New distillers should attend the two major annual distillery conferences; American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) and ADI. The ACSA conference is a great opportunity to network with established distillers and learn about issues impacting the industry. The ADI conference is a great source of education about the distilling industry for all levels of experience. Talk with vendors to see what the latest technology can offer the distilling world. Can the new distiller mentor or shadow at another distillery for a week? This could be some of the best education available.
With hundreds of new craft distilleries opening every year, it will be a long time before there are enough experienced distilling professionals to fill every need. However, if a passionate, hardworking, organized, and eager individual with a strong palette has the drive, they can make a fantastic distiller. The head distiller is the true face of the distillery so they must be a team leader. Once the right individual is found, the lifetime of education begins. Taking classes, networking at conferences, and meeting fellow distillers can give a new distiller the foundations to grow on. After a lifetime of education, fine tuning your skills and experimentation with new techniques, you too can become a master of your craft.