The drinks world proliferates with various masters like master blenders and master distillers. But do these terms have any validity or are they just marketing flimflam? Ian Buxton investigates. 

The lovely new packaging’s all done, the paint’s drying on the achingly fashionable ‘brand home’, the website’s about to launch and I’ve installed the plug-and-play still I bought off the web – in fact, my box-fresh distillery is good to go. Time to order some spiffing new business cards (letterpress, of course).

But what to put on them?

Well, no problem. I’m the ‘master distiller’ of course. Let’s skip over the admittedly uncomfortable fact that my ‘experience’ consists of a few days on a ‘craft distilling’ course and some late nights with a textbook I found on Amazon. And perhaps best forget that, until I handed in my notice, I was a butcher, baker, or candle maker. After all, distilling – how hard can it be?

When I was a lad…

I apologise for yet another article along the lines of ‘when I were a lad’… but not so very long ago we’d never heard of ‘master distillers’, or ‘master blenders’ for that matter. But, recalling my early days in whisky, what distilling had was distillery managers, production directors, and blenders – all, for the most part, largely anonymous figures who worked in the background, at least as far as the consumer was concerned. Distillery managers made spirit, blenders put the whiskies together, and production directors lunched and played golf. They weren’t celebrities and had little or no public profile. In fact, as I recall here, the public wasn’t all that welcome in the average distillery.

So I found myself wondering: what do the impressive-sounding titles master distiller and master blender actually mean? After all, you can’t just rock up at the docks, call yourself a Master Mariner and assume command of the first vessel that takes your fancy. That particular and highly valued qualification requires years of practical experience and passing some serious examinations; little wonder then that it’s internationally respected.

Even in the world of bread, a Master Baker would be expected to have many years’ experience (a full eight years in the USA) and hold relevant qualifications such as an HND in Baking and Food Processing or a Diploma in Professional Bakery. And, as one authority confirmed to me, “anyone claiming Master Brewer status who had not qualified via the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD) or the equivalent German body would be regarded as charlatan, cad, and fraud”. And to be a Master of Wine takes years of study with a high chance that you will fail.

Jancis Robinson

To be a Master of Wine like Jancis Robinson takes years of study

No mention of master distillers

Looking for the origins of the titles master distiller and master blender, I turned to Philip Morrice’s Whisky Distilleries of Scotland and Ireland (1987) and can find neither term mentioned, as Morrice describes only brewer, distillery manager, and distillery director. Similarly, the exhaustive Scotch Whisky Industry Record (1994) by H Charles Craig, a highly respected former MD and chairman of Invergordon Distillers (also known as ‘The Nose’) doesn’t admit to either as a job description.

It appears that they are a marketing creation of recent vintage – probably originating no more than two decades ago as consumer interest in production grew and marketing departments saw advantage in the promotion of the arcane lore and esoteric arts of their distilling counterparts. Significantly, a pamphlet from the early 1990s, The Blender’s Art published by John Walker & Sons describes Turnbull Hutton as “the present master blender” – without capitalisation, going on to state that “his role is rather like that of the conductor of a great orchestra”.

Industry veterans

To confirm my theory I spoke to two recently retired industry veterans. Alan Winchester, master distiller emeritus (now there’s a title) for Chivas Brothers, recalled that “my title when I retired was distilling manager, the master distiller was my brand ambassadorial part of the job”, going on to suggest that “as The Glenlivet is number one single malt in the USA, it was easier for the marketing teams to introduce the distillery manager as a master distiller, as the title was better understood by the Americans”.

Similarly, Alan Wolstenholme, formerly of Diageo, William Grant & Sons and more recently an honorary professor at Heriot-Watt University and chairman of the Scottish Whisky Awards, agreed with me, suggesting that “it [master distiller] has only become prevalent in the last 20 years or so. It was never a thing before that and folk were just distillers or blenders,” adding that “I used to say that it should only be conferred by one’s peers but generally seemed to be conferred by any marketing department”.

Alan Winchester, Glenlivet

Master distiller Alan Winchester with very old cask

An actual qualification 

So my case rests – but there has recently been an important development, which aims to restore the credibility and status of the master distiller title. Together with Diageo’s Douglas Murray as IBD Diploma in Distilling examiners, Wolstenholme has persuaded the IBD examination board to set up a qualification equivalent to that of master brewer covering various distilling cultures, not just Scotch.

It consists of four exam papers, (normally taken once a year) and a project which must be mentored and sponsored. The focus is on the practical application of distilling skills, not as far as I could see writing a blog, signing bottles, or presenting at whisky festivals!

Within the last year, a small number of brave pioneering candidates have stayed the course and been awarded their M.Dist by the Institute and now count as QUALIFIED Master Distillers (hence the capital letters). These include Paul Mundie from William Grant & Sons, Ian Thorn from the Gospel Distillers in Melbourne, and Tambudzai Makunde from African Distillers in Zimbabwe. Congratulations newly-minted Master Distillers! To learn more about what’s involved in reaching the pinnacle of professional distilling qualifications you can visit the IBD website.

It does not, however, explain how you are going to fit this impressive new title on your business card.

Header photo courtesy of the Helsinki Distilling Company.