So You Want To Be a Distiller
All photos by Devon Trevathan
Mashing in the morning, distillations by dawn, and a quick dram to close each evening - what’s not to love about being a distiller? Though the above notions are more romantic than they are realistic, there is a laundry list of reasons to join this industry, and no shortage of people who are heeding that call. Plenty of options are available to anyone who wishes to attend distilling school, from established universities to day-long courses.
Degree programs are the obvious choice for those who wish to make distillation their lifelong career. A four-year education offers the opportunity for students to explore every facet of fermentation science. When Colton Weinstein, Head Distiller for Corsair Distillery, was asked about the most important lesson he learned during his undergraduate study at Oregon State University, he said, “temperature control - basically a short way of describing the biochemistry behind yeast and fermentation,” rightfully pointing out that it is not a method widely used in this industry.
An additional benefit of degree programs is the opportunity to use actual stills. “We have two identical 60 liter steam-driven copper pot stills manufactured by Carl,” explains Dwayne Bershaw, lecturer in enology at Cornell University. “Each still may be operated as a simple pot still or connected to a three-tray rectification column. Thus we can demonstrate all types of distilled spirits production except vodka.”
If enrolling in a four-year education isn’t a viable option, diploma schools may be a better fit. Diploma programs cover varying levels of proficiency with tests at the end of each level. Most request or even require that students have some kind of experience prior to enrolling in the program, since there will be a fair bit of assumed knowledge.
The Institute of Brewing and Distilling is a well-respected educational body that has taught thousands of industry members their craft. In Chicago, the Siebel Institute boasts an impressive list of alumni who have gone on to achieve success in their distilleries, including Tim Russell of NY International Spirits Competition award-winning Maggie’s Farm Rum Distillery. “The two most valuable [lessons I received] were operations management and also TTB regulations,” Russell says of his experience at Siebel. “We got an entire day's worth of time with a Chicago-based TTB agent and I couldn't get enough of the legal aspects. That guided me on how to open my own distillery without any issues.”
For those who are interested more in the basics of distilling and the opportunity to get their feet wet, courses are offered at a number of reputable locations. Moonshine University is a popular option, and distilleries such as Dry Fly in Washington state offer private workshops to novices. These courses are typically one to five days in length and cover more of the broad strokes in distilling.
Knowledge is arguably the most critical prerequisite to growth in this industry. Whether it’s being received in the classroom or the mill house is up to the individual. “I've got to question anyone who thinks they've got it all figured out,” says Russell. “Five years into making rum I'm still learning from mistakes and tweaking my techniques to get better.”