So You Want to Be a Distiller?
So you want to be a distiller? The idea of taking raw ingredients and turning them into something people love sounds appealing to you?
Well, I don’t think you are alone. This is a dream probably shared by every fan of bourbon at one point or another.
It makes sense.
Bourbon is cool. It has an amazing history, the process allows for you to put your own stamp onto a product and distillers are held in the same light as rockstars within the the legions of fans of America’s Native Spirit..
What is the job really like, though?
Well, I have to say that I am lucky enough to call many distillers my friend. Yes, I have a lot of people I know in the bourbon world, but few are actual friends. Lucky for me, though, some true friends are distillers. Like, for instance, the trio from The Bourbon Daily’s recent Distiller’s Week. Yep, people like Adam Stumpf, Royce Neeley and Alan Bishop are people I am in contact inside and outside of work as much as anyone in my life outside of bourbon so I end up with some pretty unique insight into what the job is really like beyond running a still, giving tours and signing bottles.
Here’s a look at somethings to consider before you make the leap:
It’s Not Easy Work - Make no mistake, being a distiller isn’t tasting whiskey to decide when you want to make a cut and then heading over the rick house to sample whiskey for barrel profiles before heading out an evening bottle signing.. It’s lifting a lot of heavy stuff (grain, bottled product, barrels, etc.), standing on concrete floors all day working in a hot environment in the summer and a freezing one in the winter. The job can be tedious. Most distilleries aren’t Jim Beam. You make it, you bottle it. Bottling at a small distillery usually means filling between 1 and 4 bottles at a time… then labeling them. Many of the distillers I know can be found at the distillery at all hours of the night depending on what they are making. Not fun… not fun at all.
You Live and Die by Others Who Probably Really Aren’t Qualified to Provide a Professional Opinion - Your passion… your heart and soul goes into every bottle. You craft an idea, you sweat, you wait for it to mature. Who can wait six years, so you probably pull some early. How early? Who knows… a year… a year-and-a-half…. two years, maybe. You try to share some with customers to not only make some money, but to give them a preview of where you are going. Here comes a blogger… which doesn’t mean anything. It simply means he or she has access to a computer. There is no cost to being a blogger. There isn’t a livelihood on the line. There isn’t a passion or a lifelong dream but this person tries your preview and blasts you for selling a bourbon they call “young bourbon” in their “review.” Um, yeah, you totally missed the point there “blogger.”
You Have to be Smart - This is a total buzzkill for me. I mean I love bourbon. I think I could learn the process to run the equipment to actually make it but there is way more to it than just that. You have to know how to repair equipment. A distillery really is a factory. It’s a factory to make whiskey and one of your jobs it to keep everything in the place running. It’s also up to you to assess where you can gain efficiencies and install new equipment. I can’t do any of this stuff. This is where my dream of becoming a distiller ends.
You Have to Invest a Lot of Money (I mean really a LOT OF MONEY) - I don’t think anyone thinks it’s cheap to own a distillery, but I’m not sure if they have any idea about the magnitude of how much money is involved. For a small distillery… one that is going to serve just one community… like St. Louis for me… it’s probably a few million to really get rolling. If I want to do something that’s going to get me in several States and not just a market… let’s say 5-10 million. What if I want it all? I want to be a Bardstown Bourbon Company… a New Riff… a Wilderness Trail… a distillery that is looking to be a nationwide player? Well, based on the time it takes whiskey to mature we know that can’t happen overnight and it starts getting really expensive. If you are looking for a company with a 36” column still that is going to be able to look to large-scale distribution I know the cost because I know a couple of people trying to open this size operation and I’ve talked to them about there business plan. Thirty million dollars. Thirty million. That’s a lot of money, even for people with a lot of money.
Standing Out Isn’t Easy - There are a lot of distilleries opening up. Probably more bad than good. Standing apart from the sea of new distilleries isn’t easy. How do you make your mark on the industry when you are out funded, out advertised, and out social media-ed (not a real thing, but follow me) by the biggest companies in the industry? It’s not easy. It really isn’t.
So, why would anyone do it? Why in the hell would a single person put everything on the line for such a hard job where you have to mortgage everything you have to get in the game?
Well, there are all different answers to that question. It can vary from the call to be an entrepreneur to wanting to build something else to sell out to make a lot of money. I will say this, though, the ones that are good, the ones that truly have the passion have one trait in common. They aren’t doing this for the money. They aren’t doing this for the glory of signing bottles. They aren’t viewing it as just a job that they have.
Nope, not at all.
The true distillers, the ones I totally respect like my buddies Alan, Adam and Royce, they are doing it for the love of the craft. To be a part of something that’s been around for hundreds of years and to respect that history and heritage and know that if you do things right and make an unbelievable product, that while nobody is bigger than bourbon, maybe you can leave a little mark on it and contribute to this incredible spirit. That’s the true distiller. The ones who are doing for the love of bourbon.