Craft distilling continues to recapitulate the history of craft brewing. Just as the explosion of craft brewing in the 1990s, and then again about twelve years ago resulted in a shortage of skilled brewers, craft distilling’s rapid growth has led to a shortage of savvy distillers. Here’s how some are dealing with it.
“Every few weeks I am contacted asking if I am interested, will I consult, or if I know a distiller for hire. The offers are big and keep rising every year- six figures is common now,” says Maggie Campbell, head distiller for Privateer Rum.
With 905 distilled spirits plants (distilleries, rectifiers, bottlers) now operating or under construction in the US according to the American Distilling Institute, this makes for a whole lot of start-ups run by people new to the business.
The majority of the new distillery owners I meet fall into one of three categories: former engineers and other technical people looking for a mid-life project, brewers looking to expand into distilling, or wealthy people looking for creative business outlets. They bring a set of skills to their new pet projects, but nobody comes into the industry knowing everything to get from grain to glass successfully- and that’s where consultant distillers come in.
Campbell says, “I recently stumbled across two young people with massive potential (to become consultants), but they are rare and there is a shortage of experienced distillers. Not only are you a technical brewer, you need to be an adept distiller, and you need much of the insight of a winemaker for barrel aging, tasting, and selection.”
Like any type of consultant, some of the new distillers-for-hire are specialists. Former chief distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits Joel Elder announced this month the formation of his consultancy Quinta Essentia Alchemy, “focusing on small scale craft distillation and agriculturally sound practices.”
Elder trained as a brewer’s apprentice, then studied progressive agriculture and got interested in “value-added agriculture” that includes distilling, which brought him to Tuthilltown. He says one of his consultancy’s specialties will be building farmer relationships for small distilleries and looking into sourcing/distilling regional/heirloom grains for whiskey, for example.
Dave Pickerell has also found himself spending time with farmers lately, installing stills on actual farm properties including WhistlePig in Vermont, Hillrock in upstate New York, and Ragged Mountain Farm Distillery in Charlottesville, Virgina.
Since Pickerell left his position as master distiller at Maker’s Mark in 2008, he has built about 50 distilleries by his estimation. Because of his experience, he says, “I’m kind of in the catbird seat. I do get first dibs in a way.”
Pickerell says he has three main criteria for choosing whom to work with: Their personality, their business plan, and their willingness to learn. “They don’t have to do everything I say but they do have to listen. Beyond that it’s simply: ‘Do I have the bandwidth?’” he says.
When we talked consulting, the actual distilling part of being a consulting distiller didn’t come up too much. Instead, Pickerell talked a lot about construction codes and equipment installs. Apparently he is now a wizard with a forklift.
As for the most difficult part of being a consultant, Pickerell says it is, “getting people to do their jobs. It’s not mean- spirited people; it’s people who don’t know what’s going on because they haven’t had to deal with it before. It’s not unusual for me to build the first distillery that’s ever gone into a city. So you can’t expect the fire marshal to know how the code applies to barrels.”
Much of the work (and fun) of being a distiller seems to come from figuring things out oneself and engaging with other distillers in the field to solve issues as they arise. But once someone has gone through it all a few times, the job offers undoubtedly come in.
Campbell says, “Having a happy team you love is the secret to keeping talent right now, because you will be out-bid. If I was not married to our assistant distiller he surely would have been hired away by now.”