How Anyone Can Become a Distiller

Left to right: Yuseff Cherney (Photo Cutwater Spirits); Elizabeth McCall (Photo Woodford Reserve); Jamie Oakes (Photo Tamworth Distilling)
Left to right: Yuseff Cherney (Photo Cutwater Spirits); Elizabeth McCall (Photo Woodford Reserve); Jamie Oakes (Photo Tamworth Distilling)

There has been a boom in U.S. craft spirits producers over the last decade, thanks to relaxed legislation and increased demand for locally made food and drink.

From 2018–19, the industry grew by 11%, according to data from the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA). The trade group says that as of last year, there were more than 2,000 active craft distillers in the country.

If you chat up a distiller during a tour or a tasting, you’re as likely to find a former lawyer or engineer at the helm as someone born into the business.

Becky Harris, chief distiller of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville, Virginia, graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin. She was a successful chemical engineer who specialized in industrial processes. In 2009, her husband, Scott, a government contractor, suggested that they launch a distillery.

If he could write a successful business plan that utilized their savings, she told him, Harris would work for free.

“I wasn’t worried about the technical aspect, as I made things like copper and nickel plating,” she says. “If I had learned to do those, I can learn distillation.”

Becky Harris of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company standing next to barrels of rye whiskey
Becky Harris / Photo courtesy Catoctin Creek Distilling Company

Harris is proud of Catoctin Creek’s impact on Virginia spirits and craft distilling, but she debunks one big misconception. “There is this romantic notion of walking in the fields stroking your rye plants and then staring at your burnished copper still.”

Instead, she says, distillers’ day-to-day lives are filled with unglamorous tasks like scouring stills, dumping barrels and doing inventory. But it can be an amazing career for those passionate enough.

If your dream is to become a craft spirits producer, here are a few paths to help get there.

Start with homebrewing.

Brewing is a common first step for many distillers, as most spirits start off as a fermented beverage akin to beer.

A University of California, San Diego grad, Yuseff Cherney was on track to obtain a law degree when he struck up a conversation with the owner of a store where he bought home brewing supplies. Soon, Cherney transformed a back room of the shop into a test kitchen for his experiments.

The shop evolved into Ballast Point Brewery, where Cherney served as head brewer and distiller from 1998 to 2016. It’s there that Cherney made his first still from an upside-down beer fermenter. He credits the success of his San Diego distillery, Cutwater Spirits, to his experience in beer.

“Knowing the science behind fermentation and having a keen eye for cleaning regimens and packaging was…instrumental in producing award-winning spirits,” says Cherney.

Yuseff Cherney of Cutwater Spirits sampling the alcohol gravity of his spirits
Yuseff Cherney / Photo courtesy Cutwater Spirits

Take your existing background a step further.

Jared Adkins is the founder/master distiller of Bluebird Distilling in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. With a degree in management and accounting from Saint Francis University in tow, Adkins was accepted to a manufacturing program with PepsiCo to work with high-speed bottles.

Interested in craft spirits and beer, his father handed him an article about the state’s distilling laws.

“That was the lightbulb,” he says. “I began to research and travel to any distillery within a six-hour drive to find out more.” Adkins also attended a distilling course at Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago to bolster his manufacturing expertise.

Jared Adkins of Bluebird Distilling standing near copper stills
Jared Adkins / Photo courtesy Bluebird Distilling

Don’t limit yourself to alcohol, and learn from others’ experience.

Jamie Oakes, distiller at Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire, also touts his brewing background. In his case, it’s coffee.

Oakes bounced around after high school and earned a degree in commercial arts from Rochester Institute of Technology. A bartender in college, Oakes fell in love with coffee after he moved to Philadelphia. For many years, he worked as a barista and learned the nuts and bolts of espresso and coffee equipment.

“Brewing [coffee] and distilling have a great bit of crossover…for the sensory evaluation alone,” says Oakes.

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After moving back to his native New Hampshire and assuming his role with Tamworth, Oakes traveled around the country to learn more about other distillers’ equipment. He then spent more than 20 hours a week in a woodshed in the mountains where he tinkered with his homemade stills.

“I would use ice chunks from snowfall to chill the distillate condensing worm,” Oakes recalls. “It gave me a healthy respect for working over a live-fire still and an admiration for the craftspeople that built our current equipment.”

Jamie Oakes of Tamworth Distilling, packing cases of spirits on the bottling line
Jamie Oakes / Photo courtesy Tamworth Distilling

Work your way up through related roles.

Though Elizabeth McCall’s mother worked in the Bourbon industry, she didn’t plan to follow in the family footsteps. Instead, McCall pursued a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Louisville.

But when she heard about a technician position in Woodford Reserve’s Sensory Department, she applied for the job. McCall took advantage of the company’s internal education opportunities and made an impression on master distiller Chris Morris. He took McCall under his wing to train as a master taster.

In 2018, McCall was promoted to assistant master distiller and is currently one of the country’s youngest female distillers.

Elizabeth McCall of Woodford Reserve in the whiskey barrel house
Elizabeth McCall / Photo courtesy Woodford Reserve

Take a course.

McCall’s trajectory may not be easy to replicate, but she advises to take courses at the many universities that offer programs in distilling, often tied to brewing or winemaking.

Among these are Oregon State, California Polytechnic State University and Auburn University. Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London also offer distilling programs. For those who want to test the waters, Moonshine University in Louisville offers a six-day distiller course, as well as shorter classes on topics like how to get products to market.

Oakes suggests hopefuls utilize resources offered by the ACSA and American Distilling Institute (ADI).

“Fumbling and trial and error can be illuminating, but starting with all the information you can gather is clearly a massive benefit,” he says.

Harris credits the helpfulness of the ACSA, which is owned and operated by small distilleries.

“There is a collegiality to it,” she says. “When you give your time to it, you can build bonds with other distillers.”

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Manage expectations.

Harris and Adkins say that one of the most challenging aspects of being a craft distiller is to sell your product amid competition from larger companies that possess deep pockets.

“Hold off on the appeal to spread wide and thin,” says Adkins. “Focus on your hometown, region and state, and create an awesome tasting room. There is plenty of business in your backyard.”

Published on May 11, 2020
Topics: Spirits Basics