In the world of whiskey, although there might not be a commonly accepted, uniform definition of what constitutes a “Master Distiller,” what is agreed upon is that the term generally means one with much experience in their field. Often, too, the term engenders much respect. Below, we tell you about five of the greatest in this field, from different brands, with different stories.
Take, for example, Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey. Now 80, Russell is still enjoying being ensconced in the ultra-elite world of Master Distillers. These days, Russel can’t go to an outing at a bar without being recognized. This is much different than his early days of working with the bourbon barrels in his home state of Kentucky, with his father and grandfather. Russel, though, is one of the original “Master Distillers” and therefore, finds an audience everywhere he goes.
Another Kentucky resident and Master Distiller, with wildly different demographics than Russel, is Marianne Barnes. Barnes, who currently works at Old Taylor Reserve, is one of the few females, and even fewer millennials, who holds the title of Master Distiller. Prior to her current position, Barnes worked as Master Taster at Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve. Barnes has been called the “first female head distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition,” and before making her name in the world of whiskey, came from a background of chemical engineering.
Harold Ferguson, Master Distiller at Canadian Mist, is one of the best known personalities in the world of Canadian whiskey. Ferguson is a Montreal native and has been the Master Distiller for Canadian Mist since 1969. A life spent among whiskey certainly gives Ferguson a leg up on his knowledge of all things whiskey.
Bourbon isn’t the only type of whiskey that enjoys the history and tradition of the position of Master Distiller. Glenlivet’s Master Distiller, Alan Winchester, developed a Masters’ Distiller’s Reserve range collection for his brand. Winchester has worked in Scotch for over 40 years and was named Master Distiller of Glenlivet in 2009, after having worked there since 1979. He worked his way up the ranks of Glenlivet and says “it’s more of a passion than a career.”
Finally, in a place known for its long standing traditions, the tradition of Master Distiller does not disappoint. Japanese whiskey, which has been very popular over the past several years, also employs Master Distillers to oversee their products. Mike Miyamoto is Master Distiller at the popular Suntory brand, and calls the process of Japanese whiskey making “continuous refinement.” Miyamoto, like most Master Distillers, is immensely knowledgeable about all things whiskey. Miyamoto heads up Suntory’s Yamazaki Distillers Reserve, Hakushu’s Distillers Reserve, Hakushu 12 year old, and Hibiki Japanese Harmony, among others.
The grand tradition of Master Distillers is one that will continue to endure throughout whiskey-making, both in the States and abroad. The Master Distillers we’ve discussed above are some of the best in the business, having taken time to establish their careers and their base of knowledge about whiskey.