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Who’s The Real “Master?” – The Master Distiller or Master Blender?

There are Masters of Science and Masters of Arts, and then there are Masters of Distilling and Masters of Blending. Which two do you think we’re going to be talking about?

There’s a maze of terminology to sort through in the whiskey world, and job titles are right up there with them. Along with master blenders and master distillers, at some typically larger and older brands you may find titles such as master of wood or master of maturation. I haven’t yet found a master fermenter, but then I Googled it, and saw that people do use the title, although my quick research was yielding those in the culinary realm as opposed to spirits. Maybe we’ll keep it that way.

But this lead me to the subject of which “master” is more important than the other. Is there such a thing? Who is the most indispensable person of any operation, the one you can most readily thank for that delicious dram you just downed? Yes, we realize this is a somewhat silly—I prefer lighthearted— endeavor. But all of us in the whiskeysphere tend to take ourselves, and the subject, entirely too seriously. So let’s have some fun. Who’s the capital ‘M’ Master in the room?

Jimmy Russell
Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell is one who has definitely earned his title. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

Deciphering the Roles

The starting point is that different areas generally emphasize certain roles over others. There’s more of an emphasis on master blenders in Scotland, and certainly Japan, as opposed to the United States, where the master distiller comes more to the forefront.

“The master blender role evolved in Scotland in the 19th century to manage the increasingly complex inventories held by Scotch whisky companies owning a number of distilleries and whisky brands,” explains Rachel Barrie, who’s held the title of master blender at some of the biggest names in Scotch and now does so for BenRiach, The GlenDronach, and Glenglassaugh. “Scotch whisky inventories consist of hundreds of thousands of casks from different distilleries ranging in age from 0 to over 50 years old, in a variety of different cask types and different warehouses.

“This diversity means that Scotch whisky is arguably the most complex spirit in the world with an unsurpassed level of taste complexity,” she continues. “The master blender’s role manages this complexity to optimize, protect, sustain and continuously evolve flavor profiles whilst shaping future portfolio strategy.”

For Barrie, Scotch is the most complex spirit in the world. For Dr. Don Livermore, master blender for Hiram Walker & Sons, Canadian whisky is the most adaptable. “Have you ever seen my new whisky flavor wheel?” he asked me during a recent conversation. “It explains the role of a blender, because really, you have to understand where your flavors come from. From a blenders point of view, flavor comes from three places.”

His wheel showcases that triumvirate of yeast, grain, and wood, further segmenting individual characteristics and indicating the corresponding molecular makeup. It’s the best and most intricate flavor wheel I’ve yet seen.

“These are the strings to pull on, the paint on my palette to bring in those flavors by knowing how it’s distilled, how it’s aged, and what type of grain type went into it,” Livermore says. “That’s the beautiful thing about blending. When you understand those things, the world is your oyster.”

You can tell Livermore is excited discussing the subject, his passion radiating through. He goes onto further explain that the way Canadian whisky’s regulations are set up, with minimal restrictions, makes the category more flexible —and while he would never say this directly, and constantly credits every single person other than himself—the role of blender potentially all the more important. “I think that’s what makes Canadian the most adaptable whisky there is,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be a blender anywhere else in the world.”

Of course, he’d be unlikely to find a juicy master blender gig south of the border, with America’s emphasis on the distillation portion of the game. “I think it’s how the category is set up,” Livermore says.

Aha, now we’re getting some place. It’s not some geographical standard or oddity but rather the reflection of the type of whisky being made, and in what fashion. The majority of Canadian whisky is blended, as is the majority of Scotch. Not so in America, of course.

“At our distillery, we don’t have a master blender,” says Fred Noe, Jim Beam’s master distiller.”I’m in charge of the entire process, but we’ve got a number of very experienced and knowledgeable experts contributing to the crafting of our products. The titles of ‘master distiller’ and ‘master blender’ really don’t tell the whole story.”

Making bourbon from a single distillery naturally places more of an emphasis on distillation, while other production methodologies and category styles naturally emphasize blending. “For some whiskies, such as Scotch and Japanese, the blending portion of the process is a crucial art component that requires master blenders,” Noe says.

Let’s look east then, to Japanese whisky.

“At Suntory Whisky, blending is key to create the signature subtle, refined yet complex flavors that are characteristic of our whiskies,” says Shinji Fukuyo, Suntory Whisky’s chief blender. This has been true from the beginning of our whisky making history, when Shinjiro Torii, the first Suntory Whisky master blender, used his gifted nose to create a Japanese whisky suited to Japanese palates through blending.”

With the wizardry of their myriad still shapes and sizes, along with variables such as fermentation and cask type, Suntory can produce over 100 types of whisky. Even with “only” three distilleries at their disposal then, the multitude of whiskies to play with creates the effect of pulling from potentially dozens of distilleries, as blended Scotch whisky can, and in turn emphasizes the blend.

Each Master is the Conductor

“There is not much of a difference in the role between a master distiller and master blender,” Fukuyo says. “The biggest difference is in how the whiskies are produced in the different regions. Bourbon, for example, is not a blended product. Therefore the person in charge of quality maintenance is the master distiller.”

He strikes upon that same key point — it comes down to what you’re making, and how you’re making it. “At Suntory, however, we blend our whiskies to produce our signature subtle, refined yet complex profile,” Fukuyo says. “Thus the person in charge of quality maintenance is the master blender. Each ‘master’ is the overall conductor of his work. The title just happens to be different.”

Fukuyo’s position as chief blender is also unique. He’s the fourth-ever chief blender for the company, while Shingo Torii is Suntory’s third generation master blender. “The master blender is a unique and vital role at Suntory as this position is filled by our owner and has been passed down through the Torii family for three generations beginning with our first master blender, Shinjiro Torii,” Fukuyo explains. “The master blender plays an essential role in determining the final profile of all our whiskies. In addition, the master blender is responsible for deciding the direction in which Suntory Whiskies are to go in terms of recipe, and identity.

“The Chief Blender is responsible for day to day quality maintenance,” Fukuyo continues. “This includes tasting whisky samples every day to check for peak maturation, maintaining our stock for use in the near and far future, and creating blends for new and current products.”

So where have we gotten? Distillers and blenders work together along with all aspects of whisky’s production, of course. And titles are emphasized more in accordance with the style of whisky being made, as opposed to one role being deemed more important than the other.

“When it comes to blended Scotch, it’s the master blender, and if it’s a single malt scotch, it’s a master distiller, right?” Livermore asks rhetorically. “It’s probably how the regulations are more than anything else.”

That, at least, seems to be something everyone can agree upon.

“Just as the fermentation is just as important as the distillation and the aging process, distillers and blenders are equally important,” Noe says.

“It’s all about teamwork – no one person can do it all!” Barrie adds. “In any organization, no individual is ever running the entire show, whether in production or at board level.”

Whether you’re called a master distiller or a master blender, the most important point in closing may be this —the title is earned. It’s bestowed, perhaps even passed down. But it should never be assumed or haphazardly doled out. I can’t be the only one rolling my eyes when yet another brand new distillery opens its doors, with a first-time distiller fresh off a two-week Distilling 101 crash course brandishing the self-given “master” designation. Enough of that, please.

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Jake Emen

Jake Emen is a freelance writer based in San Diego, and a lover of all types of whiskey. He's passionate about food, drink and travel, and lucky enough to write on such topics as he explores both newly burgeoning regions around the United States, and others across the globe. For whiskey and spirits coverage, he has been published in outlets including USA Today, Maxim, GQ, Whisky Advocate, AFAR, Vice Munchies, Eater Drinks, Tasting Table, The Washington Post Express, Distiller, and various others. Follow him @ManTalkFood.

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