Most of us in our youth will have been asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Some people have had one career firmly in mind from a young age, and others jump from one vocation to another every other week for many years; from doctors, to astronauts, to rock stars, to mixologists. Furthermore, with the global job market constantly evolving and changing, there are perhaps more careers to choose from now than ever before, with varying levels of obscurity. Nowadays, it seems, people can make a living out of just about anything, whether it’s running their own cereal café, streaming live video game playthroughs, or reading bedtime stories to cats (one of these may be made up).
For most of the more “traditional” career paths, there are often many years’ worth of intensive study and training involved, and further learning on the job as a means of progressing up the professional ladder. Indeed, one could argue that one of the most traditional, time-honoured and treasured trades in the world lies in the drinks industries. Beer-brewing, wine-making and, you guessed it, whiskey-distilling, go back hundreds and hundreds of years, after all; and demand for top quality pints, pinots and drams has only grown with improvements and innovation in production techniques. With a new academic year looming on the horizon, therefore, and with Irish whiskey making a spectacular comeback in recent years the question on our minds is: what does it take to establish a career in whiskey production?
Guardian writer Liz Ford describes the practices of brewing and distilling as one that brings together “the best of art and science”*, and with so many new, creative distilleries bringing modern thinking to traditional distilling processes, not to mention experimenting with adventurous combinations of flavours, there has never been a better time to explore a career in this industry. This is particularly true of the Irish whiskey scene, and there are plenty of opportunities out there for aspiring master distillers both in Ireland and further afield.
For those interested in pursuing the academic route into a distilling career, Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University houses the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling, open to on-campus and distance-learning students alike for their MSc/Postgraduate Diploma in Brewing and Distilling. After nine months of taught courses, students can choose to either graduate with their Diploma, or undertake a three-month research project to qualify for their MSc. Core courses at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling include ‘Cereals, Malting and Mashing’, ‘Distilling and Whiskey Maturation’, and ‘Filtration and Packaging’, among other courses geared towards beer-brewing and management within the food and drinks industry. Applicants to these courses require a degree in science or engineering to be considered eligible, so studying to become a distiller, much like whiskey production itself, takes time and dedication.
That being said, it isn’t unheard of for distilleries to take on employees without a formal qualification, provided they are committed to learning on the job. There is a lot to be said, moreover, for a more practical, hands-on approach, paired with a sincere passion for the trade, than what academic study can offer; novice distillers can gain in-depth knowledge on a particular distillery’s inner workings, develop specialist skills, and possibly even progress into other departments within that distillery, such as HR, Marketing and Hospitality. To quote Coors Brewers Director of HR Operations, Kirsty Derry, in Liz Ford’s article: “If graduates have a brewing and distilling degree, that’s fabulous – but we support people to learn on the job, regardless of what they have studied.”
For learning opportunities a little closer to home, the Irish Whiskey Academy, a Cork-based training facility opened in 2013, offers a broad range of short-course packages on the art and science of distilling. These courses include a one-day Discovery package that covers the full whiskey production process, from the raw materials right through to bottling and, most importantly, tasting, and a fascinating Distiller’s Apprentice Tour, which covers the grain-to-glass journey along with an insight into Irish whiskey’s great heritage.
For a more informal approach to a whiskey education, Killarney-based company The Irish Whiskey Experience welcomes visitors to enjoy classes in blending their own Irish spirit, mixing the perfect Irish whiskey cocktail, and discovering the best pairings of Irish whiskey and chocolate. While these classes focus less on the actual distilling process than those offered by other institutions, the tasting sessions on offer are still highly informative. Not only that, but they make for an enjoyable day out with friends.
Whether becoming a distiller has been a dream career since childhood, or is simply a new, never-before considered option for the future, that perfect career is well within reach, so better get studying!