What should a distilled spirits education look like?
WRITTEN BY PAUL HUGHES, PH.D.
ome years ago, in my previous life running the brewing and distilling programs at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, I happened to be sitting next to a rather august Scotch whisky distillery owner at a black tie dinner. Inadvisedly, I asked him whether he had had the good fortune to hire one of our students. In no uncertain terms he told me no, because the last one he tried out was unable to roll a cask! Now, while I’m sure that most able-bodied individuals can be trained to roll a cask safely, the response did make me wonder whether this is something that we should teach. It also begs the question: What skill sets do potential employers expect from our students? For university education with a vocational (applied) component there is often a tension within the university between developing students to be self-sufficient in the workplace and providing specific knowledge in the subject matter, in our case distilled beverages. Where this balance lies can be down to personal perspectives of university management, although education through professional organizations, such as the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the Siebel Institute, and the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD), obviate the classical university constraints. So this made me wonder whether universities are the ideal location for distilling edWWW.ART ISANSP IRITMAG.COM
ucation. My short answer is yes. First of all, university education is distinct from other forms of tertiary education in that it is expected to be research-led, meaning that successful graduates have at least contemplated some horizons of the frontiers of knowledge. This might sound minor, but such frontiers are not cut-and-dried sharp divisions between knowing and not knowing. Rather they represent particular areas of fruitful discourse between faculty, industry, and the maturing students. For instance, does accelerated maturation lead to a different chemical composition of the final spirit relative to conventional maturation? If there are measurable differences, are these reflected in the sensory performance of the liquid? These are simple experiments that can be developed in the lab and presented to students for them to draw their own conclusions. Of course, the motivation for accelerated maturation is not merely expediency but nimbleness in the market, reduced cost of inventory and arguably enhanced consistency. This brings me to an important point: Various disciplines need to be considered for inclusion in an industry-focused distilling education. The science and technology of production and final quality is essential for any distilled spirits program, and I would also argue that business, product
development and innovation should also be included here. However, we soon run out of space in a curriculum if all of these areas are covered in sufficient depth. Choices have to be made. The first point is that “distilling” is a misnomer in this context, something pointed out to me by Dr. Dennis Watson, former research director for Chivas. Distilling is merely an operation in the conversion of fermented extract into alcohol concentrate for downstream modification and finishing. So whilst distilling is (currently) a mandatory operation in spirit production, most producers do more than just distill. This brings me to a second point: Unlike brewers, distillers exercise more options in terms of their production business model. A brand owner can contract the production of a distilled spirit and only see the final product once it’s in-pack and heading for the market. At the other extreme, producers can derive extract from agricultural commodities which they ferment, distill, and finish themselves. I have no view as to which approach is to be preferred; in my view a business has the right to earn a legal living in whichever way they choose. Before we consider the design of a distilled spirits program, there is a third point: We associate beer primarily with malted barley, cider with apples and pears, and
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