The Harvard of Whiskey: Where Young American Craftsmen Go to Learn Distilling

The Harvard of Whiskey. iStock.

If you want to get the most-prestigious academic education in winemaking, you enroll at the University of California at Davis. If you are a chef-in-the-making determined to get the best formal education in the cooking arts, you sign up for The Culinary Institute of America.

But if you’re looking for the top college for making Bourbon and learning the most about distilling in general, well, you will have to go to Scotland for that. And increasingly, young American distillers are adding the title, “Graduate, Master of Science in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland,” to their resumes.

So why go to Scotland to learn the craft?

The boom in craft distilling caught the American spirits industry unprepared to formally train young people wanting to become master distillers. As late as the 1990s, the production of American brown spirits was in decline, historic distilleries were being closed and young men and women who were fortunate enough to get a job at a huge distillery apprenticed in making spirits only in one approved way. There was no demand for a broad educational program, so none existed in the U.S. Learning was catch-as-catch-can.

With the rise of craft distilling, however, young distillers-in-the-making began hearing about this university in Scotland where they could get both classroom and hand-on experience. It went by the weird name of Heriot Watt, which they discovered is pronounced “Harriet Watt.”

“In the early 2000’s, there were just about 35 distilleries in the U.S. and a total void for getting solid distilling information,” says Robert Cassell, co-founder and head distiller at New Liberty Distillery in Philadelphia and Connacht Whiskey Co. in Ireland, “so in 2004 I started looking into Heriot Watt.” A year later, with his master’s degree in brewing and distilling in hand, Cassell co-founded Philadelphia Distilling, the first Pennsylvania distillery in modern history.

Heriot Watt offers a one-year program, which can be taken either totally on campus or by “distant learning,” which requires a briefer residency, including a comprehensive literature or research project. “While I was working on my project, I lived in a dorm on campus,” Cassell says. Most entering students already have an undergraduate degree, generally with a science major. Cassell’s education, for example, was biochemistry.

“Lectures at Heriot Watt cover distilling raw materials, distillery mashing and fermentation, the process of distilling and cask maturation,” says Dr. Calum Holmes, assistant professor of brewing and distilling at the university. “Beyond whisky, a variety of other distilled spirits are addressed, including gin and rum. Practical distilling classes take place in our pilot distillery – which has a 20-liter capacity—and gin laboratory [where students] investigate aspects of distilling such as sensory analysis of spirits, the influence of botanicals and practical aspects of distilling.”

The Alumni

Today, Cassell has many colleagues across America who share Heriot Watt as their alma mater. They include:

Colin Baker, co-founder and head distiller of Loch & Union distillery in Napa Valley, had a safe job with a Big 4 accounting firm in Orange County in southern California, but hated going to work each morning. A friend lured him to London where he became a brewer. While in England, he heard about Heriot Watt and decided to enroll as a resident student, graduating in 2015.

“I still miss living on campus,” he says. “I fell in love with making whiskey, although I felt the production of Scotch was stuck in the past.” So while at HW, as a special project he designed a modern still that he now uses at Loch & Union. “Making connections was almost as important as the education,” Baker says. Not incidentally, two of his distillers are also Heriot Watt grads.

Molly Troupe doesn’t let any corn grow under her feet. “I didn’t want to interrupt my education, so I enrolled in Heriot Watt as soon as I graduated with an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Southern Oregon University,” says the master distiller at Freeland Spirits in Portland, OR. “It was a leap of faith,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone there, and I’d never been east of Idaho!”

“Having the degree opened a lot of doors,” she says. “The connections I made were invaluable.” Freeland itself goes against the grain for most distilleries, as the owner, head distiller and the local farmer who provides the grain are all women.

Matt Hoffman, master distiller at Remy Cointreau’s Westland Distillery in Seattle, needed a Ph.D. in persuasion to get into Heriot Watt. “It was challenging for me, as I didn’t have an undergraduate degree” Hoffman says, “and I had to convince the university that I could compete with all these people with biochemical degrees.” Turns out he could, and he graduated in 2014, utilizing the distant learning option.

“There are all sorts of process and business challenges a distiller faces, and there’s no place in the U.S. no get that formal education,” he says. “But once you learn the process, you can deviate from the norm,” says the single-malt distiller. One of those deviations has been to make barrels from Garry oak, indigenous to the Northwest.

Jason Grizzanti has been making spirits since 2002 and graduated from Heriot Watt about 10 years ago through the distant learning program while running the Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery. “I had done brewing before, but I learned a lot about distilling at Heriot Watt,” he says. He and business partner Jeremy Kidde branched out in 2013 with nearby Black Dirt Distillery, which weekly produces about 60 barrels of Bourbon or applejack.

The question now is how long will Heriot Watt command its unique position as the go-to college for young Americans who want a formal education in distilling? One of their alums – Cassell – is exploring the possibility of setting up a degree in distilling program with a respected East Coast university. Although it’s still a long time off, perhaps one day young Scottish students will be making their way to America to learn to make whiskey with an “e.”