Learn to become a distiller

We review the Institute of Brewing & Distilling's General Certificate in Distilling.

What do you do if you want to learn how to distil? As in, is there a course where you don't just learn more about spirits overall, but specifically, are taught how to make them yourself and can gain formal training to become a distiller?

Our editor found out what the industry offers for those with an itch to create booze for living and what it takes to get formal distilling qualifications...

Distilling School

Unless you want to embark on a full-time university degree, there’s not many places you can go and learn to be a distiller.

Whether you chose to trawl around forums or read countless different trade magazines - learning about how things are made and how to go about doing it yourself takes a long time as you have to do it a fragment at a time. 

Most producers learn on the job and by building layer by small layer of nuance, of technical intricacy, often having to decipher which is technically sound advice vs what is simply another distiller’s opinion (and those forums are full of uninformed opinions…).

That’s assuming you want to start a business for yourself too - for those looking for a career shift, there’s only really two courses that offer a certificate that’s got any currency in the recruiting world. They are WSET level 3 in Spirits and IBD General Certificate or higher.

I won’t go into WSET L3 here as it’s part of another article later this year, apart from the fact I acknowledge that’s it’s not intended for distillers. It’s there for all drinkers who want to learn, not specifically for those looking to train up to a new career in production. I mention it here as it’s a complete course that goes into enough detail to mean something.

As part of our Back To School series here on Spirits Beacon, I wanted to challenge myself to learn something new. Despite hearing mixed reviews, I was curious to see how complete an IBD course is for myself and if I could pass the exam. So I signed up with my own cash, to be completed in my own time. 

I opted for the General Certificate in Distilling, which is designed for those who already have some experience of distilling operations as i felt that a Foundation course would be overly simple (both for me and for the intention of this article, which is to review a course that teaches you to be a distiller - not just give you the basics).

I love booze and I love what I do, so I figured that formal learning could help me see subjects from a new perspective and gain a better understanding. It’s also a course that hundreds of people do each year, and yet there’s literally no independent reviews in the public domain nor even an objective “what to expect”. 

I figured, in an act of booze-nerd martyrdom that I’m sure you are all grateful for, I’d do the honours. Here’s what I found.

Some Context on IBD

How you feel about IBD’s General Certificate is hugely dependent on your intentions going in. It’s worth acknowledging your motivations and accepting both the advantages and the limitations the course has. 

The organisation’s history means there is an inevitable emphasis on whisky, brandy and rum – as those have been the dominant categories for decades. Combine this with being an Aberdeen based institution it’s inevitable that it’s significantly more useful for those seeking a career in Scotch than it is in those in Tequila or Gin.

It's also worth understanding that IBD is adapting to a new era, one where there are now hundreds of craft distilleries for every one multinational producer. For so long, most of its students would be either already working in the industry and the IBD was part of their training and development, or were individuals looking for a job at an established producer by gaining necessary qualifications. 

Today, many students have no intention of doing working for Diageo, Pernod, Bacardi et al. They want to work in small distilleries, or even start their own, and look to IBD to give them a grounding in the principles to take on themselves – not to discuss with their line managers or apply to their existing role. 

It might feel late to be dealing with a different type of student given craft distilling has been growing for 20 years, but in the context of an institution that has been running since the 1886 it's understandable for it to take time to adapt.

Lastly, you have to understand that distilling education outside of formal university courses (in particular technically minded content designed to appeal to mainstream audiences) is lightyears behind other sectors. 

Just think of the many cookery or hospitality schools there are, the countless short courses and experiences available within those sectors compared to what’s available to those interested in distilling spirits. There are hundreds compared to a most a dozen. 

Look at the amount of special interest magazines there are for specialist hobbies (automotive, fishing, yoga) and compare it to spirits (all categories) and you’ll see it’s taken ages to even be comparable from a lifestyle point of view, let alone learning or “how to” guides.

The entire spirits education sector is catching up, glacially, but anyone who suggests that it’s adequate for the demand out there is kidding themselves. IBD are one of the few trying to cover the vast width there is to learn about and while they don’t do everything well, they do everything and that’s a massive achievement that needs recognising. 

General Certificate - What to Expect

IBD’s General Certificate is now an online course, with a hub portal where access to all units and where coursework chapters are hosted. Making it a digital programme was a great pivot and makes it accessible to many more interested students across the world. The way it is laid out makes bite sized learning possible and the information condensed and articulated in a way that makes self-learning possible for any English speaker.

The way it shows your progress is useful to gauge the time commitment needed ahead and the mini quizzes you can do at the end of each unit are helpful to cement learning.

That said, it really feels like it was a conversion from spoken lessons once given via Power Point and not a digitally native idea. If you have any inclination for any form of design, be it informational, typographic or even interface - this offers nothing pleasing. It’s academic and feels like it. 

In that regard, it’s okay for now given the context of where it came from - but will feel desperately outdated very quickly as it misses the big opportunities that fully conceived-for-digital learning apps, platforms and courses have revolutionised in the past five years.

Food apps like Deliciously Ella show how large volumes of information can be presented with engaging aesthetics

I don’t begrudge them this, I’m of the generation of late thirty-somethings where learning material was functional above all else. Above aesthetics, integrated links to outside sources, to active community platforms, live broadcasts, pre-recorded video tutorials and the rest. 

This is of that era, but while dinosaurs like me may be used to chewing through coursework - I can only imagine how despondent a 20 something would feel doing it. It’s clear that it misses a big trick to engage in the future of online learning (or even match what’s out there now), to make it fun and to be attractive for the future distillers making their way in the industry.

So, fair warning: While it's back to school learning available via a digital hub which can be done in your own time (both huge plus points), it is not done in the way that the likes of Blinkist, or Masterclass have shown it's possible to do. At all.

App based learning like Masterclass & Blinkist have changed expectation levels for multi-format content

IBD Syllabus & Exam

The material has been broken down into units, each containing a series of lessons that cover a broad syllabus. The first four units are organised by the raw material that a spirit is produced from, moving onto postproduction (maturation etc), safety and quality management. The full breakdown can be found here.

Whisky, Brandy and Rum are well covered, in that order from most intricate to least. Agave is shorter than the category deserves given the complexity and diversity of production found across Mexico. That said, it’s understandable given only those based there will benefit from learning much more about it (given the AOC’s etc). It’s also true that a single course can’t cover everything in infinite detail and that's the point of the more advanced Diploma levels. Some of the spirits that are given barely any attention (like Asian spirits and Fruit Brandies) are caveated as such – there’s not enough time to drill into the detail of each – and that’s fair. The management, safety and quality modules cover good ground for those with no prior training in those areas while the likes of Neutral Spirit (Vodka) is broken down comprehensively.

There are areas where the IBD General Certificate is embarrassingly short on though, irrespective of your baseline knowledge going in. Gin is covered in such a rudimentary manner that it borders on problematic. It’s so basic that it would have barely been relevant to the state of the category in 2010, let alone to where it is now. Given that over 70% of distillers in the UK are gin makers, most Australian producers also make juniper-laced spirit - it is quite a shocking hole in the curriculum. 

If you are thinking about the General Certificate as someone who wants to start a gin distillery (or get into gin production) – don’t bother.

The Exam

The exam itself is a straightforward multiple-choice selection of 60 questions, done online and independently invigilated. There’s plenty of time to do it even for someone who goes over answers 3 or 4 times like me, and the system is easy to book and take part in. The pass rate requirement is high with >60% pass mark needed (so 2 out of 3 questions must be correct). 

Personally, I didn’t feel the exam was reflective of the material in that you could have multiple questions on one segment, and none on another whatsoever. 

For example, so much of the course is about whisky – split between cereals, preparation, fermentation, distilling and maturation. The units are chunky and brilliantly detailed. And yet, you may or may not have a bunch of questions on it (my experience was the latter – almost none).

Talking to others there is a feeling that the weighting of the content being taught is in contrast to the seemingly random nature of the questions being asked. To use the earlier example, I have no doubt that others may have had 15 questions on whisky related topics and none on, say, Hygiene or Rum. It feels strange to learn such a width of material that is not being tested at all.

IBD also clearly favours a style of question where there are multiple almost correct answers, deliberately obfuscating topics. There’s nothing wrong with this, but something to be aware of. For native speakers, it may be easy to navigate around and apply common sense (especially when you know the subject matter), but I can imagine that if English was not your first language, the nuanced nature of the questions and slight shift in emphasis within the options available in the multiple-choice answers would be incredibly frustrating. The same is true with the (admittedly fewer) times where there are multiple plausible answers but where one is the MOST correct. 

I’m not sure how this would affect pass rates overall, but a suggestion would be to shift to a different format for the exam as it would certainly feel more rewarding to have more questions covering the full width of the syllabus. If adding more questions extended the exam time too long, a solution may be to simplify the questions or add more width in the relevancy of choices available to answer with (thus not requiring students to re-read the both the question and the answers a dozen times to fully comprehend the minutiae implied). 

Perhaps only having one obvious answer would dumb it down too much and the point of having 4 incredibly close answers is to teach the need for precision. Whether you call it different training philosophies or put it down to personal preferences – it’s worth knowing going in.

Would I Recommend It?

If you are a young distiller working in the whisky, rum or brandy industry already but haven’t had any formal training, IBD General Certificate is a must. It will help and your employer ought to be looking at this as a key part of training and career progression. 

As an existing distiller, so much of what you can learn can be discussed with a mentor, explained and put into practice. The General Certificate can be a useful guide to trigger conversations about different aspects of fermentation, distilling, maturation and plant management. When supported by others, it seems clear to me that it would be a very rewarding course and a genuine accelerator. One caveat- If you work in gin however, other than making you a more complete distiller through gaining a better understanding of other categories and plant management, this will not be of any help whatsoever to further your understanding of gin, nor how to make it.

If you are not in the industry and want to become a distiller, the IBD General Certificate is clearly a good start point. I can see why gaining the qualification is something many strive towards and why prospective recruiters for production jobs value it highly. 

If you are looking to start your own distillery, it will make you feel more confident and may well help you improve the design of your facility through having a better understanding of safety and quality principles. It’s not a “how to” manual, it won’t give you all the answers, but it will go a long way.

Having visited dozens and dozens of distilleries over the years, I learned a lot from this online only course. BUT. I feel like I learned a lot because I could apply the theoretical explanations, diagrams and the topics to things I’ve seen in real life. If it was all new, I doubt I’d feel so empowered and that’s where IBD have a huge amount of work to do – to make the theory real. To be far more beneficial to newcomers to the industry, it must quickly embrace modern learning methods (rich multimedia content) and use far more real world images, videos and content to give context of what it looks like, not just how it works on paper.

Some advice for those looking to do it:

Find a mentor to discuss the topics with. It’ll make the course more fun and help a lot with contextualising the theory into something tangible.

Use it as a framework for your learning, not your “everything”. You’ll get a lot out of it by dipping in and out and using google, other books and distillery tours (if you can) to delve further into the subjects covered. 

Find a revision buddy. There’s lots to remember and absorb, and the fail rate is high as the questions are fiddly and can involve answers that you either know or don’t (like the name of an acid, or strain of bacteria). Having a buddy really helps to cover the material and drill in the terms that you’ll need to memorise.

Spare at least 35h to complete the course. I read painfully slowly (I’m dyslexic), but I knew much of what was on screen, so it wasn’t new to me and meant I didn’t need to stop to simply google terms or get a different explanation. For those without special needs but a newbie distiller with fewer references ingrained in their mind a similar timeframe is going to be appropriate. You’ll also need to take another 4 – 8 hours to do the quizzes and to go back and revise. 

They do other courses that cater to different levels of baseline knowledge (and interest). No doubt that a Diploma would cover more while vis versa, the Foundation would offer a brief overview - it's worth looking at what the syllabus is and identify what you want to get from a qualification. 

Hopefully this article gives all who are looking for a review of what to expect should they want to go back to school, start a new career or accelerate their spirits learning. 

It’s not perfect, but I feel hugely rewarded for having taken the course and the time I spent learning. More importantly, while I’ve been critical of parts of the IBD offering above, I’m yet to see anything that’s come remotely close to the quality of education the General Certificate provides for those interested in being a distiller, let alone at the price point it costs to do it. 

By Olivier Ward

1 September 2022