Maggie Campbell got her first taste of distilling while traveling in Scotland in 2004. Twelve years later, she is head distiller and vice president of Massachusetts-based Privateer Rum and a panelist at the bartending and spirits conference Tales of the Cocktail. Campbell spoke with Gambit about craft distilling today and women's role in the spirits industry.
What drew you to craft distilling?
Campbell: I like that it has a really long distance, long-term vision. I know that doesn't play to a lot of people's strengths, but I know that it is a good strength of mine. I really love this ability to capture an experience in a bottle and give it to someone and share it in a cool way. That's true in wine, but I think there's something to the stability and the fact that spirits travel so well — that I can share something that I tasted in the cask with someone across the globe and have it taste nearly the same. Alcohol acts as a solvent; it absorbs the character of everything it comes in contact with, even the people.
The learning curve is steep, and it takes a long time when I distill something before I really begin to see it open and blossom years later, especially when you're doing long-term cask aging. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of time to learn. If you think about what a winemaker or a brewer does, [distillers] do that, but on top of that we do all of the fermenting, all of the distillation and then all of this very intense aging as well. It is a multigenerational experience.
One of the things that I love about craft (distilling) is that I get to do things and make choices and share experiences that you just can't do on mega scales. The character of a single cask bottling is going to be this really unique character, whereas if I'm turning out a really large volume and blending together a lot of batches to create high volume, that character is inherently going to be blended in a weird, diluted way.
What's the state of women in the craft distilling industry?
C: I think visibility is an issue. In North America, we have this idea of distilling. ... I think the story excludes a lot of people who are actually making your spirit. I think there are women that are amazing (in the industry). In the rum industry ... some of the top positions at some of the best companies are (held by) women and people of color. And you really can't say that about a lot of spirits categories. It's a truly international spirit; it's a truly inclusive spirit. It's fantastic that people in the top positions of these companies are really varied. I think it's getting better ... I think that women have the same role to play in spirits as men do. There's nothing that's between our legs that should have anything to keep us from doing any job that anyone else does in our industry. And I think that it's getting more inclusive.
What do you see as the future of craft distilling?
C: I think we're still at the very early stages. ... It's a multigenerational scene and we're in the very early days. A lot of the spirits that are being released are greener or from people who maybe don't have a lot of professional experience or technical training. Don't get me wrong: There are some great, top-notch distilleries out there today. But I think in the future, it's only going to get better and more experienced and more technical with more professional training... I think the overall quality will continue to rise.
I think we're going to keep seeing pretty innovative products, but I also think we're going to see more people who are more interested in traditional stuff. I think there are going to be a certain amount of people returning to the basics and doing the basics really, really well. I think there is something exciting and something to be said about that: It takes a different type of hand to make something that is a little bit more bare and exposed, so I'm excited for that.