A Day in the Life of a Quality Control Officer

Distillery employee in white lab coat
Think working in quality control just involves lots of tasting? Anchor Distilling's Master Distiller, Bruce Joseph, sets the record straight for us.

For avid spirits enthusiasts, working in quality control at a distillery might seem like a dream come true. After all, the majority of their work is tasting -- er, testing -- their product, right?

Unfortunately not, says Anchor Distilling’s Master Distiller Bruce Joseph. “That’s probably the most misguided misconception,” says Joseph. “They’re not really thinking of the wide range of things that go into production or all the mechanical stuff that goes on.”

On a day-to-day basis, most quality control officers aren’t tasting a lot of booze. Instead, they’re running lab tests and inspecting everything from the raw materials to the newly distilled spirit. “Sensory testing is probably the most important part of quality control,” says Joseph. “It’s constantly going on [and includes] visual inspection, smell and taste of water, yeast, raw materials, distillate, et cetera.”

Testing, Testing

To monitor the spirit through each step of the distillation process, quality control officers run lab tests at different points in production. At Anchor, their water is tested daily to make sure that chloramine, a disinfectant used in municipal water sources, has been filtered out. If grains are being distilled, they’re visually and aromatically inspected, then a sample is tested for starch content and imperfections. Finally, the yeast’s cell count and bacteria levels are measured often to ensure that it’s healthy and hasn’t mutated.

During fermentation, they check the mash’s specific gravity, pH, and temperature. Variations in pH or temperature can disrupt fermentation, while the specific gravity gives an indication of how it’s progressing. Since distillation is temperature-based, the spirit produced while the temperature is too low and too high (called the heads and tails, respectively) are set aside to be redistilled. To make sure that neither of these make it in with the best cut (called the heart), the distillate is tasted at different points in the process.

One of the most important tests that must be performed is to determine the spirit’s percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Since this information is included on the label, what’s in the bottle must be within either 0.15% or 0.25% of what’s on the label. The exact number depends on whether there are solids present in the product (in the case of something like “Rock and Rye” whiskeys that contain rock candy) and the size of its bottle.

All of these tests are in place to ensure that both in-house, product-specific standards and the overarching Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) standards are met. Though the frequency of testing differs, each test safeguards both consistency and the consumer’s well-being.

Size Matters

Exact day-to-day responsibilities for quality control officers vary depending on the size of the distillery and the product being made. Whereas larger distilleries may be able to analyze everything in-house, smaller distilleries often don’t have the equipment to do so. The specialized knowledge required to successfully perform these tests often means that most quality control officers have a background in hard sciences like chemistry and microbiology. Regardless of a quality control officer’s level of expertise, depending on the size of the distillery and the resources at hand, some testing may need to be sent to an outside lab.

As well, larger distilleries are more likely to have staff who are entirely dedicated to quality control. Like in most industries, employees at smaller distilleries tend to have much more varied responsibilities. “Everyone who works in the distillery has to do a lot of different things because you are a small company,” says Joseph. “You just need to do whatever needs to get done.”

Spirited differences

The exact tests also vary widely depending on the type of spirit produced. “For mashing for rye whiskey, we do the usual tests: pH, [specific] gravity, and final gravity,” he says. “We’ve also spent a lot of time experimenting with different types of barrels.”

Twenty years ago, Anchor partnered with a cooperage and began using fine grain or extra fine grain wood barrels, says Joseph. “At the time, winemakers were the ones that were pushing the boundaries more on high quality oak. To do that and to learn about barrels, we’d visit our cooperage in the Ozarks every time they made our barrels.”

What quality control tests and controls differs from whiskey to gin, “It’s a little different from whiskey to gin,” he says. “One of the big things with quality control with gin [is that] a lot of work goes into botanicals. There are a lot of suppliers, and the quality, the actual flavor and aroma that it imparts to your product changes from the crop year and different batches. There’s a lot of attention that goes into that.”

But it’s not all work and no play; quality control officers are integral in experimenting with new products. “I think that working on a new project and getting it to the point where it’s something that we decide to bottle and release is a pretty enjoyable thing,” he says. “When we first started making gin, we spent about a year and a half playing around with recipes. We could experiment and learn about it.”

But aspiring quality control officers shouldn’t despair -- the joys of taste testing prevail in an otherwise structured and meticulous job. During development, “formal tasting is much more frequent,” says Joseph.

Clair McLafferty is a writer and bartender based in Birmingham, AL. She is the author of The Classic & Craft Cocktail Recipe Book, and collects (and drinks) whisk(e)y for fun.

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