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Careers from Physics: The distiller

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Image: Edinburgh Gin

It isn’t always easy to choose your entire future at the age of 16 – sometimes it takes a few goes to get it right.

That was certainly the case for me, and I tried a few different things before finding the right path.

Having always preferred maths and science subjects at school, it seemed obvious to choose physics as one of my A-levels. Unfortunately, though, a combination of maths, physics and chemistry turned out to be science overkill, and I’d had quite enough of it all by the time my exams came around.

I ended up deciding to study law at university, with the intention of becoming a solicitor. That didn’t really stick either, and at the end of four years’ study I decided a legal career wasn’t for me.

I then stumbled between office jobs in the financial and government sectors. By my late 20s, I’d grown disillusioned with being stuck in an office, and having nothing put paperwork to show for my day was taking its toll. I eventually took voluntary redundancy, using the money to do something I’d been contemplating for a good while, having long been an aficionado of the intricacies of spirits: to pay for the MSc course in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University.

But a non-science first degree meant I wasn’t guaranteed to be accepted onto the course. That led to a visit to my old sixth form, where my former physics teacher agreed to give me a reference confirming I had a reasonable science background up to A-level standard.

The MSc went successfully, and, although the science leaned more towards biochemistry, my physics background certainly helped with the process technology units, which were heavily formula-based. Completion of the course, including a research project on gin flavouring, led to a career in distilling where I operate two small distilleries and spend my days developing new gin recipes.

A lot of my work is sensory-based – does the stuff smell and taste right? – but a scientific understanding of the reactions taking place during the distilling process is advantageous to anybody looking to work in the field.

A typical day as a distiller involves operating the stills to produce a batch of whichever recipe we require that day. It ranges from 150 to 1,000 bottles a day depending on which site I’m working. Monitoring the settings is essential to maintain a consistent flowrate and prevent the still from overheating – get it wrong and it might come out a colour more befitting absinthe than gin.

Another important aspect of the role is making the cut-points for deciding what gin should be bottled, as the beginning and end of a distillation run contain unwanted flavour compounds. Astute sensory awareness is required here. There’s also the unpleasant job of cleaning the stills out afterwards – but a bit of physical graft keeps you in touch with the process.

The most fun part of the job is using the miniature (two-litre) stills to experiment with different botanical flavours to develop new recipes.

It’s a hands-on job, but it beats working in an office anyday – and might never have been possible had I not kept my options open with that physics A-level.

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Dave Wilkinson

Dave Wilkinson

Dave is head distiller at Edinburgh Gin
Dave Wilkinson

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