Women are taking the stage of spirits by storm, and Rebecca Harris of Catoctin Creek Distilling is one of many bold women leading the way.
Harris is the President and Chief Distiller of the award-winning spirits collection. The brand currently produces over ten products including Roundstone Rye, Rabble Rouser Bottled in Bond, Watershed Gin, a range of Fruit Brandy and a range of special releases of all types. We caught up with Harris to learn more about her work at Catoctin Creek and what she predicts is next for the industry.
How did you start your career towards becoming a master distiller?
I am a chemical engineer, which is a natural fit for the spirits industry. I worked making polystyrene foam trays, copper and nickel plating on plastic electronics, and then making contact lenses. With such a diverse process background, I was confident I could learn distilling.
Is there any one person or event that you feel made an impact in your path to becoming a master distiller?
I would say that the people in the distilling industry have been incredibly welcoming. Early in our distilling business I met Dave Pickerell at Mount Vernon, and he had a lovely way of sharing knowledge in a collegial fashion. Although we never consulted with him, I was incredibly influenced by his joy in what he did, as well as his passion for talking about the craft of distilling and engaging everyone in that creation process.
What is the most rewarding part of your current role? The most challenging?
It has been quite challenging balancing my role as chief distiller making and representing our brand (until recently through extensive travel), with a new role as President of the American Craft Spirits Association, advocating for and educating the public about craft distilleries. That being said, I love both roles which are stretching my communications skills in new ways after years of keeping my focus more technical.
What innovation do you expect to see in the industry in the next 12 months?
I think that all brands are frantically trying to figure out how to navigate this new landscape. Most small brands can’t weather this storm without reorienting their focus from old ways of self-promotion to new ways of connecting with customers and have to do that on tighter budgets. You are going to see lots of new products, new formats, and methods of digital outreach.
Our small brands are increasingly advocating for the ability to ship direct to consumers, like wineries have had for years. This can be a game-changer for our smallest distilleries, and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to read about a new spirit made somewhere far from home, and then be able to order it directly from them? I, for one, love travel and spirits, and while I’m stuck at home it would be amazing to revisit some places I love to go by ordering some of my favorite products made there.
Do you feel that being a woman makes a difference in your approach to distilling?
I am very sensitive to off-flavors, personally, and have always made my spirits with careful attention to using only the loveliest portion of the hearts to go into the barrel. If spirits don’t taste and smell delicious to me, they are not going into the bottle here. Scientifically, women have better palates, and that is why we are very important as tasters in the industry traditionally. It is a natural extension for those of us who love the process side of this business to want to focus there, and apply those same skills there.