How to master a craft

For nearly 150 years Aberlour has been mastering the art of whisky making. We have partnered with them in bringing you the definitive guide to mastering a craft.

With Burns’ Night upon us and reeling balls aplenty scheduled for 2022, our thoughts turn to Scotland and, specifically, whisky. Situated on the banks of the Spey, Aberlour’s distillery has been crafting the finest single-malt for well over a century. When you pour yourself a wee dram, you are decanting a whisky that has been born out of craft, passion and knowledge which has been handed down through generations of master distillers to the present day.

Gentleman’s Journal is delighted to be partnering with Aberlour again this year, with a series of lifestyle pieces to help guide you to a better you, in collaboration with this award-winning single malt whisky. The pieces will focus on craftsmanship, stepping outside your comfort zone and embracing complexity – all things the team at Aberlour know a lot about.

First up we are looking at the knack of mastering a craft – something Aberlour has been doing for nearly 150 years – and we have spoken to leading craftsmen and women in their respective fields to bring you the definitive guide on how to master a craft…

Connect with your roots

The first step on your road to becoming a master is to look back through the haze of time and acknowledge what has driven you to take up your craft. Was there a moment in your childhood that instilled something inside? Perhaps your passion for your craft was suppressed by that dreadful school master who always picked on you?

Aberlour remains committed to its roots, continuing to source local ingredients from the same farms who have supplied the distillery since its foundation, and employing craftsmen from families who have shaped Aberlour into who they are today.

Finding the roots to our craft is important as all the best craftsmen tell a story. Whether you had easy beginnings or not, 2022 is a new year, so what better time to pick up where you left off. There’s no time like the present!

We work very closely with our local farming community and source our raw materials from within 15 miles of the distillery and that allows us to have a real connection with this aspect of the whisky making process. – Graeme Cruickshank, Aberlour Master Distiller

Practice makes perfect

Next up is practice. They say you need seven to ten years – or approximately 10,000 hours – to master a craft. Basketball legend Michael Jordan famously failed to get into his High School basketball team. After running home and crying, he got outside and practiced and practiced until he was the best, using the memory of that failure to spur him on: “Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it,” he later said to ESPN. “That usually got me going again.

Aberlour’s master distiller, Graeme Cruickshank, put years of hard work in before reaching the position he’s in today: “I have been very fortunate over the years to work alongside some great distillers, people who have had a real passion for the industry and the whisky we produce. Knowing the standards that have been set before you is a great motivator as I always strive to meet those standards and indeed improve on them wherever possible.”

It’s become a bit of a cliché, but remember the seven Ps – Prior Preparation and Practice Prevent Piss Poor Performance. We may not all be Michael Jordan, but we can each master our own craft – be it carpentry or computer programming – with dedication, passion, practice and time.

Obsessive compulsion

In his seminal book ‘Mastery’, Robert Greene examines the lives of historical figures such as Henry Ford and Charles Darwin, analysing what it is that made these men the masters of their crafts. He writes: “In order to master a field, you must love the subject and feel a profound connection to it. Your interest must transcend the field itself and border on the religious.”

For James Fleming, founder of Aberlour, a truer word could not have been spoken, so if you find yourself in Moray, perhaps for a spot of salmon fishing on the Spey, be sure to swing by Aberlour Distillery where whisky making is more than a simple job – it’s an obsession. Double cask matured in Oloroso Sherry casks and American Oak barrels and matured for 12, 14, 16 and 18 years, the complex distillation process ensures the finished product is rich and mellow, with the sweetness of honey and fruits, flora and spiciness.

Bimber Craft Distillery in West London

It’s all in the detail

Perfectionists have a reputation for being uncompromising, tough and relentless in their crafts. They may rub some people up the wrong way but it is the never-ending pursuit of perfection that drives people to become masters of their crafts. Steve Jobs was a notorious perfectionist. Martha Stewart calls herself a “maniacal perfectionist.” Serena Williams is proud of her perfectionist label.

At Aberlour, the focus on complexity and the details therein ensure the flavours of their Speyside single malt speak for themselves. It’s all in the maturation process, which adds new flavour notes and characteristics which mature over time to create Aberlour’s recognisably rich and complex composition.

Being able to focus on the detail whilst at the same time maintaining a wider perspective is what Aberlour distillers do best, and is key for craftsmen who wish to truly master their craft.

So how does this look in practice? Gentleman’s Journal has partnered with Aberlour whisky in speaking with two people who are world leaders in their respective crafts. Emma Willis is a renowned Jermyn Street shirtmaker, Ryan Chetiyawardana is a bartender extraordinaire (and the man behind the White Lyan and Dandelyan bars in London) and James Harvey-Kelly is a freelance photographer and art director…

Emma Willis MBE (Shirtmaker)

Emma Willis

What makes a craftsman/woman a master of their craft?

To be passionate about the thing you are making and care deeply about its quality and aesthetic.

Which shirtmaker or tailor (historical or alive today) do you think was/is the greatest master of their craft?

The best shirtmaker sewing today I believe is our head of production in Gloucester Kathleen Muir who leads our shirt sewing rooms as well training all our new machinists. She has been sewing bespoke shirts for over 35 years now and her experience, stitching and technique are next to none.

When did you have your first dram of whisky, and what do you love most about the spirit?

I had my first dram of whisky from one of my Grandfather’s cut glass decanters way before the legal drinking age! He was a High Court judge and much more interested in his pre dinner glass of whisky than the food which didn’t seem to affect his laser mind. When I first smelt whisky in a decanter I said “That smells like my Grandfather”, who I adored, so of course I love the smell of Whisky.

Shirt-making, like whisky-distilling, is a complex and prolonged process. What gives you the patience to see through your craft to completion? 

It is a pleasure to be involved in a craft which is all about quality not quantity, which our customers appreciate and are happy to pay for the time this takes. 

Which whisky cocktail should a gentleman always know how to make a lady?

Unquestionably the Old Fashioned and really he should know how to make a Whisky Sour too.

Ryan Chetiyawardana (Drinks genius)

Ryan Chetiyawardana

What is the key to mastering your craft?

The key is attention to detail. You can make great food or drink with basic ingredients, simple equipment and rudimentary skills – improving these will allow you to focus more to really hone quality, certainly remove inconsistencies and save you time – but if you really focus in on details, you can notice differences, make adjustments and accommodations, and change course effectively. The key to great food and drink though is not what’s in the dish or drink (in my opinion), but it’s about suiting the setting, and thinking about the context as a whole. So the best skillset combination is a care, a willingness to listen and learn, and an attention to detail. If this is combined with a focus on your own tastes and perspectives, it is a perfect foundation for pushing towards excellence.

Can anyone master a craft or is it all about genetics?

Natural ability – having a great sense of smell/taste, a steady hand, a keen sense of observation – definitely helps, and will give you an edge to get into the finer details of excellence, but passion and determination will always overcome natural talent.

What do you love most about whisky, and what do you look for in a fine whisky?

Whisky is the most complex foodstuff in the world, and has the greatest breadth and variety. I love that it’s an encapsulation of nature and skill, and it feels purposefully ‘fuzzy’, rather than too polished.

What is your favourite whisky-based cocktail to make (and to drink) and why?

A scotch and soda is my go-to favourite cocktail. But I love exploring different serves to reflect the character of a whisky, or the setting I’m in – everything from a Manhattan through to a diluted serve.

If you could have your time again, what alternative craft would you choose?

I did a lot of music as a child, but focussed on the visual arts side at a crossroads in my youth, so I would love to see a parallel life of mine where I’d retained my focus on music as a craft. Music to me is the ultimate form of expression – it taps into something primal, can supersede the other senses, but also works in a manner that’s not literal or heavy handed.

James Harvey Kelly (Photographer)

james harvey kelly
James Harvey Kelly

As a photographer what is the dream combo you need to master your craft?

Well it obviously depends. It can be about light, motion, narrative, colour and composition. The job of the photographer is to find the balance; cameras are important, but it’s more about technique and finding the perfect balance. This comes from experience – the point where you’ve really nailed a craft is when you’re no longer thinking about the mechanics of it.

What values and characteristics do you think make someone a master of their craft?

First and foremost they have to be obsessed. For every person who’s very good at something, there’s a hundred people who literally can’t breathe without doing it. It takes so much time and you’ve got to pay so much attention, patience is so important.

If you could learn another craft, what would it be and why?

It would probably be cooking. I love how generous cooking is. It’s about sharing and it’s so much about storytelling and history and culture. It is something that is both necessary and completely superfluous. If I had the time and another life, I would love to run a restaurant.

Is natural ability everything, or can someone who’s not naturally gifted master a craft?

I don’t know how far anyone’s actually naturally gifted, but I think it’s all about dedication. There are obviously certain people who have a very different attitude to the world, but they just geniuses. For most of us it’s about putting in the hours and showing up.

What craftsman or woman do you admire the most?

The people I admire the most are people who have very different skillsets to my own. You look at what they do and it feels like magic. In terms of photographers, I find it’s people who are much more sculptural than me. People like Steve Shaw or Joel Sternfeld. The way I make pictures is impulsive and quick – it’s like a feeling – whereas the pictures they make are meticulous and take a huge amount of patience.

How to master a craft

Aberlour

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