Q&A with Master Distiller Marie-Anne Contamin
Marie-Anne Contamin is our Master Distiller at Comte de Grasse. Her experience as an aromatician in the fragrance industry, a flavourist consultant and a lecturer at the University of Nice meant that she had the perfect ‘Nez’ and enhanced olfactory system required for creating the depth of flavour in our spirits. Marie-Anne has been pivotal to developing the unique distilling processes at Comte de Grasse and her debut liquid, 44°N Gin, has been highly inspired by the perfume heritage of Grasse.
Marie-Anne has recently been featured on the cover of Savour Magazines’ International Women’s Day 2021 article, having been selected as one of the leading females in hospitality. Watching and learning from Marie-Anne at the distillery is an honour, she is often found trying new processes such as macerating blue peas to extract the juices in order to create a natural coloring for our pre-mixed cocktail range, Cocktails For You.
We interrupted her busy schedule to ask her a few questions about her history and life at Comte de Grasse.
Have you always been a science lover? Yes, I think I've always loved the living sciences, biology... understanding how things function. I think observing nature is a good entrance door into science and I also like the story and the tecnicity of science.
Why did you get into distilling? As a flavorist consultant, I happened to meet Bhagath Reddy, Founder of Comte de Grasse through the University of Nice. He was looking to develop his first Gin and was looking for someone who knew about formulation and who had acquired sensorial skills and I guess, I was just the right person in the right place at the right time. I was then further coached by Andrew Neilson, our Scottish chemistry expert at Comte de Grasse.
How does it feel to have become a master distiller, when this is very much a male orientated job? Well I've never thought of it really, maybe because there are not many distilleries around, I think in France it's not all about one making and in this industry, you can find a number of talented women nowadays.
Do you know other French Master Distillers? Could you be the only one in France? No actually I don't know any French female distillers, I've met a few women working in spirit development across different exhibitions. I hope I'm not the only one in France and I hope that I won't be the only one in the near future.
Which other female pioneers in the spirits industry do you admire and why? I'm not very good at name dropping in the spirits industry, probably because I'm too new in the business, but I've read that there are many women now distilling and developing their own spirits. I've read about examples, very special examples in the USA, in Canada and in Scotland - so I think it is very promising.
What advice would you give a woman getting started in the industry? I would say GO FOR IT! If you're passionate about botanicals, flavours and techniques, it's an awesome job. Yes it's a hands on job but with both a scientific and an intuitive aspect.
How many formula tests did it take for you to achieve the perfect 44°N? Well it was a long process... I think I've first evaluated about 150 botanical extracts to narrow down the list to the 12 primary botanicals and plants we have in the mix. I then have been distilling on a lab scale for about six months which means probably about 100 distillations.
What is your favourite part of the process? I must say, I really like when distillation starts, although it is pure physics because it starts at set temperature and pressure, it still feels like magic... The first droplets coming from the rotovap into the flask are simply fantastic! I also very much like grinding the botanicals in the morning, this special flavour is forever engraved in my brain.
What it is one of your favourite quotes? ‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood' - Marie Curie Fun fact behind this quote is knowing that Marie Curie was a woman of science and that one of our vats is called "Marie" in homage to her!
You are a lecturer at the University of Nice, are you starting to see more women in the classrooms? Oh well actually my students are mainly women. I think the food, flavour and fragrance industries are majoritarily women working in research and development, formulation and/or quality control. If you are looking at more male orientated sciences, I think you have to look at mathematics or physics but even in those areas I think it is changing, little by little...
Are you looking forward to mentoring other women in your industry? Why not... I think I have to stay very humble about that because I still need to learn a lot but mentoring on botanicals and spirit flavours for example could be a good start for me and that's really what I'm experiencing at the moment while teaching chemistry students.
Do you have an inspirational Mantra? I like the idea that sensory brings subjectivity, intuition and poetry to science and technology.
If you have any unanswered questions that you’d like to ask Marie-Anne pop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org