Interview Issue 21 Peggy Noe Stevens

The Masters of Blending: Ashley Barnes

Ashley Barnes

Are blenders becoming the Rock Stars of the whiskey world? In this new series Peggy Noe Stevens finds out…

Ashley Barnes
Master blender
Co-founder, The Spirits Group

Peggy Noe Stevens (PNS): Over the past 10 years production facilities have raised the innovation profile of blending. In your opinion, how has it changed the industry?

Ashley Barnes (AB): Long ago, when people started distilling their grains, they did so out of necessity to preserve harvest or to use as currency. There was very little focus on flavor and profiling. Until very recently, those traditional production practices remained as they were simply “the way things were done”. With the emergence of the craft distiller, a lot of those old ways are being questioned. The effect of that curiosity, and today’s extraordinary whiskey demand, is a unique platform for the craft producer to capitalize on their creativity through the use of a larger variation of grains, distillation methods, aging processes, and blending with maturity.  

PNS: What is the role of a blender in the world of production? 

AB: A blender is a critical role and isn’t always referred to as ‘blender’ or ‘master blender’ in the US. The role entails synthesizing business plans, production capabilities, current inventory and planned inventory into a program for a consistent product profile. The blender innovates through grain selection and identification of the most optimal distillation process to achieve the desired profile. They utilize the finishing maturate to blend and coax the flavors in a direction that highlights the distiller’s work and will also identify optimal maturation conditions if various warehouses or styles are being utilized.

PNS: What is your production background that led you to this role?

AB: I worked in pharmaceutical quality control and research. I have an academic background in chemistry and rely on my honed analytical skills from that background for my evaluations. An attribute that I can only contribute to genetic luck is my palate and nose. I have a particularly sensitive olfactory system and thus a unique ability to detect and isolate compounds within the liquid through sensory evaluation.

Ashley Barnes, Master Blender and co-founder, The Spirits Group

PNS: What inspires you about combining flavors? What is it that the consumer seems to enjoy at the moment?

AB: Everything! Marrying flavors and coaxing new ones from blending provides endless opportunities to create something delicious. The consumer today has such a varied palate and it’s very exciting as it is a big change from the simple, bold flavor profiles that once ruled the industry.

PNS: What is a typical day for you when it comes to blending?

AB: I typically start the day with any distillate evaluations I have on the bench. After that [I] will move to the next lighter profile: wheated or corn-forward mash bills. I save the malted mash bills or malt whiskey for later in the afternoon or last in the line-up for the day, as those are the most likely to produce palate fatigue. I always take breaks and never push my palate too far. Answering emails, calculating, [and] drawing up production plans space out the tastings so my palate stays fresh. 

PNS: How many samples do you taste in a day/week/month? How do you prepare your palate?

AB: In an uncomplicated week of only sample work, I will taste a maximum of 50 samples a day. This gives time only for tasting and noting to create the basis from which I can start blending. If I am working on blends, that number reduces to around 30. Part of what I do for my clients is create a profile of their inventory and identify possible single barrels as they are maturing. Every barrel in inventory must be considered. 

Palate preparation is a lifestyle for me at this point. I have a fairly regular rotation of foods I prefer during the week, and my morning black coffee is essential. Breakfast will be somewhat bland, but substance is important. You don’t want to sample whiskey all day on an empty stomach! I avoid things like heavy spice or garlic throughout the week, saving them for the weekend. I want at least 18 hours or more between a heavily spiced meal and sensory evaluation. Avoiding heavy fat foods is important as I don’t want to risk that sticking around on my palate. I drink a lot of water and unsweet tea. Scented candles and heavily perfumed air fresheners are a no-no in my home. 

PNS: What keeps you from palate fatigue?

AB: Practice! I compare it to being a marathon runner. No one wakes up and runs a full marathon without preparation. I have put in many years, tasting daily to get to where I am. I also listen to my body and take palate breaks, utilize cleansers, and space out my heavy evaluation days. One of my favorite palate cleansers is the cucumber. It provides hydration as well and just enough substance to cleanse between the heavier maturates. 

PNS: What are you looking for in a blend? Do you have a certain style or method? 

AB: What I look for is driven by the client or brand I am working with, their goals and the limitations of the liquid. Communication with the client and brand is constant and key. I will relay my thoughts on any limitations of the liquid, if it needs more time in the barrel or if maybe we should explore options in finishing to round things out. If I am working with an existing profile or brand, consistency from batch to batch is in the forefront of my mind and I will look to identify key components that are staples in the brand and then focus on those in the subsequent batches. 

I am driven to provide the best iteration of my client’s desired profile, so I try not to let any personal style preferences limit my professional blending. I am, however, often told my blends have a long finish.

PNS: How do you detect faults?

AB: Faults are such a complex part of life for a blender. I identify faults through sensory evaluation. I firmly believe that the human nose/palate is our best tool in doing this, and although I love having the analysis to back up my findings, it isn’t always necessary.

PNS: If you can share, what are some of the brands that you blended?

AB: Lucky 7 Bourbon – Proprietor, Holiday Toast, Hold Up, Jokester, The Frenchman

EJ Curley – Small Batch, Single Barrel

Two Worlds Whiskey

Off Hours Bourbon – Small Batch, Single Barrel

Kokoro – Whiskey

Davidson’s Reserve – Wheated Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Genesis

Leiper’s Fork – Tennessee Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye Whiskey.

PNS: What is your next innovation and where do you think the industry is headed when it comes to blending and TTB categories?

AB: I will be so excited to share my next innovation when the time is right. You’ll just have to wait and see what we have been working on!

As far as the industry is concerned, I think we are going to see more of the curtain pulled back. Blending as a vocation is already starting to receive more of the spotlight. There are so many things the consumer wants to know about this industry that, until now, has kept its cards so close to its chest. 

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