Are blenders becoming the Rock Stars of the whiskey world? In this new series Peggy Noe Stevens finds out…
Blue Run Spirits
PNS: Over the past 10 years production facilities have raised the innovation profile of blending. In your opinion, how has it changed the industry?
Shaylyn Gammon (SG): This movement towards more innovative blending could be argued to mirror nearly any other segment of any industry over the past decade and can be summed up as follows: consumers are more informed and eager than ever to have options and personalized experiences. Whiskey is not exempt from this. This has become the norm in nearly every way as we continue to innovate and continually seek new ways of experiencing familiar concepts. The expectation, now more than ever, is not just that there are many options but that the quality is also exceptional.
This movement has not happened without help from inside the industry with many internal factors synergizing with external consumer behavior for timely results. As you’ve had millennials move into many blending-type roles, I’d argue many of this generation are naturally more bent on “changing things up” and being open to trying different things. Additionally, people tend to get more creative when needed.
PNS: What is the role of a blender in the world of production?
SG: Blenders are tasked with maintaining the quality of the final liquid/product, which is often directly linked to the consistency of the product (but not always). Traditionally, consistency would’ve been at the forefront of the blender’s objectives and while this remains of high importance, I’d say the focus has shifted to the overall quality in that a consumer can depend on having a good experience when picking up ‘X’ bottle of whiskey. The average consumer is a bit more adventurous than they were, say, 10 years ago. My experience as a blender has historically been more in the innovation category and my objective is similar but with a twist: what experience am I delivering to the consumer that is unique and worth their time and investment in picking up a bottle of this LTO (limited-time offering)?
PNS: What is your production background that led you to this role?
SG: I began my research and development career in a production capacity directly out of college. I started in a role that demanded a lot from me which, while difficult, set me up nicely to accept a future role at Campari. While at this first job, I worked for a company that produced shelf-stable food products and MREs (meals ready to eat). We co-packed for many big brands including Fortune 500 companies. At just 22 years old, I was given many of my own “customers” and oversaw the creation of a new food product beginning with ideation through the actual creation of the formula and economizing production. I’d then oversee the process until the end which included many early mornings and long days in production watching every aspect of the process. At my time at this company and then at Campari, I learned there is no replacement for time spent in production learning the ins and outs of your process, ingredients, and getting to know the people helping to create your product.
PNS: What inspires you about combining flavors? What does the consumer seem to enjoy?
SG: As a supertaster and growing up in a family of supertasters, all I’ve ever known is the literal studying of my food/drink at
a nuanced level. It is so natural to me that I often forget it can be strange or funny to people around me that experience their meals in a more “normal” way. I’ve also spent countless hours at flavor houses gleaning every bit of knowledge that I can from flavorists learning more about flavor from a chemical perspective. What this lifetime of studying flavors has allowed me to do is construct profiles from a second-nature perspective. I mean this in the sense that something either works or it doesn’t and my nose can tell me right away. My amazing mentor/boss at Campari told me that when it comes to blending/innovating and the heavy emphasis on the artistic side of it, people either have it or they don’t so it is nearly impossible to teach.
When creating a profile, I get very excited at the thought of being able to share my experience directly with someone I’ve never met. I also hope to share something that is unique and entices you to go back for a second and third sniff/taste.
PNS: What is a typical day for you when it comes to blending?
SG: Currently, most of my blending is innovative. There is little day-to-day blending work. For a given project, I first gather as many representative samples of whiskey lots I have to work with and begin by smelling through them at barrel-proof and then dilute to approximately 90 proof. I then repeat this process and will taste some to all of the samples to look for consistency and to make sure there are no defects that were not noticed through smell alone. I then look for any limitations or requirements that will dictate my blending (i.e. target proof, target proof gallon, samples available in a lot) and I begin to combine. I work best in spurts of developing and like to give my nose plenty of breaks. After coming up with a few prototypes, I then typically call on a few other good noses to give their opinions.
PNS: How many samples do you taste in a day/week/month? How do you prepare your palate?
SG: A weekly tasting ranges anywhere from a few samples to a hundred plus. If I know I’m going to be tasting a lot of samples, I prefer to taste in the morning and will skip coffee that morning or wait a few hours after coffee to taste. I also avoid sulfurous foods such as garlic, onion, etc. and no cheese as the fat in cheese coats the tongue and disguises the true taste/mouthfeel of the whiskey.
PNS: What keeps you from palate fatigue?
SG: Preventing palate fatigue isn’t always possible but taking frequent breaks and drinking lots of water helps me. In my initial sensory training I was taught to
smell water or the crease of the inside of the elbow to attempt to erase a saturated olfactory system. If I do become saturated, I always leave the room and try to spend time outside re-setting.
PNS: What are you looking for in a blend? Do you have a certain style or method?
SG: Many times, I’m looking for balance: a nice top note to middle note to bottom note ratio. I enjoy a full bouquet when smelling Bourbon that almost always includes a full middle note. If this is left out, you’re left with a hollow impression of the liquid. I also look for unique notes in a barrel or barrels on which to build a profile.
PNS: How do you detect faults?
SG: Diluting samples to around 40% ABV (or lower) allows for most faults to become more obvious. Whereas most of what I do, I do with aroma alone, when it comes to detecting faults, I always recommend tasting.
PNS: If you can share, what are some of the brands that you blended?
SG: Wild Turkey and its subsidiary LTOs (Master’s Keep, Longbranch, etc.) Russell’s Reserve and its subsidiary LTOs, and Blue Run Whiskey LTOs.
PNS: What is your next innovation and where do you think the industry is
headed when it comes to blending and TTB categories?
SG: My first blending release at Blue Run is occurring in October of 2022. These are micro-blends (two-to-five-barrel blends) of four-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. As four-year-old Bourbon tends to be largely undifferentiated (compared to older Bourbon), I enjoyed the challenge of creating unique blends of this age and at pre-determined ratios (due to the fact that I was blending individual barrels).
With so many new players in the game and the inevitable amount of sourcing that’s taking place to fuel the booming whiskey demand, this has opened doors to many different non-traditional blends ranging from various locations to agricultural sources and everything in between. Equally important, it seems these new takes have been met with complete open arms by many whiskey partakers, expanding their viewpoints to the degree that they no longer demand only Straight Bourbon Whiskeys.