Are blenders becoming the Rock Stars of the whiskey world? In this new series Peggy Noe Stevens finds out…
Vice president, new product development
Bardstown Bourbon Company
Peggy Noe Stevens (PNS): Over the last ten years production facilities have raised the innovation profile of blending. In your opinion, how has it changed the industry?
Dan Callaway (DC): Blending innovations have breathed new life into the American whiskey category. The creative spirit is alive in this space! Brands are positioning behind blends for their premium releases, some of the best whiskey made in the last decade has been thoughtfully balanced blends. Through the elevation of the blended category, brands and consumers are willing to take creative risks. They’re willing to go outside the boundaries of traditional bourbon and rye categories.
PNS: What is the role of a blender in the world of production? How does it differ from a master distiller?
DC: Besides the inherent role of balancing flavors, the blender is a communicator. In any given day, I will consult with Operations, Finance, Quality, Compliance, Sales, and Marketing to align on an upcoming project. We come together as a team to translate the day-to-day blending to long-term goals. A project may work beautifully in in the lab, but requires a team effort to bring the vision to the bottling line.
PNS: What is your production background that led you to this role?
DC: My career began in classical music, moved to wine and restaurants, then to whiskey. I was an orchestral music in New Orleans, and traveled around the US and Asia for 10 years before receiving my Sommelier certifications, moving to Kentucky and following the path to bourbon. The key skill I learned from my music career is the ability to balance unique voices into a final product that is far greater than the individual components.
PNS: What inspires you about combining flavors? What does the consumer seem to enjoy?
DC: I get tremendous joy each day from combining flavors and creating new profiles. It’s a discipline where I can continually improve. I’m inspired by the awesome team members at BBCo as well great restaurants, books, and music.
Consumers enjoy Bardstown Bourbon Company’s approach to transparency. We share the exact age, blend percentage, and mash bill right on the side of the label. We want our fans to know exactly how we reached the final flavor. It opens the door to great conversations!
PNS: What is a typical day for you when it comes to blending?
DC: A typical day of blending begins with an inventory check. We are fortunate at BBCo to create 54 unique mash bills as well as source US and International whiskey. I’ll check in on currently aging projects as well as what is available for upcoming productions. Then I review the forecast for our upcoming needs. I can get to work on any upcoming blends and check in on barrel samples. I’ll be sure to walk to our bottling facility to speak with our Operations and Processing teams on upcoming bottlings, ensuring that all is on track for production.
PNS: How many samples do you taste in a day/week/month? How do you prepare your palate?
DC: On average, I’ll taste 20 unique projects in a month. Each of these projects will have multiple variants for blend options, lot samples, and proof.
I prepare my palate by reviewing certain baseline bourbons. I keep a box in my house full of classic whiskey profiles, I’ll regularly blind taste each of them to stay centered.
PNS: What keeps you from palate fatigue?
DC: Time! I try to spread out tastings between morning and night. If I’m digging into a blend, I’ll bring my materials home and work that night.
PNS: What are you looking for in a blend? Do you have a certain style or method? How do you detect faults?
DC: Above all else in a blend, I’m looking for balance. Aroma, Mouthfeel, and Finish – an equilibrium between spice and sweetness, grain and barrel. My method is to determine a core flavor, then adding nuance around the outside. For example, our Discovery Series #7 at its core is a blend of two 12-year KY bourbons. Then we have Canadian whiskey for a round sweetness, Indiana rye for a pop of spice, and 17-year Tennessee whiskey for a citrus spice and unique mouthfeel.
PNS: If you can share, what are some of the brands that you blended?
DC: I love our innovative Discovery Series blends and the unique offerings of our and Distillery Collection. Bardstown Bourbon Company has an ethos of Collaboration, I’m fortunate to work on exceptional bourbon blends intended to age in used wine, beer, and spirits barrels. These include Ferrand Cognac, Foursquare Rum, Founder’s Brewing, and Amaro Nonino. In addition, I’m proud to work on blends for our many distillation partners.
PNS: What is your next innovation and where do you think the industry is headed when it comes to blending and TTB categories?
DC: An upcoming innovation will be a fantastic Sauternes Collaboration with Chateau Doisy Daene. I created a unique blend of 11-year Kentucky Bourbon with 7-year Indiana rye. It was key to dial in right ration of aged bourbon and rye spice to complement the honeyed notes of the Sauternes. Once the flavor was correct, we aged in the beautiful used barrels. I loved the profile, but it needed a bit more spice and oak to balance the sweetness so the liquid was transferred into new toasted oak barrels. Can’t wait for this one to hit the market!
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