A typical day at work includes drilling holes into bourbon barrels for direct sampling, conducting VIP tours of whiskey warehouses and slapping the gold star of approval on spirits ready to be bottled and sold.
Yes, it's a real job, and 28-year old Marianne Barnes has it. She is Brown-Forman's master taster of Kentucky whiskey and bourbon brands, which include Jack Daniel's, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve.
Think you have what it takes to be a master taster? It requires much more than just an affinity for the brown water. Barnes has a degree in chemical engineering and takes a decidedly scientific approach to her job. She is expected to recognize all the nuances of Brown-Forman's brands, be able to identify the precise proofs coming out of the barrel as well as detect any defects.
The taster treats her palate like a sophisticated laboratory tool: Barnes is prohibited from smoking, can't wear perfume when working and regularly performs saline rinses. There are more than 200 flavor chemicals in bourbon, and she must be able to distinguish them all.
Barnes' work comes as bourbon and whiskey are seeing a resurgence in popularity. According to the Kentucky Distillers' Association, the state tripled number of distilleries in last two years from 10 to 31. That's the most since Prohibition ended and there are 18 more new distilleries on the way.
What's surprising is that number only ranks Kentucky eighth on the list thanks to the current boom in small-batch bourbon. There are about 5 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky right now—that's more than the number of people living in the state.
Part of maintaining Barnes' palate includes regular "re-calibration." As Barnes puts it: "If you're using the same instrument on the same sample over and over again, it can begin to give you the wrong output. I have to go back to the standards and make sure I'm picking up all of the right notes." That process includes using scent jars to remind her senses of exactly what she's searching for; oak, cedar, pecans, pepper,etc.
If all that tasting and smelling sounds tongue numbing, it is. Barnes claims she can do about 50 tastes at 140 proof before her mouth loses sensation. "I would say average tasters go numb after six. The lining of my mouth has acclimated to the intensity of the product we're tasting," she said.
The question everyone asks, of course, is how she prevents intoxication. "I do a lot of spitting," she said.
When she's not spitting, however, Barnes' favorite cocktail is a traditional Manhattan made with Woodford Reserve.