Beer, Wine & Spirits

Nice work if you can get it: Get paid to test bourbon

What college student doesn't want to make bourbon for a living?
Marianne Barnes
Brown-Forman Master Taster

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.

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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.

Climbing the ladder to master distiller

Her first project with a nationwide release was Old Forester 1870 Original Batch for which she created the flavor profile. It's part of Brown-Forman's Whiskey Row Series.

The next step in Barnes' career path is the coveted title of master distiller. She works directly under Brown-Forman's incumbent Chris Morris, who's held the title for 11 years and whose signature is featured on the bottles. She said it took her breath away when she received the offer to work with Morris.

While the company will not confirm a succession plan, it's clear Barnes is currently a leading candidate. "She is paving the way for the future generation of the bourbon industry," Morris said.

When she was nearing graduation at the University of Louisville, Barnes said she interviewed with seven different companies before narrowing it down to a renewable energy outfit and Brown-Forman. But she said the choice was clear: "What college student doesn't want to make bourbon for a living?"

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It seems the next generation of bourbon lovers are already on the scene. Judging by her straw poll, Barnes' generation is incredibly interested in the cocktail culture. "When people my age find out I work for a company that makes bourbon, the questions start coming. Everybody wants to know more about it than average bear," she said.

According to research firm Mentel, Brown-Forman-made Jack Daniels is the most popular brand of whiskey among millennials. Numerous industry insiders, including Barnes, cite pop culture for the current boom in fine spiritsspecifically the widespread popularity of "Mad Men."

In addition to being younger than most of her counterparts, Barnes is also the only female master taster working for a major distiller in Kentucky right now. Brown-Forman is based in Louisville,Kentucky.

The president Kentucky Distiller's Association, Eric Gregory, said that right now the industry is finally embracing the important role women play. In September, Margie Samuels became the fifth woman ever inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame. She is responsible for helping to create Makers Mark (the red wax on the bottle was her idea).

Gregory called Barnes a fantastic ambassador for the industry. "I've been blown away by her," he said.

Barnes doesn't plan on leaving the gentlemen's club of spirits as she found it. She said 80 percent of her focus is on innovation. "We test something until it fails, which is how most scientists do their experiments," she said. According to Barnes, she has a few things up her sleeve that will change the way people drink bourbon and whiskey.