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Benjamin Franklin famously once said, “there are no gains without pains,” a phrase that would later morph into the more familiar, “no pain, no gain.” As phrases can change over time, so can the fundamental meaning of a word as it applies to an industry. In the bourbon and American whiskey industry, the term “blending” - which includes "blend," "blended," and anything else like it - has transformed dramatically over time. But thanks to a combination of insight, persistence, and a bit of courage mustered by whiskey makers over the past decade, the concept of blending as it relates to bourbon and American whiskey has changed for the better. Today, blending has become one of the most exciting aspects of the industry, and its future looks promising.

But before we look forward, we have to look back.

Historically, the term “blending” has always been near the center of American whiskey’s ever-changing and often messy past. As the United States’ transition from self-sufficient farm distillers to its modern industrial age accelerated through the 1800s, a healthy and growing market for aged whiskey materialized in an effort to satisfy the country’s seemingly insatiable thirst for the spirit. But aging whiskey takes time, and most enterprises don’t make it past their first year. Waiting years to sell a product wasn’t exactly considered financially lucrative. As historical references account, American whiskey became increasingly synonymous with the recklessness that epitomized the country’s Wild West. With no government regulations in place, whiskey makers quickly learned shortcuts. Tobacco, iodine, or other chemicals could intensify color and improve flavor when blended into whiskey, making young and sub-par whiskeys sometimes taste better and appear to have been aged longer. At a fraction of the cost compared to establishing proper distillation techniques or waiting months (or years) for whiskey to simply age, unwanted liquids were frequently blended in. This came at a cost though, as they sometimes posed a threat to the unwitting consumers.

This practice of secretly blending these potentially dangerous agents into American whiskey eventually led to the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, setting standards for whiskey with the use of fairly heavy-handed government oversight. The Bottled in Bond Act was the very first consumer protection law put into place in the United States, which is worth pausing to take a moment to fully let sink in. Before the FTC, FDA, CDC, and every other consumer protection agency and law that we take for granted today, the Bottled in Bond Act set it all off. The United States government organized to protect consumers against bad whiskey. It’s no wonder “blending” when it came to whiskey started to earn itself a bad name.

Fast forward to the end of Prohibition, and the United States had outgrown its glaringly limited regulations governing whiskey. As a result, in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Federal Alcohol Control Administration (FACA) by executive order, and then later the Federal Alcohol Administration Act of 1935, or FAA Act for short. The FACA was later disbanded, but the FAA Act “continues today as part of the foundation of TTB's enabling legislation,” according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The Federal Register Act was also established, which resulted in the creation of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which was later amended in 1937 to provide a “codification” of all regulations every five years. It was published for the first time in 1938. The CFR establishes the core of federal regulations pertaining to American whiskey, which are translated into more readable terms and consolidated with ongoing Treasury decisions by the TTB in The Beverage and Alcohol Manual (BAM).

During the years that followed through the mid-to-late 20th century, government regulations combined with producer practices and consumer preferences helped sink the term “blending” to a new low, or “blended” to be more precise. The regulations defined Blended Whiskey, Blended Bourbon, Blended Rye, and other blended forms of whiskey, which allow for up to 49% (80% if just labeled “Blended Whiskey”) of other spirits to be blended in, along with the addition of coloring, flavoring, and other materials. While this class of spirit has been produced for a long time, even prior to being legally defined, it has experienced a more recent decline in popularity.

Bourbon and American whiskey started to become increasingly popular beginning in the early 2000s, signaling the beginning of a modern day whiskey renaissance that we find ourselves enjoying today. A perfect storm began brewing as this period was coupled with a rise in small distillers across the United States, the advent of the smartphone, and the explosion of social media platforms putting information at our fingertips and connecting fans across the country and the world. Excitement for the homegrown spirit grew tremendously, information was readily available, and local distilleries where the process could be seen firsthand, thus creating an immediate connection with a brand, caused fans to become more than just consumers. Everyone from the average weekend shopper to bloggers and industry journalists was eager to learn the background about what was being bottled.

As a result, authenticity became increasingly important, as consumers and critics alike valued the idea that the company that was bottling and branding the whiskey was one-and-the-same as the company who originally distilled it. But this increased demand meant non-distiller producers, or NDPs for short, were on the rise. NDPs do not distill. Instead, they purchase whiskey distilled by others and bottle it under their own label. A common practice in whiskey historically, NDPs in the early 2000s, 2010s, and many even to this day are not quick to advertise the fact that they are NDPs, and some go so far as to even cover it up. Mainstream articles with titles like “Behind the misleading claims fueling America’s bourbon boom” and “Your 'Small-Batch' Kentucky Bourbon Is Probably Being Made in a Massive Factory” didn’t make things any easier. While products from NDPs are essentially the same as products sold directly by distillers - heck, someone had to distill them, often the same distilleries selling highly coveted bottles - getting consumers behind the idea proved to be an uphill battle.

NDPs and blending are not synonymous. However, an NDP, or even a distillery that also sources whiskey distilled by other distilleries and incorporates them into blends that contain their in-house distilled whiskey, gains an inherent advantage: the ability to draw flavor profiles from many different distillers and regions across the United States, and even potentially the globe. But what seems like an obvious advantage today was not seen in the same light a decade ago. NDPs were not held in high regard (many still are not), and the negative connotation connected to “blending” with respect to bourbon and American whiskey still held strong.

This brings us much closer to the present day, or at least to the beginning of this past decade.

It’s 2 a.m. on a hot Kentucky summer night in 2014. Two men sit in a warehouse in Kentucky blending whiskey and pouring through one idea after another. The limits seem endless, but the path to reach them isn't clear yet. Every detail is important. Working nearly 15 hours per day two weeks a month over the course of a year, their focus during this early stage remains the same as it is today: what’s inside the bottle. In its basic form, their idea is simple; blend various whiskeys spanning multiple distilleries from various regions in the country into a single, cohesive end result where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Blending whiskey had certainly been done before, but this was the start of something greater. The two didn’t know it yet, but their work would come to define a new chapter in bourbon and American Whiskey’s history when it comes to blending. Their names: Joe Beatrice and Tripp Stimson. The company: Barrell Craft Spirits.

Ribbon cutting ceremony at Barrell Craft Spirit's new blending facility in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.

Beatrice founded Barrell Craft Spirits in 2013, and the company’s first product was launched just one year later. Looking at the company’s success over the past decade, it’s all too easy to attribute it to the result of a visionary’s precognition. And maybe deep down that’s part of it, but the company’s origin story is much more humble than that.

An active homebrewer for about 30 years, Beatrice had an obsession with attention to detail with his brewing process, and he’s applied this level of precision to both his business and spirits blends since day one. Studying the industry revealed a few things that would lay the foundation for what Barrell Craft Spirits has become today. About 90% of products were coming from just a few big producers. The market was hungry for barrel proof bourbons, but there were few being produced. There was a large supply of barrels for sale in the marketplace originating from a growing number of distilleries. Finally, batching barrels could result in a unique product every time, inspiration that was drawn from Scotland’s merchant whiskey business.

Creating quality blends time after time presents a challenge in and of itself, but anyone who is familiar with blending bourbon knows that it can be done with a talented blender at the helm. Moreover, as Beatrice notes, “there is a big difference between dumping barrels and blending.” Blending at scale is complex. It’s like comparing the process of designing an innovative new vehicle to manufacturing one, a challenge that’s exponentially difficult to achieve on a large scale with continuous production and distribution. Covering many lots of barrels, accounting for market dynamics covering price, availability, and distribution, and wading through a sea of government red tape add - to point out a few considerations - a seemingly endless number of challenges. At the center of these challenges, the marketplace was cool on both NDPs and the concept of “blending” bourbon when the brand’s first product launched about 10 years ago.

Four of the eight new blending tanks with a combined 64,000 gallons of capacity.

Stimson and Beatrice met in 2014. During their initial late night work sessions the two solidified their initial impressions of one another; when it came to making whiskey and building a company, they were on the same page. Beatrice had a long established history in marketing and technology, which included deep understanding of the industry and a particular product’s place within it, a lens he would always be mindful of with respect to spirits production. In complementary fashion, after obtaining a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, Stimson spent nine years at Brown-Forman and then branched off to work in the spirits industry independently as a consultant. Among other projects, Stimson worked on tequila in Mexico and refers to his background in yeast and fermentation frequently, noting “one of the most overlooked decisions distillers make is yeast…if you’re intentional, you can really control the output.” He became full-time at Barrell Craft Spirits in 2017 and currently holds the title at Barrell Craft Spirits: Chief Whiskey Scientist/Chief of Distillery Operations.

“Our focus is 100% on what goes into the bottle,” Stimson says unequivocally. “We’re building a flavor matrix. Each component will work positively, negatively, or neutralize the flavors. It’s an endless flavor matrix and complexity in whiskey is built with a diversity of whiskeys. We want peaks and valleys…extremes…so they exist together in a cohesive nature but don’t cover each other up.”

Currently, Barrell Craft Spirits offers a slew of ongoing and limited releases that marry whiskeys from multiple distilleries, states, and even countries, incorporating whiskeys from outside the United States in some of their blends. Recently, the company introduced what might be their most ambitious endeavor yet, Barrell Foundation Bourbon. It’s their first non-cask strength bourbon and includes bourbons distilled in Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, and Maryland in the blend. It’s an ongoing release and taps into a new market for the brand.

Barrell's new and improved blending lab.

So what will the future bring?

Some remember Barrell Craft Spirits had a brief foray into distilling themselves. They got there…had a design plan, purchased some equipment. They basically had it figured out, but ultimately decided it didn’t really make sense. Stimson posed the question: “There is so much good bourbon being made today, why build a factory to make more?” It comes back to one thing, “Our focus is 100% on what goes in the bottle.” If a portion of their attention has to be allocated towards distilling, that takes away from blending and ultimately takes away from the final product.

This was not apparent at the onset, but you can tell by speaking with Beatrice and Stimson it became clear over time, and is as clear as ever today. So clear in fact, that they recently doubled down on blending. In September, they unveiled a new blending facility located in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. The carefully planned layout, production capability, and other details will take their potential to a new level with 31,000 square feet of space that will increase their blending capacity by over 500%. It’s a working facility, through and through, that was - like everything Barrell does - designed entirely around what goes into the bottle.

Thinking conceptually about the new space and where they are today, Beatrice says, “The design and build of this facility is an articulation of everything we’ve learned over the past 10 years from the integration of our creative process, both from a product and brand perspective as well our barrel to blend to bottle workflow.” “You need to continually reinvent yourself. You can’t be complacent,” Stimson adds.

There are thousands of distilleries around the country making whiskey, and an increasing number of them are making it really well. Experimentation with finishes continues to expand, and consumers are as hungry as ever to connect with their favorite brands. Bourbon is booming, rye continues to gain ground, and American single malts are a mirage of what will someday become their exciting future. It’s an amazing time to be part of American whiskey. While distillers serve a role that is as admirable as it is critical to American whiskey’s survival, blending should not be treated as second rate. It is a sign that whiskey isn't just surviving, it's flourishing.

We are experiencing an American whiskey renaissance that will someday become highlighted as a key moment in history. The art of blending plays an integral role in what makes bourbon and American whiskey what it is today, and what it will become tomorrow.

September 14, 2023 is now officially "Barrell Craft Spirits Day" in Louisville, Kentucky.

Written By: Nick Beiter

December 13, 2023
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Changing the Game: Blending’s Past, Present, and Future Through the Lens of American Whiskey's Preeminent Blender
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