Don McGrew knows bourbon, from seed to sip, barrel to bottle. He’s been in the spirits industry for more than a quarter of a century and is currently the Americas blending technical manager for the James B. Beam Distilling Company. Recently, he was a guest lecturer for students in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment to inspire the next generation of blenders.
Students in the Distilling Studies certificate program listened as McGrew told stories of his years in the industry and passed around sniff samples so students could smell the difference between grain neutral spirits, new bourbon and aged bourbon. He also passed around common grains used in bourbon production — corn, rye and malted barley.
“Primarily, my job is to get the right barrels into the right bottles,” McGrew said. “We have a lot of different products out there on the market, and it takes quite a bit of craftsmanship to make sure you have the right blends going into them.”
A blender must take into account the location of barrels in the maturation warehouse, the age of the spirit and its combined maturity. Bourbon is a natural product, where no color, flavor or grain neutral can be added, so it is a matter of selecting and combining barrels to give each product a distinctive character.
McGrew explained the importance of knowing every part of the process, all the way from the raw materials to the packaging.
“You need to develop a strong ability to identify and describe the critical sensory effects throughout the whole manufacturing process,” he said.
It doesn’t happen overnight. McGrew said at Jim Beam, they train future blenders by exposing them to various scents and ingredients over a period of years. He said it takes at least five years to gain enough experience to become confident. His current apprentice has been training with him for more than two years.
“I am just making sure he gets the same exposure I have had and that he learns to ask the same types of questions I have asked in my career,” McGrew said. “I’m confident you’ll meet him in the future.”
Seth DeBolt, professor and director of the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits at UK, teaches the class. He believes it’s important for the students to get as much real-world interaction as possible. Many of the students already work in the spirits industry, but even for them, getting a different perspective is valuable.
“He is an incredible wealth of knowledge from production all the way through the sensory aspects,” DeBolt said. “To have him here telling the students how he works with natural barrel variation to create consistency within these products, from firsthand knowledge, is transformational for the students. It ties all the bits we’ve been through together. It ties together all the various roles we’ve learned about, from production, grains, all the way through to the packaging, into one cohesive unit.”
Inviting speakers such as McGrew is one way the Beam Institute fulfills its mission of ensuring the welfare and prosperity of Kentucky’s spirits industry. Through teaching, research and outreach, the institute promotes economic sustainability, environmental stewardship and responsible consumption.
Another opportunity to further that mission is the inaugural James B. Beam Institute Industry Conference, coming up Feb. 27 at the UK Gatton Student Center. The conference will address key topics those in the industry deal with on a regular basis. UK and industry representatives will lead sessions focused on fermentation, spent grains, warehouse improvements, maturation, white oak and a grains panel. Exhibits and vendors will offer interactive displays and opportunities for networking. Attendees will also earn a certificate of continuing education for participation. For more information, visit the Beam Institute website.
UK and Jim Beam parent, Beam Suntory, are dedicated to the responsible consumption of alcohol and together will develop and expand successful alcohol awareness programs, including programming already funded by Beam Suntory.
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