Marianne Barnes is the master taster at Brown-Forman. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
Marianne Barnes is the master taster at Brown-Forman. | Photo by Steve Coomes.

Marianne Barnes is an anomaly in the high places of America’s male-dominated distilling industry. As master taster at Brown-Forman, the tall and attractive ash blonde stands out when co-mingling with her male peers and distillers, but not just for her looks. She’s earned her perch and their respect by applying a keen mind and a sensitive palate to her work.

Barnes earned a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering in 2012 and signed on as a production intern at Brown-Forman that same year. Her mentor recognized her nose for whiskey nuances and comprehension of distilling, and invited her to work directly under Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris. Barnes leapt at the chance to study under Morris and became the liquor giant’s bourbon whiskey master taster in 2014.

What sounds like a dream job for any bourbon zealot is, in reality, no mean feat. Parsing flavor and chemical notes within distillates can easily become too much of a good thing. Sadly, but sensibly, the job also requires more spitting of bourbon than drinking as the whiskey woman must maintain her wits on the job.

Especially when some doubt she knows her stuff. Occasionally an aged Old Fo’ drinker wonders whether she’s qualified, but once she starts talking, those skeptics are silenced.

Near the time Old Forester’s new Original Batch bourbon was released last month, I sat with Barnes to discuss her work and sip a little bourbon along the way.

Barnes, left, looks on as master distiller Chris Morris prepares to open a rare bottle of Old Forester President's Select. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
Barnes, left, looks on as master distiller Chris Morris prepares to open a rare bottle of Old Forester President’s Select. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Insider Louisville: Let’s talk about Original Batch. Where did the idea come from?

Marianne Barnes: This is really Chris Morris’ baby. We’re going back to where the company started and looking at what that whiskey was like and making what was Old Forester back then. We’re taking whiskey from three different (Louisville) warehouses and three different days of production and batching them.

IL: What’s the significance of those variances?

MB: They could have gone into the barrel at different entry proofs, had more or less water added to them. And also where the barrel is entered into a warehouse, even what kind of barrels they went into. Where the wood came from and the composition of the soil that tree grew in plays a role, too.

Original Batch is bottled at 90 proof, which was George Garvin Brown’s preferred proof.

We’re also filtering it differently than we normally do. We call it “simply filtered” rather than unfiltered. It’s to replicate the processes that happened back then, so there is the potential for some cloudiness in this whiskey. I don’t see that changing the flavor as much as the mouthfeel since you’re taking out fatty acids and minerals and protein content that would settle in the bottom.

IL: And whiskey wonks like that, right?

MB: Yes, they do, and you’re definitely seeing a demand for unfiltered and barrel-proof whiskey.

IL: Is that what you like?

MB: I do like it, but I also like all styles and profiles of bourbon. When you’re out in the warehouse tasting different barrels, you learn which ones are better suited for 86 proof and which are better suited for higher proof. The barrels we choose for 100 proof are going to be spicier and have stronger fruit character. The 86 proof will be lighter, have more citrus and vanilla and be a little bit more drying.

IL: How do you stay sober through extended tastings?

MB: There is a point when you’re out in the warehouse tasting barrel proof after barrel proof and the inside of your mouth goes numb … you can’t fight that. … So you have to stop, take a little time, drink some water — crackers and salt seem to help you regain circulation so you can get your feeling back.

IL: What flavor notes do you pick up in this year’s Birthday Bourbon?

MB: I get a lot of toasted oak, campfire and marshmallow. Doesn’t have quite the spice the 1870 does, but the mouthfeel is a bit heavier.

Marianne Barnes | Photo by Steve Coomes
Marianne Barnes | Photo by Steve Coomes

IL: Why does Birthday’s proof change every year?

MB: Because it involves multiple barrels. So you may be tasting a barrel candidate for Birthday at 8 or 9 years old, but all of a sudden it changes and doesn’t fit the flavor profile that we were looking for any longer.

IL: And that means there are rejected barrels?

MB: That happens. We are never committed to something right off the still. Quality is important, so you just don’t put it into a bottle because you made it.

IL: Did you ever imagine you would become a master taster?

MB: I had no idea. … Larry Combs, who is over Jack Daniels distillery now, came to the pilot plant where I was working and asked if I would be interested in an opportunity to train with the master distiller. I completely lost my breath. I didn’t know it was in the realm of possibilities for me because it has been such a male-dominated business for so long. But almost without skipping a beat, I said yes, of course.

He said they wanted somebody in that role who knows distilling from a technical background, who knows the process well enough to make it. I’d also worked on a lot of sensory panels and my palate developed extremely quickly.

IL: What’s a day in the life of a master taster like?

MB: I quite often get to do single barrel selections for customers. So beforehand, I go and select all the barrels in the warehouse that fit (their predetermined desires). I’ll taste 30-plus barrels to choose one barrel that’s good enough to be a single barrel.

I also conduct (60-member) sensory panels (twice a week) and am intimately involved in making sure our distillates are the same as our standard. If there’s something wrong, we’ll know on what day that happened and be able to isolate those barrels (and remove them from inventory).

IL: Ever need a ride home from work after a long day of tasting?

MB: No, I never get to that point.

IL: Any other women in your role in distilling?

MB: Not as far as I know, at least no one who’s gone through such a specific program like Chris developed for people actually in spirits production.

IL: Does your palate ever need a tune up?

MB: Oh, sure. Occasionally you have to recalibrate to stay on top of what you’re doing. It’s a lot about palate memory.

IL: Ever have an Old Fo’ fan, especially if he’s an old man, do a double take when he learns a young woman is the master taster?

MB: Yes, that happens … when I go out into the market and am introduced as the master taster and people see a young female. But I’ve heard over and over again that as soon as I start talking, I gain instant credibility. They know I know what I’m talking about.

IL: Where do you go from here? Master distiller?

MB: Yeah, I hope to. That is a dream job. But Chris won’t let me boot him out just yet.

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.