Fred Blans embarked on a digital journey from Amsterdam to Shoreham, Vermont to catch up with WhistlePig’s Master Blender Pete Lynch. In Part 1, we talk about crowd blending, consistency, and wood management.
WhistlePig’s Vermont Distillery, known to many simply as “the Farm.” is a mecca for Whiskey lovers, a fabled wonderland of cutting edge experimentation conducted by an elite staff. Alas, due to the COVID pandemic, my pilgrimage was virtual. WhistlePig’s Master Blender Pete Lynch logged into Zoom to talk to me about his job, the importance of customer feedback, and barrel finishing.
“Not exactly a nine to five”
Lynch’s role entails far more than blending. As his work at the Farm is “not exactly a nine to five.”
“We usually have some guests on the farm, whether it’s a barrel buyer, a distributor or some press. Or some people who are curious about a product. I take them around, do a tasting with them. I also go over any blend maintenance that is going to happen,” noted Lynch. “I taste through different batches of whiskey just to make that the blend consistency is there. And a lot of what I do is spread sheet related too.”
Of course, the work is not Lynch’s alone. WhistlePig is a collaborative effort and Lynch’s role as Master Blenderis aided by a pair of chemical engineers. Meghan Ireland serves as Maturation Chemist and Emily Harrison as Lead Distiller.
Building a talented team was one of one Lynch’s primary objectives in the two years following the death of distilling WP’s legendary Master Distiller, Dave Pickerell. Pete explained that he focused on recruiting different sensory palates to build a more dynamic team. Consequently, industry focus, quality control, blending innovation and brewing experience are the building stones of WhistlePig.
Taking It To The People
However, Lynch’s responsibilities also extend far beyond the distillery-literally. In Kentucky, many of his peers hold court in their distillery, but WP is not in Kentucky. So, Lynch also serves as a traveling ambassador in better times.
“We have been doing this right from the start when we first created our Farmstock whiskeys. We’re not on the Whiskey Trail so we have to get out to meet our customers.”
Lynch leveraged the traditional tastings into ad-hoc focus groups. “We would come to you and would bring you between five or seven different batches of whiskey at different age points. A mid age point between 5 and 7 yo and a high age at 10 to 13 year old. And then I would basically plan people to have their own version,” the Master Blender elaborated.
“And I had this graph chart to look at and say, ‘Here’s where people are finding the best flavor profile and that’s how we developed our Farmstocks over the years.’”
Pete’s penchant for testing variations does not end with traveling tastings. He also applies the scientific method to other factors in the process. Barrels, with their many woods and finishes, is a favorite field for the Master Blender.
“We have this program in which we take typically 12 year old whisky or 12+ as experiments. Sometimes a bit younger, just to experiment. We use finishing casks: standard wine casks, Chardonnay, Merlot, or spirit casks like brandy, rum, etc. And also different kinds of oak like chestnut and acacia. What we do is working on a finishing trial,” noted the maestro.
Really sourcing the best quality finishing barrels is more important than anything else. Because garbage-in-garbage-out ideology is never going to work for us. It really benefits us to put our whiskeys in top quality casks’
“Say a 13-year-old whiskey from an ex distillery finish on a Jamaican, a Barbados or a Caribbean rum barrel. We also do multiples. We do two or three finish for different lengths, different styles and see how the whiskey interacts with that.”
WhistlePig’s mad scientist cautioned that form is important in a barrel, but function is essential.
“It’s about the quality of the cask. We’ve got a great sort of supply chain set up in terms of getting the same casks from the same quality people. But to get there is a bit of a step,” he declared. “Every time you have to wonder if it’s worth to spend an extra $50 you ask on this cask ? Is the flavor impact positive ? Is it consistent throughout?”
Despite all the in-house variables, Lynch maintains this belief that the ultimate factor is generated by drinkers. “It’s instrumental to have different people give their expertise opinion. So we use bars and restaurants to give us their honest opinion.”
Consistency Is Clutch
Given the numerous expressions created by WhistlePig, one can not help but wonder how the distillery maintains both unique identities and consistency throughout the line.
“We build our inventory plan on a ten year basis. Then we ask ourselves how much 10 yo we want to produce? Can we feasibly do this, not only volume wise but also quality wise ? And, can we do this in ten years time as well? If we cannot produce that many cases, can we then knock it down to a quality assurance level,” mused Lynch. “Once we have this number then we start to work on these blends more specifically. The 10 yo is not from one or five blended barrels, it’s more like fifteen batches of whiskey that all have their specific flavor profile.”
“This blending ideology is a little bit more accepted in the UK and worldwide rather than in America, but it’s the way whiskey is made in the US and why it tastes the way it does.”