Food & Drink

What It's Like to Be a Professional Whiskey Taster

While most people spend their workday sitting at a desk, typing on a keyboard and waiting for happy hour to begin, Ashley Barnes spends hers drinking whiskey—more specifically, Four Roses Bourbon.

Barnes is the assistant quality manager at Four Roses Distillery where her focus is on sensory evaluation and the formulation of inventory. Here’s what that really means: She’s tasted every batch of the brand’s bourbon that’s wound up for sale in your local liquor store. Her job involves as much science and analytical lab work as it does whiskey know-how—a perfect mix for Barnes, who has a major in biology with a minor in chemistry, and is also a certified distilled spirits chemist. Before starting at Four Roses in 2014, she spent two years at another distillery tasting everything from flavored vodka and gin to whiskey and tequila, and in 2016 she served as a whiskey judge for the American Craft Spirits Association.

We caught up with Barnes to talk about what her job entails, how she ended up with such a cool gig and what it’s like to be a professional bourbon taster. Spoiler alert: It’s awesome.

Supercall: What exactly do you do for Four Roses?
Ashley Barnes: I work with the master distiller Brent Elliott and I assist him with everything—including tasting everything from the distillate to the maturate to approve them for use. I make sure that everything is good and running smoothly. Once the distillate has been approved, it goes to Cox’s Creek where it will be put into the barrel to age. Then I help Brent look at how it’s aging and how we think it will do well so we can start the reservation process.

SC: What does your job entail as the bourbon is aging?
AB: As the bourbon comes of age, it’s kind of like how you graduate kindergarten and you graduate high school and then you go to college. I kind of think of it in tiers like that. So as it graduates it becomes whatever product it may be—whether it be small batch or single barrel or private selection. I like to think of those that graduate and go on to eventually become the limited editions as, you know, they’ve got their Ph.D.

So we’ll mingle [whiskies] for small batch in particular as the batches come of age and we’ll look at those and do a specific breakdown of those batches. I’ll do test blends in the lab to make sure that every batch of small batch bourbon mingled together tastes the same. It’s really neat to really break everything down and build it back up. Of course, with limited editions I’m working with Brent on everything—throughout the year, you kind of see batches of bourbon that age really well or just really stand out.

SC: How did you get into tasting professionally?
AB: I was contacted by a headhunter. I was actually working in pharmaceuticals. I was a raw materials chemical analyst at a pharmaceutical company, so I was testing the raw ingredients that were used to make different medications, primarily nicotine lozenges. I got a phone call and the lady was like, “I know you’re not actively looking right now, but would you be interested in interviewing at a distillery?” My whole thought process was I hate third shift, second shift sounds better—and I just went for it.

SC: How do you interview for a job like this?
AB: I had a tasting interview, which was really cool and really scary. All those etiquette classes you take—courses in college on how to interview—no one tells you how to spit in front of your potential boss. I walked in and there’s all these samples set up and there’s a spitoon. And I’m like, “Alright how am I supposed to do this?” After a while I got used to the spittoon, but there’s no graceful way to do it without looking like a drooling baby. Of all the things I’ve done, a tasting interview was the scariest.

SC: What’s the most enjoyable part of your job?
AB: The people are a big part of it. It’s just such an eclectic collection of people, from scientists to enthusiasts to bartenders. Everyone has a common passion and then you get to throw in the history—there are people who are crazy history buffs and you could sit and talk to them for hours. And getting to taste amazing bourbon everyday is pretty good too. It’s hard to say I’m coming to work because how can this be work?

SC: Do you ever get tired of drinking whiskey?
AB: I can’t say I do, but I do like to mix it up sometimes. I enjoy rum and some brandy, but I always find myself going back to good old bourbon. I like it neat or on the rocks. I’m just starting to get into the cocktails thanks to the bartenders. I met some craft bartenders who were doing some really cool stuff and I was like, “I need to make this at home.” I like Manhattans—still pretty close to a traditionalist, I guess.

SC: Has this job led to anything you didn’t expect?
AB: Probably getting to talk to people and do events or tours, bringing people into the lab and doing some teaching. I didn’t expect to do that, but I absolutely love it. And just getting to meet so many people from so many walks of life. I’ve got friends all over the U.S. now and it seems like if I go to another state [I’ve always got someone to call]. I never in a million years expected to be that person. I’ve always been a science geek, and typically you’re in a lab and you’ve got your tight-knit friends and that’s about it. So getting to be a little more extroverted and get out and talk to people—I’ve really been able to take away from that and be a very independent, outgoing person because of it.

SC: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
AB: We’re in the middle of an expansion and there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s the same thing I think in any industry. You’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I definitely have days where I feel like I’m chasing my tail or running in circles. We’re running at max capacity now and then we’re doubling our output with this expansion. It’s really keeping up with the demand—we’re growing everyday.

SC: What’s the reaction you get from people when you tell them what you do?
AB: The first thing people usually say is, “Are you kidding me? Is that really a job?” I think there’s a lot of different titles that go along with [being a professional taster]. My title is assistant quality manager and people don’t automatically connect that with tasting. Then they’re blown away by the science behind everything that goes on. So there’s the shock that this is a real job and then [realizing what it entails] and then finally it’s, “What classes or degree do I need to do what you do?”

I went on vacation a few weeks ago and I was at an ABC store in North Carolina. I had on a Four Roses softball team shirt and they asked me about it. Before I knew it I had a crowd of people surrounding me. It’s really surreal sometimes. I never thought I would be that person and it’s really cool. We’ve got some of the best fans.