Photo courtesy Marianne Eaves
Marianne Eaves has been working in the spirits industry for over 10 years, starting as an engineering intern for Brown-Forman and eventually taking the title of KY's First Female Master Distiller at the historic Old Taylor Distillery (now Castle & Key). Louisville Future got to speak to her and get her take on the bourbon industry.
What do you like about working in the spirits industry?
As a chemical engineer I have a technical mind and get really excited by the nerdy details of the process of making spirits (particularly whiskies), but I also discovered and developed a talent for tasting and teaching about spirits along the way which put me in a unique position to be well suited a fortunate opportunity at Brown-Forman at just the right time.
I have recently struck out on my own to work on my personal brand - collaborating across the globe on new innovation in KY Bourbon style whiskey and other spirits. My focus being directly aligned with my strengths and passion for product development and process improvement - creating thoughtful (and delicious) products that are part of authentic stories and creating partnerships with individuals who really care about quality and maintaining a high bar in our industry.
The bourbon industry is experiencing explosive growth. To what do you attribute this?
From the time I started at Brown-Forman in 2009, to when I left in 2015, the landscape of bourbon in KY and across the US had dramatically changed. I saw Brown-Forman take their flagship brand Old Forester from one of their lowest priority, lowest profit brands, to double digit growth year after year, investing more into targeting craft spirits lovers and tastemaker markets.
There are many reasons that folks will point to when trying to explain the explosion of demand for bourbon, but I think the most likely reason that people started paying attention has been the passion that comes from behind the bar. Mixologists, bar chefs, bartenders, etc., have revived the art of making quality drinks. I also think the overall “nerdiness” and education of the general consumer has generated an appreciation for bourbon that hadn't always been there.
Can you give us an overview of the science that goes into bourbon making?
A VERY basic overview the craft of bourbon making goes back hundreds of years to the start of the colonization of the United States. Early Settlers brought with them distilling tradition from around the world, and applied it to the ingredients they had most available - in KY's case, corn. Corn distillate was an early currency and much easier to transport and trade in the wilds of early America than huge wagons of raw grain that would must more easily spoil.
As its most basic the process of making bourbon is grinding grain, cooking the ground grain, adding yeast and fermenting (creating the alcohol and flavor) and then distilling that fermented grain to extract the alcohol and flavor. This distilled product is then barreled and that's what makes bourbon.
These days there are lots of ways that new producers are innovating but, interestingly, much of it is actually using our new technologies and science in the pursuit of taking bourbon back to its roots. I created a product for Castle & Key by taking a bottle that had been produced by Colonel EH Taylor back in 1917 and reverse-engineering it to learn how it had been made, what it was made of, and then making it my own in a way that honored that history and beautiful flavor profile.
What factors are manipulated to make different kinds of bourbon?
Grain, water, yeast, oak/wood. What I want to continue to teach new producers is that every small detail, every nuance of the process you design has an impact on the flavor. So while it may seem, because of the strict definition of bourbon (51% corn, etc.), that there's very little room for differentiation from product to product, this is absolutely not true. There are a thousand opportunities to create beautiful nuanced flavor without going bonkers with exotic grain or off the wall casks.
[Interview edited for space]