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How to Taste Booze for a Living

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If you’ve been told that you have a discerning palate, the thought of working at a distillery, brewery or winery might have crossed your mind. But the reality of tasting whiskey, beer or even wine for a living isn’t quite what it seems.

“I think [people assume], ‘Oh, you drink all day for a living,’ ” says Jane Bowie, master of maturation and director of innovation at Maker’s Mark. “I mean, we do, but it’s funny when you get into tasting. It’s a different headspace.”

The way she tastes is not, as she says, “how normal people drink.” Bowie spends much of her day in a lab where she tastes through glass-topped samples of Kentucky Bourbon. She looks for whiskeys that exhibit interesting qualities. Bowie samples experiments that examine what aging techniques or areas of the warehouse show promise, or what didn’t work at all.

She also spends significant time alongside the company’s marketing teams and analyzes various processes of the distillery. There are times she’s not doing much tasting at all.

“It’s not just liquid innovation,” says Bowie. “It’s agriculture. It’s really understanding all of our processes. We [barrel our whiskey] at a much lower industry entry proof than the industry standard—what is the effect of that? And what wood compounds are more soluble in water versus alcohol, and how does the flavor mature and adapt and change and the compounds interact over time?”

Jane Bowie evaluating glasses of Marker's Mark Bourbon
Jane Bowie, hard at work / Photo courtesy Maker’s Mark

Whether it’s innovation and product development, quality control or, in some cases, as a master taster, professional tasters pick apart the flavors of their chosen beverage. Some have earned  degrees in food science, while others, like Bowie, gain experience and qualification after years of palate development and immersion in the industry.

There’s no one approach to a tasting career. If you’re interested in spending your days testing drinks for a living, professionals offer advice on how to get started.

Get any job in the industry

Whether your dream is to work at a brewery, winery or distillery, you won’t likely land your ideal job right off the bat. Focus and motivation will most likely be needed to achieve the career you want.

“My career started with an entry-level position in production,” says Andy Farrell, innovation brewing manager at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan, whose responsibilities include daily tastings, or sensory analysis. “[My] first job was as a keg washer. I worked in packaging for a short time, and then moved into the fermentation cellar and, eventually, brewhouse.”

Andy Farrell crushing and smelling hops in his hands at Bell's Brewery
Andy Farrell evaluating hops at Bell’s / Photo courtesy Bell’s Brewery

About a decade later, in 2016, he landed in his current position. Similarly, Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan began to develop her palate and passion for tasting as a buyer for a hospitality group.

“[It] gave me opportunities to taste across categories constantly, and working side by side with chefs built my identifier library even more so, which was majorly beneficial for my skill set,” says Zykan. She also worked for a master sommelier who taught her how to analyze what she had tasted.

Zykan’s position is unique to Old Forester, and she oversees its single-barrel program. She manages inventory, selects barrels and pulls samples to approve profiles. She also leads tastings and training for consumers and trade, and serves as a distillery spokeswoman.

Because the industry is constantly evolving, there are opportunities to create your own role. It’s what Bowie has done since she began at Maker’s Mark 13 years ago. Though she applied for an event coordinator position, it wasn’t the job she necessarily sought. In her cover letter, she instead spelled out her dream job at the distillery.

The moxie paid off. She was hired as the distillery’s first global brand ambassador.

Jackie Zykan holding a glass of Old Forester
Jackie Zykan, Old Forester’s master taster / Photo courtesy Old Forester

“It’s really just about being persistent and getting your foot in the door somewhere,” says Bowie, whose interest in product development led to the creation of her current job. “Once you’re in, you need to focus on three things: be curious, be patient and do the grunt work.”

Get an education

While a formal education isn’t a must for all professional tasting positions, it can set you apart from other applicants.

“A formal education with a chemistry backbone has certainly given me the foundation to understand every aspect of the process thoroughly and has allowed me to communicate our products across a variety of audiences,” says Zykan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Every company trains roles such as mine differently, but a core understanding is always critical, the rest will develop in time.”

Lauren Torres, the quality lab manager for Bell’s, also earned a chemistry degree. “I applied for a lot of jobs after graduating, but things were scarce with the recession,” says Torres. “I eventually got a call from Bell’s about my application and was offered a job as a lab technician.”

Lauren Torres, during Bell's 2019 hop selection
Lauren Torres, during Bell’s 2019 hop selection / Photo courtesy Bell’s Brewery

If you want to become a professional wine taster, a formal education could be essential. Innovation and quality control roles fall typically to the winemaking team, so your skill set will need to go far beyond sensory development.

“It all started when I earned a degree in chemistry from the Auckland Institute of Technology [in New Zealand] and from there worked as a food science technician, where my passion for wine began,” says Jeffrey Keene, senior winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery. He spent eight years in a research laboratory, where he worked primarily with grapes and wine, before returning to school for viticulture and oenology.

“Tasting for quality and innovation is a huge responsibility of ours as winemakers,” says Keene. “[There] is a benchmark level of quality, not to mention certain genres of aromas and flavors we seek in certain wines. At the very least, it’s our responsibility as winemakers to be able to taste a wine, deconstruct it and identify any flaws during a wine’s life before we put it into a bottle.”

Jeffrey Keene, senior winemaker / Photo courtesy Robert Mondavi Winery
Jeffrey Keene, senior winemaker, Robert Mondavi / Photo courtesy Robert Mondavi Winery

Educate yourself

Perhaps even more important than a formal education is to find a mentor—a seasoned taster who can teach how to not only pick out particular fruity, tannic or woody flavors, but to detect defects.

“It is my personal opinion that most things require a balance of both experiential as well as formal education,” says Zykan. “You can study all day, memorize chemical names, buy aromatic kits, recite descriptors, etc., but at the end of the day, you’re born with the taste buds you have and that’s that.”

Zykan says those interested should “taste and smell everything. Food, beverages, perfumes, candles—everything.” Doing this will help you to develop your own “library of sensory descriptors,” she says. “We carry our sensory memories with us, and leaning in to them to articulate notes is imperative. Expanding your range of notes by tasting and smelling everything you can get your hands on is massively impactful.”

Bowie credits her time abroad as a global ambassador to help her do exactly that. It’s a practice that she’s tried to maintain, as visits to beverage producers in other countries can expand a sensory library and gain new perspectives.

You can also exercise this part of your brain from home.

“My husband’s an amazing cook and I love to try to guess the ingredients in stuff or put flavors together,” says Bowie. “We have a couple of Flavor Bibles at home. It’s thinking about how flavor goes together and then it’s tasting and practicing.”

Jane Bowie tasting through various of Marker's Mark lines
Appraising various labels / Photo courtesy Marker’s Mark

Picky eaters and those grossed out by strange smells should take note.

“The best way for people to gain experience is to taste pure flavor standards and to taste with other people who know what they are doing,” says Torres. “This is not a place for people who don’t like trying new foods and flavors. You know you are with sensory people when someone says, ‘This is disgusting. Taste it.’ ”

Keene recommends joining a local tasting group and going to winery tastings. “It is incredibly helpful to learn directly from wine educators, who can walk you through the specifics during a guided tasting and happily answer all your questions,” he says.

Know what you’re getting into

Zykan and Bowie’s days are never quite the same. For Torres, the opposite is true.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how redundant the work [at a brewery] is,” says Torres. “I think people get into this thinking they are going to make new beer every day, which does happen, but we do the same tests on every beer. When I look for folks to join our team, I look for people who like doing the same thing every day and look for ways to do those things more efficiently. If someone is in need of constant change in their role, working in a brewery lab might not be the place for them.”

But for those who succeed, carving out a role as a professional taster is well worth the effort.

“If you have a passion for it, the tough stuff won’t feel so bad, and the fun stuff will be that much better,” says Bowie. “You’ll learn to love every aspect of it. I’ve found that for most people, once you’re in, you don’t leave.”