A recent trip to Bardstown for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival immersed me in all things bourbon. It only makes sense, then, to share the wealth here at the crazy, though highly esteemed, Blog of Funny Names. If you’ve been around for my monthly Funny Names in Food posts, you’re no stranger to bourbon. (Pappy was mentioned here and the ladies Rebecca and Ruth here.) Just the same, there’s always another funny name in the bourbon barrel.
Though I love bourbon enough to travel nearly 800 miles for an event that celebrates this American spirit, what excites me most is the process by which its made. Our recent trip, then, included visits to a half-dozen or so distilleries. More on the bourbon-making process can be found at food for fun, but a basic tenet of distilleries is that they all do things the same except for when they do them differently. One distillery may use a ratio of 60/30/10 for corn/rye/malted barley while another uses 55/37/8. Distillery A could char their barrels to level 4; distillery B to 2. These differences are what make each distillery’s bourbon uniquely its own. And the Grand Poo-Bah making those decisions is the Master Distiller.
While those Kentucky boys (bourbon trivia: 95% of all bourbons come from Kentucky) have not been gifted with overly funny names, Harlen Wheatley, Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace, stood out as a man whose name earns him a post here at BoFN.
Becoming a Master Distiller requires science smarts (a degree in Chemistry is required) as well as a palate refined enough to taste every nuance. Wheatley qualifies with both the degrees (Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and minor in math from Northern Kentucky University as well as another B.S. in Chemical Engineering from University of Kentucky) and the taste buds.
He’s one of the younger MDs, having been born as recently as 1969 in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. Wheatley started at Buffalo Trace as Distillery Supervisor in 1995, where he received intensive on-the-job training from then-MD Gary Gayheart. Additional responsibilities in bourbonesque departments such as powerhouse/boiler room, maintenance, and warehousing led to his promotion to Distillery Manager in 2000.
Gayheart’s (oh such a delightful name) retirement in 2005 made way for Wheatley to attain the MD throne, where he works with everything from incoming raw materials to barrel aging to final product. Should you have an extra eightish minutes, you can learn more about the life of a MD from Wheatley himself by watching him strut his stuff.