Despite being an integral role, the master blender is often overlooked when it comes to whiskey. But Drew Mayville from Buffalo Trace, owned by Sazerac, explains to Becky Paskin why he’d rather be a blender than a distiller any day.
Drew Mayville Sazerac Buffalo Trace master blender
How long have you been involved in the whiskey business?
I’ve been working in whiskey for 32 years but it’s gone by way too quickly. When you like to do something and you love it, you don’t even think about it. People ask me if I want to retire, I say no way.
That’s quite some time. What is it about whiskey that you love?
What excites me is the experimentation. Big companies are not usually interested in innovation or trying new things, it’s all about the bottom line, but because of Sazerac’s structure the priorities are different. Experimentation is a trademark of Sazerac; Buffalo Trace has helped the bourbon industry move into different products. It’s all for our bottom line too but the notoriety we’re getting is good for the industry as a whole; it’s nice to be part of building that and I think were leading the charge.
Is Buffalo Trace really that notorious?
I say notoriety because we don’t advertise. We have very little money to advertise – we rely on word of mouth, press, and of course our products.
Of course not all of your experiments work out though, do they?
It’s important to let people know that we do experiments that don’t turn out sometimes, like maturing using smaller barrels. You wouldn’t believe the discussions going around about that. A lot of the micro distilleries didn’t like our findings because they’re using smaller barrels themselves. But from our experiment and the way we performed it, they don’t work.
How are you keeping up with the craft distilling movement in the US?
Keeping up? We’ve been craft distilling for four to five years, so I don’t know if we’re keeping up so much as they are keeping up with us. We’re part of the craft distillery trend in the US – we have our own micro distillery and another plant that has a still we do stuff in.
How important is the role of a master blender?
Traditionally bourbon is all about the master distiller, and it still is, they are the ones with the recognition, which is fine by me. I have to be number two, but I’m just as important to the process because I have to make our blends better than the individual components. I have to make sure it tastes unique, different and one of the best whiskies in the world. That’s the blending job that people just don’t understand we have to do.
Would you say blenders are often underappreciated?
Definitely as far as bourbon is concerned. In Scotch the blender is appreciated, and in Canada you don’t know the distiller, it’s the blender you know. As a Canadian making bourbon in America I felt out of place at first, but not anymore. I’ve never wanted to be a distiller rather than a blender, it never occurred to me.
You used to work at Seagram. What’s the main difference between working for a company like that and Sazerac?
The ability to explore and being encouraged to do different things, and complimented. At the big companies you never saw the president of the company, but at Sazerac he comes and visits and talks on a regular basis. It’s totally different. When you get an award or do something positive he’ll be the first to say good job; I never had that before. It’s really fulfilling in that respect. It’s because we’re operated like a small company: we have very few players, we are very compact, we make decisions quickly and you move forward quickly.
Speaking of moving forward quickly, is Sazerac ramping up distillation to keep up with demand?
We have two distilleries putting out a lot of product but it’s mostly the warehousing we have to worry about. Over the next four to five years that’s our biggest constraint. We are looking at building more capacity because that’s our bottleneck right now, but it’s a gradual thing. The way we are, we’ll probably buy another company and get space that way.
What’s your plan for the future?
I see myself being Sazerac master blender for the rest of my life, and so does my boss (CEO Mark Brown). He says I’m going to be the next Elmer T. Lee. He wants to retire and be a tour guide because he loves the place and is fascinated by the history. He knows the workings of that place more than most people. It’s his baby. But I can’t see the horizon for it and wouldn’t be happy as a tour guide.
What is it about your job that inspires you?
The challenge of making something successful, and once it is successful you take pride in it. When I first joined Sazerac I had some dinner with my boss and we talked about making new things. I thought of bourbon cream – I always thought there was a market for that. So I made it, put the plan together and marketed the thing, and I’d never done anything like it before. It’s now the number one selling product in our gift shop and because of the demand, it’s also available in Kentucky and a few other select markets.
Can you describe yourself in three words?
One lucky guy.