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Whiskey Tasters Sip, But Don’t Drink On The Job

July 3, 1990

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Sharon Goodwin doesn’t exactly get paid to drink on the job - just sip.

″There’s always plenty to be tasted,″ said Goodwin, supervisor of the sensory evaluation department at Brown-Forman Corp., one of the nation’s leading makers and wholesalers of alcoholic beverages.

The Louisville-based company produces or markets such brands as Bolla wines, Korbel champagne and Southern Comfort liquor.

The company also owns Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Early Times Old Style Kentucky Whisky, the nation’s second- and third-best selling bourbon- type whiskeys.

Brown-Forman’s sensory lab is jammed with expensive gadgets that measure, analyze and evaluate various aspects of the spirits. But company officials seem to agree that the human taste bud is in no immediate danger of being replaced by a machine.

″Flavor has been an art over the years, and they’re trying to make a science out of it,″ said Wes Hazel, Brown-Forman’s analytical lab manager. ″They’re trying to replace the tasters, but I seriously don’t think we can ever do that.″

Daily production of Early Times and Old Forester bourbon at the company’s Louisville distillery runs about 450 55-gallon barrels. The Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., produces about 1,500 casks daily.

″We taste every day’s product,″ said Dr. John E. Bujake, Brown-Forman’s vice president of research and development. ″So there’s a lot of tasting going on.″

To ensure consistency, Goodwin’s 10 expert tasters oversee the progress of the whiskey through each stage of production. They sample the liquor from the ″white product″ - the pure distillate before aging - to the mature bourbon, which spends between three and five years in charred, oak casks.

A separate group of tasters in the quality control department tests the product several times during blending and after bottling.

Almost all of the 1,000 employees - except machine operators - at Brown- Forman’s Louisville campus are potential tasters.

But apparently not all of them are whiskey lovers. Goodwin has had to use innovative ways to entice people into her tasting booths, including raffling off china, tickets to sporting events and even free parking spaces.

Goodwin said it takes about three months to train someone to rate the product. Once the tasters are trained, the company wants to keep them ″forever,″ she said.

But the term ″taster″ is a bit misleading.

″The smell is about 95 percent of what someone’s going to give you your rating on,″ she said. ″Their goal is to describe what they’re smelling.″

To help the workers describe the aromas, the department is working on a series of standard keywords. They range anywhere from ″Juicy Fruit″ - for a taste resembling the chewing gum - and ″woody″ to ″urine″ and ″cow manure.″

The samples are 125 proof, or about 63 percent alcohol. Goodwin said they are watered down to 20 percent alcohol for the tastings.

Tasters aren’t supposed to swallow the product, but some do, she said. Goodwin acknowledged that she swallows some of the product, but if she drank everything she tasted, ″I’d never make it home.″

Goodwin said she is a bourbon drinker on her own time, but many of the tasters don’t drink outside the office.

″I’ve worked here a year and a half, and I’ve never gotten drunk while I’m here,″ said Dave Dafoe, a product development specialist and one of the expert tasters. ″I appreciate good bourbons, but I don’t enjoy them.″

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