Discussion with Julieann Fernandez, Master Blender
A few weeks ago I got the chance to spend some time at Bunnahabhain Distillery along with some fellow drinks writers (Kristiane Sherry, Christopher Coates, Millie Milliken, Felipe Schrieberg and Torie Barker). We were also lucky to spend the days and evenings with Distell’s dynamic duo, Brendan Mccarron, Master Distiller and Julieann Fernandez, Master Blender.
The days were action-packed, with a full programme of events including tasting the new Fèis Ìle 2022 releases, a comprehensive introduction to the new biomass plant and a chocolate influenced warehouse tasting to name just a few. However, there was a little time put aside for me to have a quiet chat with Julieann about her route into the industry and also what is on the horizon at Distell.
I started at the beginning by asking Julieann how she took her Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Science from Abertay University and made it fit within the blending labs of Chivas.
Initially, Julieann suspected her degree would provide her with a career in the crime lab (think CSI Vegas) in a bid to catch the bad guys or to help solve a crime. However, after taking a year to decide this was not for her she thought possibly a career in oil and gas with Shell might suit her better, but the thought of leaving her family behind put a stop to this option… Finally, the prospect of working close to home within the whisky industry was too good an option to pass by and Julieann was accepted onto the Chivas’ Graduate Scheme.
In the beginning, Julieann was working with Ballantines, mainly blending spirit samples. She excelled within the sensory environment, an essential skill required to be a blender. Julieann admitted to not being a whisky drinker before taking those first sips with Chivas. Even so, it wasn’t long until Julieann was demonstrating real potential with Chivas and after five years she made the move to Distell as their Blender and Spirit Quality Analyst, then three years later Master Blender.
Next, I was interested in how Distell goes after the younger drinker, what is the message they try to deliver to the 35 and under demographic?
Julieann starts by explaining her idea of a younger whisky drinker. She notes they possibly don’t have surplus income to by aged single malts, so they may require education about the creation of a cheaper no age statement blend. This education helps to expel the notion that cheap whisky is poor whisky. NAS blends command a cheaper price point, something more affordable. This demographic may have student loans, or are possibly still in education, so their life is already expensive! Education on the work that goes into a blend, the cask used and the characters this produces can empower the younger market. If the younger market appreciates the process that has been used to create the whisky, then the stigma of drinking cheap whisky is removed. Julieann reiterates the point, that although blended or NAS whisky is cheaper it does not mean it is inferior, as the marketing emphasis is on the process. She states again old does not mean better!
Lastly, I hoped to get her to name her favs from each of Distell’s distilleries. Her tops are Deanston 18yo – typically 16 years in refill and then 2 years in first-fill bourbon. Tobermory 12yo – as this was Julieann’s first re-working of a single malt. Finally, Bunnahabhain Stiuireadair – this is Julieann’s fav day to day dram, she describes it as rich and deep, not overpowering, a balance of sherry and bourbon casks are used in this whisky.
Just as the conversation was coming to an end I quickly asked what was in the pipeline, were there any new and exciting casks ready to be filled. Julieann quietly leaned in a said, tequila cask finishes. She mentioned Distell is gearing up to launch this new limited release from Deanston in February 2023. Then I thought one more quick question can’t hurt… what cask finish would you like to try that haven’t yet? she replied ‘I would love to try cider and Buckfast‘. Pushing my luck now… what is your favourite cask to work with? ‘calvados‘.
Thanks to Julieann for her time, not just for our on the record discussion but also for her time over the entire trip. You were fantastic company.