As the great grandniece of Jack Daniel, Lynne Tolley's veins are practically brimming with whiskey.
"My mother always took a little Jack Daniel's and rubbed it on my gums when I was teething," Tolley said in her unmistakable Tennessee drawl. "So I've had that taste for whiskey for a long, long time."
Lynne Tolley, Master Whiskey Taster at Jack Daniel's
Tolley, 64, is now one of Jack Daniel's Master Whiskey Tasters, a small group in charge of ensuring that the distillery's premium whiskey is deserving of the distinction. In total, the American whiskey brand has about 80 taste testers, over half of which are female. In fact, Tolley thinks that women make for better whiskey tasters than men.
"Females have the best sense of taste, because our sense of smell is a little bit sharper," she said. "If you can smell really keenly, then that means you can taste subtleties better."
That heightened odor sensitivity comes in handy for Tolley, since the first step to tasting whisky isn't tasting at all -- it's smelling. When Jack Daniel's testers sit down in front of three tulip glasses for a tasting session, they swirl it around in the glass and take a big whiff before the whiskey even touches their taste buds.
"We all smell for something different," she said. "I look for caramel, a maple aroma, toasted oak, a little bit of spice in there. So if I find that combination, then I know it's a good whiskey."
Whiskey aging at the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee
But you can't ensure quality by aroma alone, so Tolley and her fellow tasters then put the whiskey in their mouths, swish it around and spit it out. Between samples, they rinse their mouths with water -- "We don't do crackers or any of that mess that I think some of the wine folks do to clear their palates" -- and Tolley likes to smell the back of her hand to clear her nasal passages. A typical tasting session lasts about 15 minutes, since she said taste buds become "fatigued" after that.
During these weekly tasting sessions, which happen on Friday afternoons (naturally), the taste testers at Jack Daniel's are looking for consistency. They'll usually try three glasses in a blind test, two that are from one barrel and one that is from another barrel. The goal is to detect which of the three glasses came from a different barrel so that Jack Daniel's whiskey tastes the same whether you're in China, Brazil or Lynchburg, Tennessee, where the distillery is located.
Of course, Tolley and her group have the pleasure of tasting the whiskey after it has matured for four to six years in white oak barrels. (There are a group of brave folks charged with tasting the whiskey before it goes into the barrels, when it's crystal clear, 126-proof and strong.) But Tolley hasn't relied entirely on good genes alone to carry her through the tasting process -- she studied food and nutrition at the University of Georgia before returning to Jack Daniel's to "take care of VIP guests" at the distillery and run the restaurant.
It was only after 10 years at Jack Daniel's that Tolley asked to be a taster. The company's reaction? "Well, we don't know if you're any good." She was told that she'd have to go through the same rigorous testing as the rest of her whiskey-tasting contemporaries, which included a year of training. Tolley says that now that she's risen the ranks and become one of Jack Daniel's Master Whiskey Tasters, she likes to tease her employers, "Yah, I turned out pretty good, didn't I?"
The Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee
Tolley's now enjoying her first month as a retiree, but she has no plans to leave the family business entirely and anticipates coming in for her weekly tasting session for "at least" another 20 years.
"I'm going to continue to be a taster at Jack Daniel's until I can't drive the car to work anymore," she said.
Apparently, when you're a direct descendent of Jack Daniel himself, it takes a lot more than a lifetime in the whiskey biz for you or your taste buds to become "fatigued."
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