Nancy Fraley is well known in the distilling industry for her consulting, distilling, and blending prowess with her business Nosing Services. I first became aware of her while working at Copper and Kings and had a chance to take one of her two day Nosing for Faults seminars at Moonshine University in Louisville Kentucky. She has also worked alongside Hubert Germaine-Robin, the renowned brandy distiller who removed from Cognac to California and helped kick start the craft distilling movement with his focus on American grape varietals. Nancy has a lot to teach and we are glad to have her here at the Alchemist Cabinet.
Nancy, tell us a little about your background, how did you become involved in the world of spirits and “nosing”?
Well, my first intense “aroma memory” occurred when I was 6 years old. I inadvertently picked up someone’s bourbon and coke and tasted it at my father’s wedding celebration, and the experience left an indelible mark. Ever since, I’ve always been keenly aware of aromas, both positive and negative. However, I never expected to use my sensory talents professionally.
In fact, my original ambition was to enter the world of academia. I got my masters degree at Harvard, where I studied Tibetan Buddhism, and later I went to law school, where I studied both International Human Rights and Maritime & Admiralty law. Some time after law school, I attended a fundraiser where Germain-Robin alambic brandy was being served. Although I was already a spirits connoisseur, that event of tasting a world-class, craft-made brandy literally changed the course of my life. A year after that fundraiser, I found myself working at Alambic, Inc., the parent company of Germain-Robin. After my tenure there, I went on to become the Director of Research at the American Distilling Institute, and I also started my consulting practice, Nosing Services. I’ve never looked back!
I know you were originally involved in brandy distillation and as someone who started out in the world of brandy myself I feel like that art, particularly predicated on a very old tradition, is the best possible starting point for a distiller who wants to be as “in depth” as possible. Can you tell us how your time with brandy has shaped your strategy regarding other spirits?
Yes, I didn’t work on the production side of things for very long at Germain-Robin, but I did later learn a great deal from Hubert Germain-Robin himself. I also travel to France quite frequently- at least once a year- to study. I completely agree that the study of brandy production in-depth is an excellent starting point for distillers and/or blenders, even if you have no intention of producing brandy. In fact, I use brandy production methodologies all the time to create other spirits, such as whiskey.
For example, when producing a high quality brandy, such as an XO Cognac, the process of going from cask strength to bottling strength by diluting with water is done over the course of many years. This is a process we call “slow reduction,” and it is used particularly when a spirit is double distilled and has a lot of fatty acids. If a fatty spirit such as brandy is reduced from cask to bottling strength quickly, it will become saponified, or soapy. Even if a spirit, such as column- distilled bourbon, isn’t so much at risk for saponification, employing slow water reduction still helps to maintain all the gentle oak aromas that have been acquired over years of maturation. It also affects the mouth feel, making for a softer, more elegant spirit with lots of finesse and complexity. This is just one technique I use from the French tradition, but there are many, many more that aid in creating greater depth, complexity, and finesse in a spirit.
You seem to be constantly traveling and enjoying the world of spirits, tell us a little about where you have been recently and some of the spirits you have encountered.
Yes, I do travel all the time, as in constantly. As a kid, when I fantasized about my adult life and work, I always imagined that it would in involve travel. I never envisioned this much travel, though. As they say, be careful what you ask for, as you just might get it!
There are some places across the states, such as Texas, Wyoming, Wisconsin, or Washington D.C. that I visit regularly in order to manage maturation and blending programs, but some of the more exotic places as of late have included Belize, Haiti, and Australia. I also have several clients in Canada and Mexico for whiskey and mezcal projects. I’ll be working with a new client next month in Oaxaca, Mexico, and later in the year I’ll probably be working in India and Belize.
What inspires you?
Whenever I’m home or have a free moment, I like to be inspired by other art forms besides the art of spirits blending. I think it is critical, at least for me, to have some interaction with great paintings, sculpture, architecture, literature, music, culinary traditions, cultures, etc. I’m a drummer and bass guitarist, so I find that even inspires creativity in my blending work. Contact with the arts and with other creative people feeds both the conscious and subconscious mind. These new ideas and inspirations are then filtered through to my blending work. Since blending is more of an art than a science, I like to think about creating “liquid poetry” in every spirit I help make.
I also get inspired when I taste spirits where it is clear that great care, patience, and attention to detail has gone into them.
Tell us a little about some of the more “off the beaten” path spirits, particularly those with bases that are unexpected you have worked with.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some “off the beaten path” spirits. One of the most memorable is clairin from Haiti. Clairin is often referred to as the “moonshine” of Haiti. Like rum, it is distilled from sugar cane, but is less refined, with a lot of smoky notes similar to mezcal. I’ve helped age some of this in ex-bourbon barrels, and aided in the creation of a spiced rum using clairin as the base. In spite of the rustic, almost feral quality, I am a big fan of it because it is capable of having great complexity, passion, and interest.
And speaking of mezcal, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with that as well. Some of those wild agave varietals, when well fermented and distilled, can create very complex spirits.
I know you have worked a lot on the Joseph Magnus cigar blend, can you reveal a little about strategy when it comes to blending a spirit to pair with a good smoke? What kind of profile are you hoping to attain?
I came up with the idea for making the Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend bourbon one warm spring evening when I was smoking my pipe out on the deck of my house in Berkeley, CA, under giant redwoods. I was pairing it with the usual sort of suspects that one might drink, such as William Larue Weller bourbon, Four Roses, etc., and while those are all stellar whiskeys, nothing was really grabbing me. I’m a collector of vintage Armagnacs, so I even tried a few of those that I thought would pair well. I got inspired at that moment, so I started experimenting with some Jos. Magnus bourbon and Armagnac components I had at the house, and things spiraled from there.
So, when working on a whiskey blend to pair with a good smoke, you want to have a little sweetness in the whiskey so it will balance with the dryness of the tobacco. In the case of Magnus Cigar Blend, I achieve this by using roughly 25% of the triple cask Jos. Magnus bourbon (finished in Oloroso and PX sherry, and Cognac casks), which then gets blended with 10 and 11 year old high rye bourbon. The final component is 18 to 19 year old bourbon, which helps give the blend some depth. This blend is then put into Armagnac casks. If I find that, as the blend begins to marry in the Armagnac barrels, it needs a little more complexity, depth, sweetness, spice, etc., I will then make very subtle adjustments to it.
I’m looking for the blend to attain good depth, length on the palate, structure, finesse, delicacy, harmony, and complexity. Aroma-wise, I’m looking for a touch of sweetness, with dark dried fruit, tobacco, and a touch of spice. But regardless of whether or not one drinks it with a smoke, I strive to make it as well-rounded and complex as I can with the ingredients I have to work with.
Having been exposed to as many distilleries and types of spirits as you have been, what have you found to be the most common mistakes/faults in distillation or blending of spirits?
Oh my, I’ve seen a lot of production issues over the years! I even have a book coming out next year about this very topic on how to identify and remedy various faults that can arise during the stages of production. However, I would say that one of the most common issues that I find comes from poor fermentation practices. So for instance, a distiller hasn’t properly cleaned or sanitized their fermentation tanks, so that the resulting spirit that derives from fermentations carried out in those tanks has some sort of microbial contamination.
There can also be issues of improper cuts being made during double distillation, which can lead to aromatic defects in the spirits. There are a host of defects that can come about in the maturation phase as well, such as using poor quality cooperage, improper pairing of cooperage with the congener content of the distillate (i.e., a light bodied spirit paired with a heavily charred barrel), too little or too much humidity, etc. Again, these are some of the more common issues, but there are a lot more that can raise havoc during production.
One more, and I think this is my favorite, pick one spirit and describe to us your ideal dram.
Wow, this is probably the toughest question of all! I don’t mean to cop out on this, but I have to say that the “ideal dram” probably depends upon my mood at a given time, the time of day I’m imbibing, the time of year, whether I’m going to enjoy it alone at home or if I’m out with friends or colleagues, etc.
I enjoy all sorts of spirits, from wild, rustic mezcals, vintage Armagnacs, old Cognacs, grappas, single malt whisk(e)ys, bourbons, rums, etc. The qualifier for me is that they be well-crafted, so that the alcohol, fruit/congener content, and oak (if it is an aged spirit) are harmonious. Not only should it be free of defects, it should also have some “soul” or “heart” to it, some element that shows passion, or interest, or the mark of a human being who cared about what they are producing, so that it is a memorable experience. Thus, it doesn’t matter if I’m having an elegant spirit like a Darroze Bas Armagnac 1964 Chateau de Gaube, or a more rustic spirit such as clairin that was distilled on a crude copper still in a mud hut, if it meets the above elements, then that is my ideal dram at that particular moment.