Rectifiers and Blenders
The definition of rectify is to “put right” or “fix. Throughout American whiskey history, rectifiers have had a bad reputation, much of it richly deserved. However, not all rectifiers were terrible, and some legendary whiskey men are known for great whiskey despite rectifying early in their careers. More on that a little later in our story.
Often, the process of rectifying whiskey could mean redistilling the spirit to strip some of the flavor characteristics out of it. If you continue to distill or distill at a very high proof level, you get vodka or NGS, which stands for neutral grain spirit. A modern distillery could redistill their bourbon and make vodka out of it. When you think about that process, it makes perfect sense. If you have a batch of bourbon whiskey that does not meet your standards, you can rectify it. Therefore, you can still market the resulting vodka; the batch or run is not a total loss.
If we only talked about redistilling products, rectification would not be such a bad word. Leading up to the 1920s and the enactment of prohibition, rectified and blended whiskey made up the majority of whiskey consumed in the U.S. Before 1930, rectifiers probably existed, but they did not gain traction until the invention and implementation of the continuous still. A rectifier would purchase barrels from a distiller and then “rectify” the whiskey for multiple reasons. The motivation would include increasing the yield by adding water, creating a distinct flavor profile for the consumable public, or dishonestly representing the product as older, better, etc. If you were lucky, the rectifier would add something edible like prune juice, extra sweetener, etc. Some of the notoriously bad things could be tobacco juice, creosote, turpentine, pine needles, and you get the picture.
Whiskey men like Isaac Bernheim and George G. Brown of Brown Forman fame were successful and provided a solid, reputable, rectified whiskey product. Their names are still part of whiskey lore. History shows Bernheim and Brown were respected for their commitment to good whiskey. It is possible that William Weller was also a successful rectifier. In his early days in Louisville, Weller was a wholesaler and retailer of good whiskey. At the time, he did not own a distillery, so he had to differentiate his brands. He was sourcing whiskey and selling it under his long list of brands. At least some of those whiskeys were probably rectified and or blended.
A Note About Modern Master Blenders
The term Master Blender has taken on a mythical aura in the middle of today’s whiskey craze. There are genuinely legendary Master Blenders who have paid their dues by working in the industry for years. Some have impressive science and chemical backgrounds; others have studied under people with legendary instincts and magnificent palates. True Master Blenders in the bourbon world have a long, distinguished resume. Legendary Master Blender Nancy Fraley has worked with many recognizable whiskey brands. She owns Nosing Services in California and continues to work with multiple distilleries, helping many brands. Her opinion of the title of Master Blender is that you study until you are ready, and the title is earned, not given.
An example of Notable Master Blenders
John Rhea of Kentucky Owl. After 40 years at Four Roses and 17 years as a board member of the Kentucky Distillers Association, he has brought a wealth of knowledge to Kentucky Owl.
Heather Greene of Milam & Greene is not only the master blender but the CEO of this Texas-based distillery. She is the first American woman to be part of the Scotch Malt whiskey tasting panel and author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life. Taster, author, consultant, executive, and master blender.
Ryan Perry of Heavens Door. Ryan worked in many roles for Diageo with master distillers and master blenders. After Diageo, Ryan purchased whiskey stocks from Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and New York. In 2015, he began forming a new whiskey brand with Bob Dylan while creating great whiskey expressions.
Drew Mayville is a legendary Master Blender at Buffalo Trace. His resume includes twenty years of experience at Buffalo Trace and working for Seagram and Diageo. That is why he is also director of quality along with Master Blender for Sazerac, the parent company of Buffalo Trace.
The Modern Rectifier
There will be arguments that modern blenders are not rectifiers. They often rectify a whiskey by maturing it in a second barrel, blending two or more barrels to create a small batch, or finishing it with a used cask holding something like wine. Truly great master blenders create memorable expressions of whiskey. If they improve the whiskey, they put it right or rectify it. Rectifiers and blenders have made a mark throughout the history of American spirits. Truly great ones will continue to do so.