*Note- Ashley will join as a member of the 2018 Women In Whiskey panel for the Nashville Whiskey Festival
Ashley Barnes, Quality Assistant Manager at Four Roses Distillery, grew up on a farm, dreaming of becoming a veterinarian. Her path towards helping to create some of the most sought after bottles of Kentucky bourbon was anything but a straight line. Barnes studied at Eastern Kentucky University with the single goal of practicing veterinary medicine. A single fateful day forever changed that course.
A freak accident her senior year of college involving a 120 pound dog, a kennel, and a leash left Barnes unsure of her future when her right hand was badly injured and its mobility threatened. She graduated with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry and began working on her Masters degree in biochemistry, but after a year became less convinced of her ability to pursue veterinary medicine due to the damage to her hand.
Barnes took a temporary, third shift position working in the pharmaceutical field as a Raw Materials Chemical Analyst. There, she tested incoming ingredients for the production of various drugs. “It was some really nasty stuff,” she said, “where 2 grams are lethal, I was using 500 grams for a test.” Barnes’ fate was not yet determined, though. A seemingly random call from a headhunter would lead Barnes to discovering her passion and talent for creating award-winning bourbons.
Barnes said yes to the recruiter, only knowing that the job was with a distillery. “Booze or drugs, and second shift versus third shift,” she explains, were her initial deciding factors. She quickly made it through the hiring process where she found herself in a tasting interview with Buffalo Trace’s then Lead Chemist, Chris Fletcher. “No one taught me how to spit in front of a potential boss,” she reflected on the awkwardness of the experience. Fletcher hired her on as Quality Tech in September of 2012 where she cut her teeth in the bourbon business. “Ashley was a pleasure to work with . . . She is very talented and hard working,” says Fletcher of his time with Barnes.
Barnes’ time at Buffalo Trace afforded her a crash course with industry experts. She worked with both Fletcher and Drew Mayville, the distillery’s famed Master Blender. “Every time he speaks you can learn something,” she says of Mayville. With these mentors, she was exposed to the art of blending, contributing to products such as Pappy Van Winkle and the first release of Stagg Jr. in August of 2013.
Again, Barnes is contacted by a headhunter, this time for a distillery in Lawrenceburg for an Assistant Manager position. Again, Barnes said yes, hoping to advance in her new-found career in distilling. “I thought it was with Wild Turkey, but I interviewed with Brent Elliott,” she recalls. “From our first interview it was obvious that she had confidence, passion and knowledge,” says Elliott, Four Roses Distillery Master Distiller and Director of Quality. Barnes was hired in April of 2014.
At Four Roses, Barnes worked with another legendary industry expert, now-retired Four Roses Master Distiller and a member of the inaugural class of the Bourbon Hall of Fame Jim Rutledge. Says Rutledge of his former colleague,
When hiring a person to fill a vacancy in the workplace, decisions are too often slanted based on objective requirements, previous experience, and defined talents. Subjective talents, such as attitude, self-confidence, pleasing personality, the ability to work with people in all levels of the workplace with self-respect and respect for others… are often difficult to analyze. Ashley knows and understands the best work place is one that is filled with employees who are respected and appreciated for their talents and the work they perform on a daily basis. With amazing ease Ashley quickly earned the respect of employees in all levels of responsibility.
Although her job title, Assistant Manager of Quality, hasn’t changed since she began at Four Roses, her role there is constantly evolving. “My job title doesn’t exactly reflect what I do,” Barnes explains, “[E]very day is different.” Working closely with Elliott, Barnes plays a huge part in the approval of the single and private selection barrels, the sensory panel’s ongoing training, sensory evaluation, and the formulation of inventory for use in all Four Roses products. She also manages and maintains all quality data and the analytical laboratory. On the day we spoke, she was working with samples on the gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC/MS), an analytical method to identify substances within a sample.
While she was explaining just exactly what all that means, she circles back to her experiences working with animals and growing up on a farm. “A patient [at a veterinary clinic] can’t tell you what’s going on with them. And when you’re looking at distillate, it can’t tell you that something went wrong in fermentation.” Barnes goes on to explain that her nose does a lot of the investigative work of figuring out inconsistencies as well as identifying target flavor profiles, “[F]or the 130th [Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon], I did it all by nose; I was pregnant and wasn’t tasting anything.” Rutledge commends Barne’s abilities, noting, “Ashley has excellent organoleptic talents and quickly became an asset on the blending team . . . She is also very creative with her blending ideas relative to what may work, with very favorable results, to make an excellent blend of straight bourbon whiskeys for a limited edition small batch rendering.”
Barnes is a valued member of the Four Roses team and her future is nothing less than bright. Says Elliott of his assistant manager, “[W]hen making the test blends and narrowing down directions, it’s great have Ashley’s feedback. What we like in a bourbon is pretty similar, but different enough that it’s very helpful to get her perspective. She has a great palate and I respect her opinion very much.” He continues, “She’s a pleasure to work with and passionate about what she does… and it shows.”