The Sniffer

Craft distillers put their money where Nancy Fraley’s nose is.

John Cuneo

“From the age of 6 or 7, I’ve had an almost freakish sense of smell,” says Nancy Fraley. “When I give my partner a hug and smell her hair, I can pretty much tell what she’s eaten the entire day. Not that I go around smelling people’s hair. But it definitely comes in handy for my job.”

Fraley’s business card reads simply Nosing Services. Her job is to smell liquor from craft distillers, in order to tell them what they’re doing right or wrong. Each sniff brings with it data that she uses to identify what may have gone awry during distillation or aging. Even when the spirit is perfectly acceptable, Fraley will suggest ways to blend elements to create a more beguiling complexity. Although the wine industry has employed professional noses for some time, she’s the only person I’ve come across doing this with craft spirits in North America. She has between 10 and 25 clients at any given time, so there’s a decent chance that the craft whiskey you’ve been touting to friends tastes the way it does thanks to Nancy Fraley’s nose.

I caught up with Fraley on a December morning in Denison, Texas, about 90 minutes north of Dallas. We met at Ironroot Republic Distilling, recently launched by two brothers, Jonathan and Robert Likarish (pronounced, incidentally, “licorice”). “They’re one of my most aromatically interesting clients,” Fraley told me, referring to the products they make, not the brothers themselves.

Fraley, who is 45 and has short black hair flecked with gray, projects a sort of crowlike intensity, and moves in bursts with little wasted motion. Her nose, alas, appears unexceptional, neither a button nor a beak. At the Ironroot warehouse, the plan for the day was to analyze the organoleptics of a variety of whiskeys that had been aging for several months. “Nancy calls it checking barrel health,” Jonathan said. “I call it a good Saturday morning.”

The number of things that can influence the aroma and taste of a spirit is astounding. Some aromas are created during fermentation, others develop when the fermented wash is run though a still, and a great many others emerge during barrel aging, as volatile elements and other compounds decompose and recombine with ingredients introduced by the oak. In whiskey, for instance, Fraley has identified hundreds of aromatic elements, ranging from the ethyl butyrate formed during fermentation, which creates a faint pineapple scent, to the unappealing boiled-vegetable smell from fusel oils that can creep in during inattentive distillation.

At one distillery, Fraley discovered that the scent of microwaved curry was migrating into the barrels.

Fraley doesn’t believe that she has olfactory superpowers, but instead suspects that her brain is simply wired differently from most people’s, enabling her to separate, identify, and remember individual scents. She told me that whenever she comes upon a new aroma, it marks itself indelibly in her mind: the day and time she encountered it, the exact location, even the prevailing weather.

“It’s not always a blessing,” she said. “I just can’t get away from aroma.” Among the more aromatically memorable places she’s visited is Morocco. “I remember walking through the souks of Fez, and in one breath I might inhale spices from a spice vendor, and in the next moment a goat’s head festering in the sun with flies around it.”

New craft distillers are fast discovering just how many things can go wrong during the long trip from concept to container. Many of the errors Fraley diagnoses are common, such as poorly tended equipment, overly high fermentation temperatures, and bacterial contamination. Other issues are unique: At one distillery, she detected a touch of swimming-pool aroma, and found that the tanks were being improperly rinsed after chlorine washes. At another distillery, a staff break room was located amid the barrels, and the scent of microwaved curry had migrated into the spirits.

“There are just way too many people out there who see the romance in this but have no realistic conception about this business,” Fraley told me. “They buy these fancy stills with all the bells and whistles, but they can’t operate them.” So they contact Fraley in the way a homeowner might call an electrician after rewiring a wall sconce only to find that the nearby toaster outlet has stopped working.

On an encouraging note, she’s noticed over the past couple of years that though she’s still getting calls to fix problems, she’s getting more calls from new distillers asking for advice in advance, having heard the stories of disaster and heartbreak. The Likarish brothers fall in the latter category. The brothers met Fraley at a distilling workshop when they were hammering out a business plan. “We realized, Oh, we may be a little out of our league here,” Robert told me. “Within 15 minutes of talking to Nancy, I thought, She’s the one who can tell us if we’re doing something wrong.”

Fraley studied Tibetan Buddhism at Harvard, then went to law school and worked briefly for a San Francisco law firm. But the science and art of liquor had fascinated her ever since she’d inadvertently taken a sip of whiskey at a wedding at age 6. Over time, she found that she was studying distillation more than the law. “It became an obsession, and I had to know everything about it,” she said. She eventually quit her job and went to work for Hubert Germain-Robin, a pioneering craft distiller in Ukiah, California. She subsequently spent time in France, haunting Armagnac houses.

As craft distillers began cropping up across America, Fraley began consulting for them. These start-up distillers faced a far steeper challenge than their craft-beer predecessors had. When the craft brewers got started, mass-market beers were uniformly light and watery; it didn’t take much to produce something that tasted better. New distillers, however, find themselves up against the likes of Jim Beam, Beefeater, Hennessy, and Smirnoff, all of which produce very good products at reasonable prices. Craft distillers thus require some special edge, whether it’s using local ingredients, or employing arcane methods, or working with nontraditional grains to create a distinct flavor. (In their whiskey, the Likarish brothers are using a purple corn traced to the Andes.)

Additionally, craft distillers can be more attentive to the aging process, which Fraley likened to raising kids. “A spirit is conceived during fermentation, spends time in a copper womb, then is born as a distillate,” she explained. And thus begins what she believes is the trickiest part: nurturing the spirit to maturity in barrels.

During our December visit, Fraley and the Likarish brothers worked through their whiskey samples one by one, using charts that tracked dozens of variables—the grain composition of the distillate, the origins of the oak used in the barrels, whether the staves were kiln- or air-dried—spread across Ironroot’s conference table. Fraley would bury her nose deep in a bulbous sampling glass, take a small sip, spit it out, and scratch down some notes.

This sampling session, which lasted nearly eight hours, felt at times like a mid-semester parent-teacher conference. “I’m pleased with this progress,” Fraley said of one sample. “This one needs the most help,” she said of another. On the ninth sample, Fraley sniffed a bit more than usual, and scowled slightly. Finally, she likened it to a C student. “This will be okay for blending,” she noted. Jonathan looked up, slightly disheartened. “It’s like telling your kid, ‘You’re going to be a taxi driver,’ ” he said.

But there was good news, too. “Let’s watch this one,” she said of yet another sample. It had matured quickly, with supple aromas of butterscotch and vanilla, and had already shed much of the grainy callowness of newly made whiskey. In all, she concluded that three of the 20 barrels she’d tested had the potential to produce exceptionally fine whiskey. These would be set aside for possible single-barrel releases.

After all the samples had been sniffed and sipped, Fraley sketched a large pyramid on a whiteboard to determine the best blend of Ironroot’s remaining barrels. The base would be composed of three barrels of yellow-corn distillate aged in American oak. The middle—the “supporting flavors”—would be from one barrel each of purple-corn distillate and a distillate made with red heirloom corn called Bloody Butcher, both aged in European oak. Then, at the top, came the “nuance component”—just 3 to 5 percent of the total volume, but contributing aromatics and creating a strong first impression. This would be drawn from barrel No. 15, which was extremely tasty but didn’t have the right flavor profile to merit a single-barrel release. Everyone agreed that the spirit had an aroma reminiscent of Honey Nut Cheerios, and that this was a very good thing.

“I really enjoy it when a client gives me the latitude to really take the time to use my nose to create something exceptional,” Fraley said afterward. “You’ve heard of ghostwriters? I think of myself as a ghost blender.”