Wisconsin Distiller Receives Master Blender Title

Joe Z. Henry was recently promoted to master blender of J. Henry & Sons Bourbon.

A fourth generation seed corn farmer who has specialized growing in heirloom grains for his family’s whiskey business, Henry has worked in the family bourbon establishment for more than a decade, and he had apprenticed with master blender Nancy Fraley eight years ago. Henry, who became head blender in 2021, achieved this difficult accomplishment earlier this month.

In a ceremony at the family farmstead, where the heirloom bourbon is crafted, aged and blended in Dane, WI, Fraley bestowed the honorific title on Henry, gifting him with a personally engraved prouvette, the French tool used to remove samples from aging barrels.

At most American whiskey companies, a master distiller is in charge of aging, blending and crafting whiskeys, but J. Henry & Sons Bourbon follows the French traditions that Fraley established when the farmstead bourbon company first began in 2009. “The title of ‘master blender’ is earned, not given, and there’s no guarantee that an apprentice will ever be declared a master blender,” Fraley said. “To do it the right way, you study for years.”

That is exactly what Henry has done. “Once you are deemed a master blender, your own mentor and your peers start recognizing your accomplishment,” she said. 

“This is a huge honor, and I’m at a loss for words,” said Henry. “I’m surprised yet I am very excited.”

Henry, who is only 31, wants to continue the tradition of excellence that Fraley has established with J. Henry’s award-winning bourbon. “I look at whiskey making the way Nancy (Fraley) does,” he said. “I’m one of the younger master blenders, and I’ve got a long career ahead of me. My whiskey-making is just starting, and I’m really excited about the unique spirits we can create.”

Henry credits his success to his mentor’s leadership. “She’s taken us and me from a simple farming background to becoming one of the most technical whiskey makers in the country,” he said. 

Henry’s first release as a master blender will be on November 4. That release will be an heirloom rye whiskey that he’s been aging for more than four years.  The rye is particularly unusual in that it boasts a four-grain mash bill. The mash bill is inspired by his bourbon’s mash bill, which is a majority heirloom red corn, equal parts heirloom wheat and heirloom rye with a small amount of malted barley. The rye, however, is majority heirloom rye, then equal parts heirloom wheat and heirloom red corn, with a small amount of malted barley.

Henry is also excited about the new rick house that’s been constructed on the farm, and he’s looking to create some unusual whiskeys made with calvados and Spanish wine barrels. “We’re not trying to be like anybody else,” he says. “I look at the diverse barrels the way a chef looks at his spice rack. We have more spices to create more unique blends.”