Interview: Sazerac's Drew Mayville on his collaborative approach to blending

Interview: Sazerac's Drew Mayville on his collaborative approach to blending

Sazerac’s seasoned master blender Drew Mayville is championing a fresh approach to whisky blending in North America, drawing inspiration and liquid from across the continent’s borders
Sazerac master blender Drew Mayville hated almost everything he ate as a toddler. He was so sensitive to aromas and flavours, he’d rather skip a meal than search out what hometown Canadian chefs had to offer. “I believe that I inherited my sense of smell and taste from my mom. She was acutely sensitive and always reminded me where my palate came from,” remembers Mayville.

As slowly as whisky matures in a barrel, so did Mayville’s palate develop. When he began his career at Seagram in the early 1980s, he was amazed by the various aromas drifting in from the distillery. At last, his nose had found its heaven. “Once I moved to the quality area, I began my journey of developing my palate. In quality, I was exposed to the different distillates, maturates, and all of Seagram’s finished products, which was just about every spirit product. From there, I moved to Montreal to decide on the taste quality of the products.”

Eventually, a promotion landed Mayville on the blending team, which included his mentor Art Dawe. “That’s where I developed my passion and honed my skills as a blender. There is no substitute for learning from the best in the industry,” he says.

The Seagram dynasty was second to none, snapping up the best palates in the industry then training and developing that talent into blending royalty. “Even today, their training led many people to lead other distilleries,” says Mayville. Seagram developed the Canadian practice of including many components in its blends, an innovation that keeps ex-Seagram brands at the front of the whisky herd.

“My training was through multiple areas and disciplines before I had the chance to lead the blending team at Seagram. Before that, I considered moving to Florida to work at Tropicana [owned by Seagram at the time] but was denied because they had a larger opportunity for me. That’s when I was set on a pathway to leading the Seagram blending team and technical services,” explains Mayville.

“Learning over the years from Art Dawe helped develop my blending skills. Using my natural ability and learning from the master was the best way to develop my ‘blending chops’.

“Art is the definition of a mentor. He saw something special in me early on in my career at Seagram. He was the one who moved my family and me from Waterloo to Montreal for my development. That was a significant change in my life, both professionally and personally. He orchestrated my plan throughout the rest of my career at Seagram. I learned so much from him, not only about blending but also how to be a graceful leader.”

Hand labelling bottles of Sazerac"s Caribou Crossing

In 2004, Mayville followed a new path to a home where the buffalo roam, accepting the role of master blender and director of quality at Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace Distillery. As Mayville notes, blending American whiskies and bourbon is different from blending Canadian whisky: “First, it’s mingling whiskies. I always advise people that all whiskies are blended except for single barrels. Traditionally, the biggest difference between the two is that there is no base whisky with bourbon. Today we’re working towards greying the difference between American whiskey and Canadian whisky. We believe that Canadian whisky is underrated and has great potential, just like bourbon was a few years ago, and we’re putting away whiskies in Canada that will blur the lines.”

A lot has changed since Mayville first started with Sazerac. Bourbon’s popularity had skyrocketed, with many of Buffalo Trace’s whiskies leading the charge. Names such as Eagle Rare, Weller and Blanton’s became coveted in the whisky community. Yet when those whiskies heated the market, Mayville’s ego stayed cool. “Our customers want to be excited and wowed. If you provide them with great-quality products, they will come.” When Mayville started at Buffalo Trace, Sazerac was not strong in the Canadian whisky category. The plan was to build strength over time. He recognises that there is still a lot to be done but has seen Canadian whisky slowly build street cred as distinctive from other whiskies. However, it doesn’t happen overnight. Take, for example, Sazerac’s Caribou Crossing, which was released in 2010 as part of a goal to put a monumental hoof print on Canadian whisky.

“Back then, we didn’t own any distilleries in Canada but had bought several brands,” explains Mayville. “Those brands came with whisky inventory. That’s how it started. We wanted the first major single-barrel product in the Canadian category. It was modelled somewhat after Blanton’s. Originally, the stopper top was a maple leaf. Now, it’s a caribou, more in line with the brand name.”

Blanton’s played a role in inspiring the packaging, but that’s where the similarity ends. In terms of flavour, it was another Mayville creation destined to bring Canadian whisky one (quadrupedal) step closer to the forefront.

Drew Mayville with a selection of Sazerac whiskeys

Part of Mayville craved Canada’s complex method of blending myriad whiskies to make a final product. “Mingling whiskies was simpler than blending the way Seagram did, even though American whiskey and bourbon presented their challenges. At Seagram, we blended for consistency. Rarely did we blend to make new products. At Buffalo Trace, not only did we want consistency, but also, we want new products. We’re all about experimentation to make better products, including blending, like Mister Sam, to name one.”

Mister Sam Tribute Whiskey is named in honour of Seagram’s Sam Bronfman. There are two degrees of separation between Mayville and Sam Bronfman, with Bronfman teaching Dawe. It’s enough distance that Mayville doesn’t swear like a sailor, as Bronfman did, but close enough to absorb generations of Seagram’s blending skills. Sazerac’s leadership allowed him to flex the blending muscles developed over his 40-plus-year career in this once-a-year release.

“This blend symbolises me and my background while being a tribute whisky. I was born a Canadian, and now I’m a dual citizen. It expresses my roots as a Canadian and my current home as an American because I used both US and Canadian whiskies to make this tribute blend. It’s a blend of my experiences blending Canadian whisky and American whiskey.” He left Mister Sam uncut and unfiltered to maximise flavour intensity and match Bronfman’s uncut and unfiltered personality.

Mister Sam Tribute Whiskey

Mayville decided to blend US and Canadian whiskies to combine the crème de la crème from both sides of the border, as Seagram would have done back in the day. “I wanted it to celebrate the best whiskies from Canada and the US and demonstrate that the sum is better than its individual parts – just like Sam would have wanted. The blend recognises that Mr Sam did blur the lines somewhat, and we’re continuing that tradition.”

Historically, Seagram distilleries dotted the globe with a concentration in Canada and the United States. Whisky flowed across the border for mingling in blends without anyone batting an eye. “I believe this blend would have happened if Seagram were still in existence... It’s a blend that represents not only Seagram but myself, by blending Canadian whisky early in my career then blending American whiskey and bourbon. I believe I have the best of both worlds.”

Another recent – but all-American – premium blending project is Mayville’s Signature Blend, released in 2022 through Sazerac-owned independent bottler The Last Drop to celebrate his 40th anniversary in the whisky industry. He used a range of vintage Kentucky straight whiskeys including bourbon and rye from the Buffalo Trace Distillery to create the blend, of which fewer than 1,500 bottles were released.

Above everything else, Mayville’s roles throughout his career have been about consistency and quality. At Sazerac, this is of prime importance. But like his nurturing parents, Sazerac has encouraged Mayville to try new things. Mister Sam is just one example in a long list of whiskies. “There are countless others that our CEO, Mark Brown, has not only supported but encouraged,” Mayville says. “One of the first projects I pursued with his approval is Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream, which is hugely popular. I asked him what age of bourbon I should blend into this product. He said, ‘Put into it what tastes the best.’ That’s one reason why I’m at Sazerac. It’s all about the taste… We want to celebrate the art of blending with Canadian whisky.” And whisky fans who have tasted Mister Sam seldom utter a discouraging word.
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