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Interview: Balcones’ Emma Crandall Blends The Future At This Texas Whiskey Distillery

More and more, women are making a name for themselves in the world of whiskey. Women like Emma Crandall, who’s helping change the industry working for one of the fastest growing whiskeys in Texas.

Fascinated by the spirit of the whiskey industry, a business predominantly led by men, Crandall bucks the trend and has done so by devoting years to studying, speaking, writing, testing, and tasting the brown liquid.

She is now a main blender and certified whisky sommelier at Balcones Distilling in Waco, Texas.

The Whiskey Wash caught up with Emma Crandall as we ease into March, Women’s History Month in America.

Balcones Emma Crandall
More and more, women are making a name for themselves in the world of whiskey. Women like Emma Crandall, who’s helping change the industry working for one of the fastest growing whiskeys in Texas. (image via Balcones)

The Whiskey Wash: As March is Women’s History Month, can you speak a little about your history as a woman in spirits and how your inspiration at Balcones is drawn from that history?

Emma Crandall: “My experience has been positive. Early in my career, I learned by doing, so there were many moments I’ve reached out to other distilleries to ask questions of both distillers and blenders. I’ve always been met with a willingness to share knowledge and experience and I’ve always felt respected for my opinions and feedback. I also have a few women that I love to keep in contact with who are in the industry and I consider friends. From the beginning, they have encouraged me and shared my excitement about new opportunities. The level of encouragement and generosity I’ve experienced inspires me to be that for others. I try to always make space for that.”

TWW: Tell us how you came to Balcones Distillery.

EC: “I had been working at Crowded Barrel Whiskey Co as distillery manager and head blender/distiller. I wore many hats and was looking for an opportunity for work in blending where I could grow in the industry and dedicate my time to blending. I had worked and communicated with Gabriel at Balcones a few times, and we had been talking about me doing contract blending work for them. When that communication started, they didn’t realize I was open to full time opportunities elsewhere, and as soon as I emailed him and Thomas to communicate that, they opened up the conversation about hiring me full time.”

TWW: What are some of the challenges of starting out in the whiskey business as a female in a male dominated industry? And what are some of the advantages?

EC: “This is not exclusive to the spirits industry, but my biggest challenge was the amount of sexist and pessimistic attitudes directed at me. This came almost entirely from consumers. As soon as people talked to me or saw my work, they didn’t doubt me anymore. It seemed like they needed proof that I knew my stuff and knew what I was doing before entering a conversation with me. Fortunately, this rarely happens anymore.”

“I’m not sure there is an advantage specifically connected to being female. I have had experience with women trusting their instincts and intuition more, which can lead to them being better at the natural process of sensory analysis and olfactory work. Mainly because that kind of work is so instinctive and right-brain centered. But I don’t know that I would argue that is a female specific skill set.”

TWW: How do you set your whiskey apart, what gives it your flair?

EC: “I won’t answer this question fully because I’m part of a team. It’s not ‘my’ whiskey, it’s ‘our’ whiskey. I like to think that my energy, passion, and dedication towards blending contributes to our process. I love helping Balcones create beautiful whiskies.”

TWW: Tell us about all the ways women are part of the process for Balcones.

EC: “Women contribute to each level and department of this company and work in roles including packaging team lead, front of house manager, HR manager, bartender, receptionist, bottler, and brewer. Some of them have been here since we scaled up and moved into our current building in 2016. Some have been hired in the last year. I’ve seen them problem solve, grow in their departments, fill a needed space, and generally kick ass. I appreciate the chance to work with them.”

TWW: What kind of a difference does being a certified whisky sommelier make when blending and bottling?

EC: “Taking those classes helped develop my palate immensely. I’ve had the opportunity to sample a lot of different whiskies from around the world, sample them blind, develop patterns for understanding what I’m tasting, and communicate with fellow experts to widen my ‘tasting vocab’ and experience. Each class I’ve taken was an intense marathon of sensory training, and it contributes to my skill as a sensory professional. I also believe in the core tenant of the program.”

“We are shepherds to whiskey, not whiskey gurus. It helps keep the big picture in mind and aligns with my own values and purpose for being in this industry. When I’m blending, if I ever feel caught in the weeds or bogged down, I remind myself that there shouldn’t be too much pressure on what we’re making.”

“At Balcones, we have our purpose for each whiskey we release, but I’m also thinking about the people on the other side of the blend who are going to drink it with their family or friends to celebrate, mourn, and mark an occasion. At that moment, I doubt they will be picking a whiskey apart the way I might when I’m trying to get it ‘perfect’ with the team. Reminding myself of the memories our whiskies will be a part of is humbling and a lot of that ideology stems from my experience as a sommelier.”

TWW: Tell us what makes your flagship whiskey special and what special touches are you adding to the mix?

EC: “Texas 1 Single Malt is the first Texas single malt whisky to ever be released. It also marked both American single malt and Texas whiskey as major competitors in the worldwide industry by winning World’s Best in Glass competition in 2012 and continuing to win competitions over the last 10 years. This whiskey helped pave the way for American craft producers, and I’m proud to get to blend it now. We are a team, and when we blend, we’re all pulling from our own experiences that help define our palates, and I’m one more voice on that team to help create world class whiskies.”

TWW: What is coming in the near future from Balcones?

EC: “This year we are celebrating our 15-year anniversary at the distillery. I’ve only been a part of this company for 15 months, but I feel honored to be a part of such a big moment. To celebrate, we have a couple of single malt special releases coming, one within the next few months and one later this year. I’ve been fortunate enough to assist with doing quality checks on the casks over the last several months, and I’m extremely excited for everyone else to try these releases.”

Gary Carter

Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether that be a novel project, a start-up, an organization, a fresh-face to the journalistic world, or even something as simple as a short story. A native Texan and a Pacific Northwest convert, he is a whiskey enthusiast who cut his teeth on it ... literally!

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