Blending and the Limit of Cask Finishes: An Interview with Redemption Master Blender Alan Kennedy

Blending and the Limit of Cask Finishes: An Interview with Redemption Master Blender Alan Kennedy

Alan Kennedy

Alan Kennedy is a busy man these days. An experienced sommelier, chef, and bar manager, Kennedy is also a relatively new father in addition to spending much of his time on the road for spirits work. In June 2023, he was announced as Redemption’s new Master Blender, a crucial role for a brand originally built around sourcing its base whiskeys. And in Kennedy’s mind, his first 100 days in that role have been vital to both understanding and furthering that brand’s place in the American whiskey scene.

Recently, in a rare quiet moment outside Bar Convent Brooklyn, Drinkhacker sat down with Kennedy to taste through much of Redemption’s current line, including recent barrel-finished whiskeys. Afterward, we caught up in a more structured interview to learn about his specific approach to blending, thoughts on ever-popular cask finishes, and who he looks to for inspiration in the space.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.

Drinkhacker: What are your year one goals as Redemption’s new Master Blender?

Alan Kennedy: Starting as a new Master Blender presents a unique set of challenges – I have this new dance partner, and need to learn how to move fluidly with them and not to step on each other’s toes. During my first year, I’m focusing on learning about Redemption in a way that only a blender can, while continuing the brand’s legacy and maintaining its core set of expressions that fans know and love.

As I become more ingrained in Redemption’s DNA, I’m excited to explore new innovations and find new ways to restore whiskey to pre-Prohibition prominence. One of the things that drew me to Redemption was the release of Sur Lee Straight Rye Whiskey. Sur Lee was, and still is, a first-of-its-kind whiskey inspired by the French sur lie winemaking process. This expression opened my eyes to the possibilities of what rye whiskey can be, and it made me excited to be a part of the vision for Redemption moving forward. While I’m not able to say exactly what we have in the pipeline, I’m looking forward to sharing Redemption’s future innovations with our fans.

Drinkhacker: What is your day to day like in the new role?

Alan Kennedy: One of things I love most about my job is that no two days are the same, as I oversee the entire journey of our whiskey production, from farm to bottle.

On any given day, I could be starting the first step of creating whiskey, which includes working closely with our farmers to hand pick our grains that will give us the best aspects of rye, from the strength of the spice notes in the beginning to the floral throughout. Or, I’m collaborating with our distillery partners to ensure we’re using the best quality ingredients.

Other days, I’m in the rackhouse sorting through thousands of barrels to find the exact profiles I’m looking to create, or checking on them throughout the aging process.

When we are nearing the end of the maturation process, my days are focused on blending and developing a unique whiskey that is not only representative of pre-Prohibition, but as I like to say, have “soul.” When you pour a glass of Redemption, I want you to taste the art and passion that went into making it.

No matter what my day entails, I make whiskey for a living, so every day is a good day.

Redemption Whiskey

Drinkhacker: Who do you admire in American whiskey today? Do you have any mentors or teachers you’d like to shout out?

Alan Kennedy: Starting my career as a pastry chef turned sommelier, I’m fortunate to have met and learned from many inspirational experts who led me to where I am today. Throughout my career, my mentors have challenged, championed, and supported me to forge my own path as a Master Blender.

My two biggest mentors include Dave Pickerell, who taught me about American whiskey, and Conor Ryan, who taught me about Irish whiskey. As I dive into my role as Master Blender at Redemption, I have the pleasure of working with other Deutsch Family winemakers and distillers, like Wayne Donaldson, who has taught me new winemaking techniques that I’m excited to try in the whiskey world. I think it’s vital to have a partner and mentor to jam with, so it’s been great to work so closely with Wayne so far.

Drinkhacker: Where does Redemption fit in the current landscape of American whiskey? Would you like that to change, and if so, how?

Alan Kennedy: Redemption has won the hearts of many, from everyday whiskey drinkers and those exploring the category to bourbon connoisseurs. There is something for everyone, starting with our core expressions, like Redemption Rye and Redemption High-Rye Bourbon, for those who enjoy cocktails or that after work pour, to our more innovative creations, like Redemption Cognac-finished Bourbon and Redemption Sur Lee Rye, for those who are looking for something different.

Here at Redemption, I have the opportunity to continue a legacy of great whiskey, while still putting my personal stamp on innovation. I have no intention of changing the brand, rather, I am planning to grow with it.

Drinkhacker: What are common misconceptions about your role?

Alan Kennedy in warehouse

Alan Kennedy: Some people think that a Master Blender’s main role is to taste the final product, and while this step is crucial (and delicious), my role as Master Blender starts long before our whiskey is made and continues far beyond the final product.

It’s also not just about sitting in a lab blending ingredients together. I like to think of whiskey as a mix between art and science. While there are aspects of my role that involve beakers and spreadsheets, I also look for inspiration in specific moments and senses. You know that feeling of sitting on a porch in the summer heat or being with your family during the holidays? That’s the feeling that I want to evoke by creating nuanced blends and taste profiles.

Drinkhacker: Walk us through your individual approach to blending.

Alan Kennedy: While the technical aspects of blending are extremely important, I let my memory lead my approach in order to create whiskeys that draw out fond memories or specific feelings – whiskeys that have “soul,” as I like to say.

Before blending, I sit down and take in the world around me. It’s important to make time to feel a moment in every sense and in every way in order to find inspiration for blending. And, for me, inspiration can strike at any minute. Like last Halloween, when I took my daughter trick-or-treating, and at one point the walk became too much. We sat down together to pass out candy while my wife and our other daughter continued on. While passing out candy, my daughter came across a bag of old school caramel and coated Sugar Daddy candies. When she took a bite, I watched the expression on her face and was just amazed by her experience. This type of deep satisfaction, mixed with surprise and pure joy, is the type of feeling I want to bring to life when blending.

Drinkhacker: What are some common myths or misconceptions around finishing whiskey? Are there new finishes you’re excited to try but haven’t had a chance to experiment with?

Alan Kennedy: Some believe that innovating with different cask finishes compromises the “rules” of American whiskey. My take is that while there is always a place for the purest bourbons and ryes, there is also a need for innovation to unlock a whiskey’s full potential. This is true when you look at techniques that pre-date American whiskey, crafts that were lost during prohibition, or things we have learned more recently – none of these hurt the heart and soul of bourbon, they only add to it in a unique way.

There are always new finishes and experiments in the works, however I am very cautious about the sustainability of the wood species that we use, and I am always looking for connections that go beyond the wood. As Redemption’s new Master Blender, I am really excited about working with finishing barrels from other producers that have the same passion that I do.

David Tao is a writer for Drinkhacker.

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