Julia Nourney is an international distillery coach who has been involved with spirits for some thirty years. She’s also a contract blender who helps distillers at all levels improve quality, develop new products, or adapt their portfolios to current market demands. Julia has co-written and translated books and has judged several international spirits competitions in Europe, Asia, and the United States. She also holds workshops and master classes around the world to share her deep well of knowledge and expertise. She is, in other words, a busy woman.
Nourney’s capabilities have been recognized by many. In 2007, she was awarded the title “Whisky Expert of the Year” by the Scottish distillery Glenfiddich. She is one of only a few officially authorized “Cognac Educators” by the French Cognac office (BNIC). In 2014, she was conferred a lifelong knighthood in the whiskey business by the Swiss COTWE Society. In September 2018, she received the award for Outstanding Contribution to The Craft Distilling Business from the organizers of the Distilling Expo in London.
While this is a wonderful way to summarize her professional career, it reveals little about her personality. Nourney is bright, knowledgeable, confident, and playful. Her laugh can be heard for miles and her passion for developing world-class spirits can be felt around the globe. She is a devoted team player dedicated to helping the distilling industry and has nurtured an extraordinary number of people in their first steps into it, setting a standard that many hope to meet one day.
Developing Her Sensory Gifts
Nourney’s life in spirits may well have been predetermined. After finding her own way into spirits, she was told that until the mid-1940s, her grandfather had a bottling factory in a small town called Burgstädt in Saxonia, Germany. He worked with aromas and neutral alcohol to make liqueurs. She wonders if the sensory gift in the family jumped a generation, as her parents didn’t possess it, and it was her husband who introduced her to spirits.
“He had eighty different spirits at home and cocktail equipment, and he spoiled me with nice drinks,” she says, matter-of-factly. “And this is how I came into spirits and realized how much I liked them. I still remember the day he made four different whiskey sours. While the recipe was exactly the same, only the whiskeys were different. I couldn’t believe [the drinks were] so different. I think that was the first time in my life that I had whiskey. I immediately fell in love.” That was when Nourney realized she had a remarkable sensory talent. Before long, she and her husband were collecting whiskeys and holding tasting sessions for friends and then friends of friends.
It was after her son Felix was born that she had more time at home to “really work [herself] deep into the topic,” she explains. It was around this time that Germany’s first whiskey distilleries opened.
Blaue Maus, the first single malt whiskey distillery in Germany, was founded by Robert Fleischmann. He and Nourney became friends, and it wouldn’t be long before she started working with him. (They still work together today and are, of course, still friends.) She says of the time, “They all tried to copy Scotch, that was the only thing they wanted to do.” She soon realized that she knew more than some distillers in regards to sensory skills and how to make good whiskey, and could be of assistance.
Nourney was busy working with distilleries in Germany when, in August of 1999, whiskey distillation became legal in Switzerland. “It was a very important date for me,” she explains, “and I began working with a few Swiss clients to help them develop the whiskey recipes.” This was mostly done with her knowledge of maturation. Fruit spirits weren’t selling so well at the time, and Swiss producers had realized people were preferring aged whisky from Scotland to cherry or plum schnapps. Yet most of the producers had been brewers or fruit producers, and had no experience in cask aging.
Working with those Swiss producers was a precursor of things to come. As an international consultant, travel is a major part of the job. Julia’s clients circle the globe, from Denmark to India. The list of client distilleries in Ireland must be her longest, including Connacht, Clonakilty, and a bonded whiskey called The Liberator, as well as gins like Lough Ree Slingshot, Minke, and Beara Ocean Gin, made from whey.
At Blackwater Distillery in Waterford, Ireland, Nourney worked with Pete Mulryan to help transfer the recipes to a new still when they moved premises. “Julia is great fun,” says Mulryan. “She works hard, plays hard, and likes her cider! Expect her to be up blending until one in the morning, then back at the still at the crack of dawn. She can sniff the hint of a botanical from the far side of the room, so has an uncanny nose for detail. Just hope she’s smiling when she looks up from the sample, as a scowl is never good news.”
Nourney also consults widely in India. “India is a very important country for me because the distilleries just pop out like mushrooms and none of them have any distilling experience, so they need a hand to guide,” Julia says. “When people begin distilling, they realize that it is more difficult than they probably thought!” The system in India can be challenging. Some laws prevent tasting in distilleries, while some states are entirely dry.
At the Top of Her Game
At this stage in her career, Nourney can pick and choose who she works with and where. Chemistry is important for her, since she believes that a good relationship with her clients results in better projects.
All this experience means Nourney has a lot to offer at competitions. One she really lights up over is the International Spirits Challenge in London. “In terms of whiskey, it’s a very important competition, as the whiskey panel comprises only master blenders from around the world.” She smiles and adds, “We broke my record and judged 179 whiskeys in a day, so about 400–450 samples over the three days!”
As well as consulting, Nourney teaches workshops in person and online. These workshops can serve as an invaluable head start for beginning distillers and in many instances have been the stepping stone that leads someone interested in distilling to take the plunge. Toby Whittaker of Whittaker’s Gin is one such example. “I started making whiskey in 2019, and Julia was at the opening of our new craft distillery building on 1st August 2019,” he says. “I had previously attended a whiskey workshop with Julia at the East London Liquor company, which was a great introduction. Back in August 2019, Julia went through her recommendations for building a whiskey cask warehouse, advising on different cask types and helping me make a start on strategizing for the years ahead. For the past three years, I have plowed on, following her advice and taking a few experimental options, too. It is time I got back in touch with Julia, and she can tell me if my cask warehouse has come up to her expectations!”
Fellow industry consultant David T. Smith has held many workshops and master classes with Nourney for ADI, the Craft Distilling Expo, and other projects. “Julia and I have known each other since meeting at the ADI conference in Denver in 2013 and since then have judged hundreds of spirits together,” says Smith. “When it comes to workshops, classes, and talks, we must have co-hosted more than a dozen, including whiskey and maturation, fruit spirits, and, of course, gin! My favorite remains “Barrel Love,” i.e., how to look after your barrels — which hopefully will feature in the ADI Las Vegas 2023 lineup.” Beyond her skill as a professional collaborator, Smith also values her character. “In addition to being a great friend with an infectious sense of humor and mischief, she is a tenacious force for good in the industry. Definitely opinionated (and we don’t always agree). She has a kindness and generosity to every distiller she meets and is dedicated to helping the whole spirits industry improve. She’s one of a kind, and all of us in the industry have a lot to thank her for.”
Nourney Meets ADI
Nourney first became connected to ADI around 2008, when founder Bill Owens traveled to Europe and she guided him to Swiss, Austrian, and German distilleries. “It was a big honor for me to meet Bill Owens at a time when the ADI was not so big,” Julia says. After another trip, he invited her to the conference in 2011. She recalls, “That was my first conference and actually my first seminar for the ADI on American ground, giving a sensory seminar in Portland, and I was so nervous, because I had a little bit of a language barrier.”
Nerves notwithstanding, that first talk led to many more, including a long-time collaboration with independent Master Blender Nancy Fraley. “I met Nancy and we both realized that we had very similar sensory backgrounds and liked the same techniques. Aging and cask management and blending. It was like meeting a sister,” she says. In 2012, they gave their first seminar together in Louisville, and that started many years of fun. Fraley says, “Julia Nourney has what I would consider to be one of the keenest, sharpest, and most astute noses in the industry. I have learned so much from her over the past twelve years since we first became friends. Like me, she works as a freelance master blender and international consultant, and while she is a colleague, I also consider her to be a mentor.”
Thousands of spirits professionals have taken workshops taught by Fraley and Nourney, including their popular Nosing for Faults class. “We have had so many fun and hilarious times teaching together over the years,” says Fraley. One of their most memorable workshops took place after a group of “very inebriated distillers” broke into their classroom, which had been set up the night before for a Nosing for Faults class at an ADI conference. Delighted to discover what seemed to be a private tasting, they drank the samples.
“The next morning we painfully discovered this, and were absolutely mortified that we only had a few fault samples left,” says Fraley. “When the class began later that afternoon, all we could do was announce to the 100 class participants that we would love to have allowed them to smell and taste the fault samples, but they drank them all the night before! The class roared with laughter, and somehow Julia and I managed to still effectively teach the class with lots of humor and quick thinking.”
Having a mother working in the industry has certainly had an influence on Felix Nourney, who now works with distilleries, too. “My mom is both my parent as well as my mentor,” he says. “As such, she has shaped me as a person and as a professional and continues to do so. Working with her is great! I know that she is proud of me, but I can always rely on her to give me a no-nonsense review. For better or for worse, the quality of my work reflects on her as well.” He recognizes her influence despite going a different route with his own career: “Of course she is an inspiration, she is what got me into this industry in the first place, and I owe her a lot. Sure, I have worked on my own and made my own experiences, but a lot of my knowledge to begin with came from working with her.” Nowadays they both specialize differently, with Julia more involved in making recipes and blending, and Felix focusing on production. “We make a good team when working on projects together,” Felix says.
All of this adds up to an incredible career. As far as Julia can remember, there hasn’t been a single product she has developed so far that has not received at least a silver, gold, or double gold medal from a competition. It is hard for her to confirm an exact figure, but her award-winning releases include around 60 gins, 30 whiskeys, and various aquavits, brandies, rums, and vodkas.
While her professional accomplishments are remarkable, there is much more to Nourney than her work. There is a mischievous character with a head-turning laugh. There is a woman who speaks her mind and holds her ground, sometimes going against the grain if she believes it’s necessary, all for the good of the spirit, and that’s all for the good of those making it and those enjoying it. As Felix says, Julia “has always instilled in me this notion and understanding that we are working in an industry that produces a commodity of enjoyment, and that is (for the most part) reflected in the people working in it — including her. As far as she’s come, she’s far from done.”
In April 2015, Bernadette Pamplin began writing www.undertheginfluence.com while working in a gin bar. She fell deeply in love with gin, particularly its history and the stories associated with each bottle, as well as the incredible complexities of botanicals, distilling processes and serves. She previously worked as a Brand Ambassador in a large touring gin festival, and currently she runs her website Under the Ginfluence. She also writes for Gin Magazine, YourDrinkBox.com, Distiller Magazine, and works behind the scenes at the Craft Distilling Expo.