For Jack Choate, there’s no such thing as a typical day-to-day. As the West Coast Whiskey ambassador for Heaven Hill Distillery, he spends his time representing not only the whiskey brands our fans know and love, but also our hardworking team behind-the-scenes. One day he could be thanking bartenders and restaurateurs around the Los Angeles area for working with us; while another could take him on the road to connect with potential partners or even fans.
But if you ask Jack, he will tell you his primary job is helping to educate and celebrate our American Whiskeys across the U.S. and around the world. In fact, we caught up with him fresh off his first international work trip. It was a week-long whirlwind through the United Kingdom and Poland, and Jack is happy to report back that he met many American Whiskeys fans along the way.
We know what you’re thinking: this sounds like a dream job. Our ambassadors and really our entire team often hears the same thing. And because we know that many of our fans are curious—and yes, maybe even envious—about what it’s like to work in the whiskey business, we asked you to share some questions you had for Jack. So without further ado, we’ll hand it over to him.
Q: HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START IN THE WHISKEY BUSINESS?
Funnily enough, on the golf course! A little over a decade ago, I was randomly paired with a gentleman who was carrying a branded golf bag with my dad’s preferred brand of Scotch. Right off the first tee, I started talking spirits and bars with him in hopes I could find a way to get my dad that golf bag. We developed a friendship from that conversation and six months later he was my boss. Turns out, he worked on the distributor sales team for that brand as well as Heaven Hill Distillery! The rest, as they say, is history.
Q: WHAT DO YOU THINK WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WORKING IN THE INDUSTRY?
It’s hard work! We’re not just popping into bars all day and tasting top-of-the-line products. It can be 12-14 hour days of selling, driving, flying, working, and hoping that the appointments you set are actually valid.
Q: WHAT WHISKEY TOPICS ARE YOU MOST PASSIONATE ABOUT?
I love the people. Whether it’s the maintenance person at the distillery, the people in the control room, the Master Distillers or the Master Tasters, everyone has a role to play that contributes to the final product—and everyone’s so passionate about it.
I love the history and heritage of American Whiskey, too. It’s fascinating how necessity has always bred innovation. Something that started as a need to keep excess grains and beer from spoiling on family farms and homesteads across the globe has turned into this worldwide industry that millions of people love so much.
Q: HOW DOES HEAVEN HILL DISTILLERY DEVELOP DIFFERENT FLAVOR PROFILES ACROSS BRANDS?
It’s all about rickhouses! The time the whiskey spends in the barrel, where that barrel is located, why it’s located there . . . and in most cases at Heaven Hill, how Mother Nature interacts with the barrel throughout its time in the rickhouse affects how the whiskey will age. As they say, barrels are like snowflakes: no two are alike. Even though we produce what equates to 1,500 barrels of whiskey each day, two of those barrels placed side by side in the same rickhouse will age differently, giving each final product slight variations.
It’s through these nuances (covering over 2,000,000 different barrels in 65+ rickhouses across 50 square miles) that different flavor profiles are created. So even though the majority of the whiskey we produce is crafted with our Heaven Hill regular mashbill (78% corn, 10% rye, 12% malted barley), we can pinpoint certain barrels for certain flavor profiles. They’re all the same recipe, but wildly different when you’re tasting the finished product’s overall flavor profile.
Q: HOW DOES THE DISTILLERY DECIDE HOW LONG A WHISKEY SHOULD AGE?
The distillery doesn’t decide. The barrels tell us when they’re ready. I’ve heard many stories over my near decade with Heaven Hill Distillery about going to pull a barrel but once we got there and tasted it, it wasn’t ready. If it hasn’t reached a taste profile that fits one of our brands, it goes back into the rickhouse to age some more.
Q: DOES IT MATTER WHICH RICKHOUSE A BOURBON AGES IN?
Yes and no. Different barrels will age the same whiskey differently in the same way that different rickhouses will age barrels differently. Our hope is that we can deliver consistently good whiskey from all of our barrels in all of our rickhouses.
Q: WHAT TYPES OF BARRELS DOES THE DISTILLERY USE?
We primarily use American Oak barrels from Independent Stave Company (ISC) charred to a Level 3. We use barrels from a few other cooperages as well, but primarily ISC. We’re able to experiment a little with other types of oak, too. Most recently, we let our Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel Ryder Cup Edition participate in secondary aging in European Oak barrels. That mimicked the toast profile of barrels that would regularly be used to age wine in the Lazio Wine region of Italy (where the Ryder Cup 2023 is being played).
Q: WHAT’S YOUR PERSONAL WHISKEY COLLECTION LOOK LIKE?
At last count, my collection was right around 150 bottles—primarily from events I have worked or gifts from my travels. I have a collection of Evan Williams Single Barrel dating back to 1997—which I can’t wait to open some day. I also have most of the Elijah Craig Barrel Proofs dating back to the beginning of that program—always a great pour. And then I have a 2017 Parker’s Heritage—the single barrel we did in Parker’s honor the year he passed—as well as the Old Fitzgerald 8-year Bottled-in-Bond (Spring 2021) and 17-year Bottled-in-Bond (Spring 2022), which I think are the best two of that whole collection and really show our range. To be honest, it’s tough to choose a favorite. I usually can’t make up my mind, but my go-to is probably a pour of Evan Williams 1783.
Q: ANY TIPS FOR THOSE LOOKING TO GET A JOB SIMILAR TO YOURS?
Follow your passion, do your research, be yourself and always be open to learning something new. And never pass up an opportunity to meet and interact with your favorite brands and personalities, either.
Q: HOW MUCH DO YOU LOVE YOUR JOB?
Like I said earlier, it’s hard work, but most of the time it doesn’t even feel like a job. I’m not sure it is possible to love a job any more than I do mine.