Chemical Engineering Grads Keep Kentucky in Good Spirits

March 8, 2018

The Chemical Engineering affords students a variety of options for the application of their education, from research opportunities in renewable energies or non-invasive diagnostic technologies, to workforce experience in health and medical technology, energy technologies, and water treatment. For several alumni, their efforts earned them a position in distilling, particularly focused on bourbon, a Kentucky tradition.

Andrea Wilson - Michter’s Distillery

Serving dual roles as both the Vice President and the Master of Maturation, Andrea Wilson grew up with Kentucky Bourbon and distilling. Graduating in 1996 with an MEng in Chemical Engineering, Wilson went to work at a global consulting firm, applying and honing her skills at a variety of tasks, from supply chain management to environmental work and beyond. It was through that experience that Wilson, who had always dreamed of working in distilling, found her way in.

“I was strongly influenced by my grandfather. He was a known moonshiner in Kentucky. I grew up listening to his stories. Didn’t know a thing about, oh, here’s the school you go to make Kentucky bourbon. That career path wasn’t really acknowledged by universities. Through talking to different people, etc., I came to realize that chemical engineering dealt with processing distillation,” says Wilson.

Wilson has traveled the world in pursuit of knowledge, visiting Peru to study dissolve systems and aquatics for her thesis, but longing to stay close to home in Kentucky. It’s here that she’s made a home and a family, working to distill the finest, most celebratory spirits possible. Now, she balances that work carefully, between her responsibilities as Master of Maturation, which sees a chemical examination of wood selection, heating, and the charring process, to her work as the Vice President, which attends more towards the administrative rigors of operating a business. In either respect, Wilson attributes her success to her time at the Speed School, which helped prepare her for the world.

“I’m really thankful to the Speed School for making us do everything the hard way, and to focus on the details. I value attention to detail, which is of critical importance. If you made errors in Speed School, it came with the time and attention of what you did wrong and why it’s wrong. I can’t say enough about how much I value the education and fundamentals and focus on accuracy that I still leverage to my benefit,” says Wilson.

Donna Willis - Woodford Reserve

Like Wilson, Donna Willis graduated from the Chemical Engineering. Selected for the Brown-Forman’s Research and Development co-op program in 2002, Willis quickly developed a passion for working with the products and the people in the distilled spirits industry. After graduating, she was hired as a Process Engineering role in Research and Development, also at Brown-Forman, where she had the opportunity to spend the next three years supporting the innovation and upgrades in post maturation processing both in the lab and at our production sites. Her continued interest and experience eventually led her to her current position as Plant Director at Woodford Reserve.

Believing that she has the best job in the world, she admits, “I have the privilege of being a part of this exceptional brand and leading the team that brings it to life every day from the receipt of the grain to the on-time shipment of a quality finished case and every step of the process in between. I continue to be honored to be a part of the history we are making.”

Growing up with strong Kentucky roots, Willis migrated from Elizabethtown to Bardstown, where she currently resides with her family. She’s built upon her professional experience, by remaining engaged in her own personal development, seeking new frontiers to push herself continually.

She explains, “The biggest challenge in this position is to keep up with the pace of growth this brand has been experiencing. It is critical to ensure we are growing ourselves, our team and production facility to support not only the volume but also do it in a cost optimized way maintaining the specialness of this brand and this place.”

Marianne Barnes - Castle & Keys

Kentucky's first female master distiller since prohibition, Marianne Barnes, also earned a degree in Chemical Engineering from UofL. A self-proclaimed nerd, she enjoyed the challenges of problem solving and critical thinking that engineering requires.

"You can work in makeup, peanut butter, or fuels. The choice is yours," said Barnes of her chosen field of study. "Engineers save the world. We change the world."

During her co-op rotation at Brown-Forman, Barnes was introduced to many aspects of the spirits industry.

"I was exposed to bourbon, tequila, vodka, sales, and marketing," Barnes said. "It was my willingness to put myself out there that has allowed me to be successful."

Impressing Brown-Forman personnel during her co-ops, she was landed a full-time job, rose quickly through the ranks and was ultimately named master distiller.

“Put yourself out there for opportunities even if you’re uncomfortable,” is her advice to students. “It will serve you well.”

Barnes received an invitation to tour the Old Taylor distillery and immediately recognized an opportunity and a challenge to which she did not shy away from but faced head on. She left the comforts of her existing position with Brown-Forman to take a risk, a big risk she acknowledges, to become partner and master distiller of Castle & Keys.

At 30, Barnes is well poised as a leader of the new generation of Spirits professionals that will shape the industry. She points out that her goals are “To use the Former Old Taylor distillery, an indisputable industry icon, as inspiration to build a new legacy of honesty and thoughtfully crafted spirits that will distinguish us in our product lines and guest experience.”

Barnes’ role in changing the dynamic in a predominantly male industry is clear. Praise for Barnes comes from thought leaders such Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women, who states that, “now that Marianne Barnes takes this title, she honors all the women past, present and future as the first woman to rise up the production ranks at a major Kentucky bourbon company and become a master distiller”.