Whiskey enthusiast Michael Bloom talks with Esthetic Lens about his most recent endeavor, The 50 State Blend Project. Bloom provides a peek into what a perfect whiskey entails, and how it’s made.
EL: Let’s start with the basics. Tell us about your 50 state blend project.
Michael Bloom: The 50 State Blend project celebrates American craft whiskey by identifying and sourcing whiskeys distilled in each of the fifty states and Washington, DC, and then blending them together to create a United Spirit.
The project highlights the amazing diversity of American whiskeys today, including fourteen bourbons, fourteen ryes, twelve single malts, one single malt rye, one blended bourbon, one Tennessee whiskey, one millet, one sorghum, and six whiskies that don’t cleanly fit in any of those particular categories. Each draft (there are seven so far) keeps the 51 ingredients constant but changes their proportions. I recently introduced barrel-finishing and other techniques to the process.
A pour of 50 State Blend is more than a drink, its:
- Symbolic: The United Spirit: Appreciating difference and working together
- Brand New: The very first documented 50 State Blend
- Spotlight: Bringing attention to distilleries creating interesting products
- Discovery: A treasure map to exemplary whiskies from every State
- Variety: Highlighting the range and depth of American Whiskies
- Playful: Experimenting with an “imbibable chemistry set”
Most importantly, a sip of 50 State Blend tells a compelling story and satisfies discerning whiskey lovers.
EL: How did this idea come to you?
MB: The idea came to me during the 2018 Federal Government shutdown when I suddenly found myself furloughed and limboed. While the economic uncertainty of not knowing how long the shutdown would last was humming in the background, the forced pause from work provided me with the time and space to bring several concepts I had been thinking about into focus.
I have long been fascinated by whiskey from unusual places, especially in America. I devour whiskey magazines, follow whiskey groups on social media and attend local festivals. My passion leads me to start creating and hosting multi-course, eighteen whiskey tasting dinners to raise money for charity. As my whiskey collection grew, I started creating blends, using geography as a compass for my experimentations. When I shared samples with friends they were intrigued, which encouraged me further. When the 2018 shutdown happened, the idea for the 50 state blend came to me as a deliberate attempt to create something that emphasized American craft, ingenuity, and unity at a time when daily life in the States felt anything but united. I was also about to turn 50, which seemed like all signs were telling me to go forward with this project. In another curious twist, the final bottle of whiskey required to begin the 50 State Blend arrived at my door in mid-March of 2020, days after the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down again.
EL: This sounds like the kind of project a chemist would undertake. What’s your day job?
MB: I come to my blending approach through cooking and the social sciences rather than chemistry, although I’d like to think that my maternal Grandfather, Dr. Marvin Gold, a chemist, and bona fide rocket scientist, would have been a 50 State Blend fan.
By day, I serve as a High-Performance Buildings Program Advisor with the U.S. General Services Administration. I began work there as a project manager in September 2001, just two weeks after 9/11. In 2008, I had the honor of managing the construction and daily operations of the Chicago Obama/Biden Presidential Transition Office. Today, I manage the Sustainable Facilities Tool (SFTool.gov), to help federal agencies build and operate healthy, high-performance spaces and buy sustainable products.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with blending whiskey. My passion for pursuing and playing with flavor goes back to my childhood. My mom is an adventurous cook, who taught me to play with flavor combinations. I learned how to adjust flavors when something didn’t work quite right the first time. I worked in restaurants in High School, College, and Grad School. Preparing, hosting, and curating dining experiences has always been the perfect social and physical antidote to the solitary, hours of desk-based reading and writing. I moved to Chicago in the 1990s to pursue a Ph.D. in American Politics at the University of Chicago with an interest in American traditions and institutions. While my career veered from the academic path, I suppose there’s a common theme of planning, analytics, and respect for institutions in my creative process.
EL: How did you decide which whiskeys to include?
MB: Research, serendipity and availability.
First, I chose whiskeys l liked that were distilled in their state of origin. I had about twenty whiskeys in hand from about a dozen states outside of Kentucky and Tennessee when the 50 State Blend idea hit me. These included Chicago’s own Koval (IL), nearby jewel, Journeyman (MI), and longtime favorites like Old Potrero Rye (CA) and Westland Single Malt (WA). The early set also included bottles from places I’d visited including RallyPoint Rye from St Louis’ StilL 630 (MO), Uprising from Sons of Liberty (NH), and Port Chilkoot Rye from Haines, Alaska, that I (very fortunately) bought on a family trip to celebrate my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary.
Sometimes my rules meant finding alternatives to whiskeys I had and really enjoy, such as Utah’s High West’s Double Rye, or West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout, both sourced products. My brother snagged a bottle of High West Valley Tan for me (only available at the distillery) and I discovered Smooth Ambler’s Big Level Wheated Bourbon, distilled in WV.
I created a detailed google doc to track everything by State and color-coded it based on whether they had local distribution. I relied upon lists to inform my choices, such as Aaron Goldfarb’s Esquire article on the Best Whiskeys Distilleries in America. When given the choice between BIG distilleries and smaller ones, I opted for small. I often substituted whiskies I’d sampled, encountered at festivals, or read about in trade magazines that seemed a better fit, for the flavor profile, availability, and budget.
For the most elusive distilleries in remote locations or where those on my lists had closed, I used the American Distilling Institute Map of Distilleries. It’s a really cool resource to find options in places like South Dakota, Hawaii, and Idaho, clicking on the pin, following the distillery info page to make sure they produced whiskey, and then confirming that whiskey was distilled in State, a process that usually required calling the distillery directly. Sometimes I was fortunate to speak directly to the distiller, (Atelier Vie (LA), Rich Grain (MS), Warfield (ID). Once identified and details confirmed, there was no guarantee that I could secure a bottle without being patient and getting creative.
EL: What about alcohol content – did the proof of the individual whiskeys matter?
MB: In my experience, the ABV of any ingredient affects how much influence it has on the flavor of the overall blend. So proof does matter. The ABVs of the whiskey used in 50 State Blend range from five whiskeys at 40% (80 Proof) to eleven at or higher than 50% (100 Proof), three of which are over 60%. I favor complexity and robust flavors in whiskey, so when given the opportunity, I tend to select cask strength ingredients over others. The challenge is how to make sure the more delicate flavors from lower ABV whiskeys aren’t obliterated by the high ABV powerhouses. That’s one reason for my multiple draft approach to blending. I can construct blends that emphasize bold and complex, (Drafts #2 and #4) a particular flavor profile (#3), or a particular type of whiskey, such as American Single Malt (Draft #5).
EL: Did you know what kind of flavor you were interested in ahead of time?
MB: Not at first. I knew I wanted something delicious and well-integrated, but more interesting than a daily sipper you don’t need to think much about. I wasn’t sure if everything would play nicely together. That’s why my first draft was an equal part (10 ml) of all 51 ingredients. I was pleasantly surprised with the result because it was interesting, distinctive, and without serious sour or harsh notes. Blended whiskey needs time to marry and settle down, usually up to 30 days, so I give myself time between iterations. Ultimately, I’m striving for a balanced blend with an enticing nose, rich palate, weighty mouthfeel, and lingering finish.
EL: What are your favorite bourbons?
MB: I enjoy all types of whiskey, from peaty Islay Scotch to fruit-forward Indian whiskey, to spicy Rye and rich Bourbon. I tend to be quite coy about my favorites, but the truth is that they change by mood and season, the same way someone might answer “What do you feel like for dinner tonight?” Thai, Burger, BBQ, Salmon with Roasted Vegetables, Bacon and Eggs? To give a straight answer though, the bourbons I love tend to be higher proof and on the older side. I’ve got a soft spot for Bookers and totally geek out on the complexity and variations of Four Roses’ 10 Bourbon recipes. I mostly drink whiskey neat. When I’m out, (remember those days?) I look for labels I’ve never tried. If there’s nothing new, or if the bar is known for their cocktails, I order something whiskey-based, often with an amaro, or the tested standard, a perfect Maker’s Mark Manhattan, up with a twist.