“I think I come from a very non-traditional background,” says Melissa Rift, newly appointed master taster for Old Forester. “But then, I think so does almost everybody in bourbon.” With a background in social work with an emphasis in couples and family therapy, Louisville resident Rift had indulged her fascination with bourbon by leading tours on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail for more than three years as a side gig. A string of well-timed opportunities eventually moved Rift from “doing this as a job, to having a career in it.” Working alongside an ever-expanding network of people who touched all aspects of the bourbon industry — from producers, distributors, retailers, to bar owners — and being challenged with more and more leadership opportunities, “eventually I realized this is what I wanted to be doing,” says Rift.
Coming from her role as Bulleit’s single barrel program director, a position she held for three years until June 2022, Rift is thrilled to be working with Old Forester, bourbon county’s longest continuously producing distillery. As a former tour guide, Rift remains enamored with the folklore of the region, of which she says Old Forester claims the lion’s share. “I’ve been a longtime Old Forester drinker. As a Kentuckian, it’s kind of everyone’s go-to,” says Rift. “But the fact that the founder revolutionized the industry by quality-controlling his product and signing his name to glass bottles is the most beautiful origin story for a brand that continues to drive quality, innovation, and inclusion. I think that it gives us this charge to continue to be cutting edge, but also reliable and consistent.”
As one of the first queer women to have a top-tier leadership role in bourbon, Rift has a unique perspective on this theme of innovation, not only when it comes to the libations themselves, but also the efforts of Old Forester and other bourbon brands to encourage inclusion and representation in the industry. VinePair chatted with Rift about the role of a master taster, how brands can do more for their employees and consumers where visibility and advocacy are concerned, and the importance of mentorship.
1. What is the role of a master taster, and how does it differ from the roles of master distiller or master blender?
I always consider the master distiller having the biggest role with the grain to distillate, actually running the still and then being a collaborator with the maturation team for the final product. Master blenders are more on that finished product side of things. They are really charged with the consistency factor, especially of large brands. There are a lot of semantics you can get into with batching and blending, but blending is technically taking different whiskies, typically from different producers or that have different specs, and blending them together. A master blender is really in charge of that consistency factor, making sure that when you’re putting out a base product, it’s going to be the same every time you put batches together. As a master taster, I would say I’m less involved in the actual creation of the product, but more in collaborating with that finished product team: research and development, and our innovation and sensory teams. The biggest part of my role will be affecting that finished product, and really on our special releases. The core Old Forester 86 Proof isn’t going to change, and what we’ve already put out from the whiskey row series isn’t going to change. But if we decide we want to expand that series — if we’re talking about the distillery-only releases, or President’s Choice, or Birthday Bourbon — I’ll be a prominent voice in the selection and flavor development of those. I’ll also take on translating what I learn from our consumers and what they want to see from us, what the trends are in the industry, and bringing all of that into modern Old Forester expressions.
2. Do you find that elements of your social work background serve you well in the bourbon industry?
One hundred percent. I think that it’s given me a cutting edge that a lot of people wouldn’t expect to come from being a social worker and a family therapist. In therapy, we always talk about being people-centered and meeting people where they’re at. There’s no one-size-fits-all for a therapeutic approach. You can have theories that inform the way that you practice, but you can’t just pigeonhole that into every person you work with. I’d taken the same approach with giving tours. I didn’t read off of the script, because people coming through the door had varying levels of education, and this was at a time when whiskey consumers were educating themselves more than they ever had before. So I really took learning a wide breadth of information seriously so that I could always meet people where they were at. That kind of person-focused intention has really informed the way that I do my job and makes me really good at it. I also think I’m able to keep a perspective that whiskey is fun. It’s a fun industry to be in, and there’s not a whole lot about it that’s heavy or challenging. So I think sometimes when some people can get frustrated or overwhelmed by being in our industry, I’m typically more relaxed and able to go with the flow.
3. Do you think, in spite of that, that there are any prevailing prejudices, stereotypes, or biases in the bourbon industry that have been slow to change?
To bridge from the previous question, I do think that I’ve brought a passion for social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion to the work that I do. That sometimes can be a little resisted in this industry. There’s a feeling that we’re just a whiskey brand, which is supposed to be fun, and is, so why are we charged with having to be more inclusive or care about social justice? And to that I say, especially in Kentucky, bourbon is our trade. We’re a behemoth of an industry here, and so not only do we have a responsibility to, but we can affect change and make an impact. I think it’s easy to get excited about a lot of the women we’re seeing in leadership roles, but I don’t think that our work is done. We have this amazing panel of women in leadership for Brown-Forman, and we work for a company that does value our leadership and gives us benefits to support the lifestyles that we lead. It’s a beautiful thing to see, but that is not industry-wide. I think we still have a responsibility to advocate for more women in leadership, and I think that even though we’re seeing a lot more of that, there’s still a severe lack of diversity in race and ethnic minority inclusion.
Also, as a queer person, I think that while there has been a growing effort for diversity and inclusion, it’s been really focused on gender and a little bit on race, but I don’t think it has always included the LGBTQ+ population. Because we span all demographics, I think that as a marginalized community we can get left behind. Bourbon has always been this kind of conservative, straight, white, middle-aged-to-older, male demographic, and there are so many young, vibrant, queer, diverse communities that love bourbon — especially in and around Kentucky. We’re definitely doing a better job about representation, but we just have to keep pushing that envelope and not think that we’ve already achieved what we’re here to do.
4. What does it mean to you, as a gay woman, to have been promoted to a high visibility role in the whiskey industry?
I’ve been out since I came into the industry. The first time I ever interviewed for a job, I was open about the fact that I had a girlfriend. As queer people, I think we’re always dropping those subtle hints about our partners, to test the waters and see how things are gonna play out. From my perspective, I have not received anything but acceptance in all of the roles that I’ve held. I know I’m very fortunate to say that, because that’s not the experience for everybody. I was really trying to work toward more of an ambassador role for a long time, and right at the time that I had the opportunity to be more visible was right when the pandemic started — so I didn’t get to travel, and I didn’t get as much exposure as I wanted then. When I had this opportunity to take this master taster role, coming out of the pandemic when everybody’s redefining where they sit in the world, it was a perfect time. The very first meeting I had with Old Forester before my start date was with the PR team, and I think out of six people, three or four of them were queer. They asked me right off the bat whether I wanted my queer identity to be part of my persona at Old Forester, and I was so excited they asked that question, because I didn’t know whether to bring it up or if they wanted it to be a visible part of my role. So the fact that they first asked my permission — which is very thoughtful — and gave me the opportunity to wholeheartedly jump into it, affirmed that this was going to be a very good thing. I felt incredibly respected and also I felt like I had a team behind me that was ready to help me do this. I’ve been through some situations where I had to field a lot of questions about my sexuality and how I felt about the spaces I was working in. I always felt supported, but I think that that primed me to be a good advocate for myself and for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ community in general, and it was very refreshing for me to make it into a company and a brand where that was one of the first questions they asked me, and they asked it so respectfully. I didn’t feel tokenized. I felt like we were all here to do this together.
5. What do you think that spirits brands can do more to show a similar kind of respect for the experience of their consumers, not only their employees?
I think that sometimes companies feel like there can be overcompensation in representation, or they’re a little bit afraid that they’re going to be misinterpreted as tokenizing, or only including populations to check a diversity box. I understand that fear because it can be hard to communicate your intentions out to a broader consumer base, and people can make assumptions about your intentions all day long, but I would challenge companies to do it anyway. Because there’s just no such thing as overcompensation when you’re talking about representing a marginalized community. As much representation as possible is important. It’s a little bit scary, and you might have some blowback from people who do misinterpret your intentions and people who don’t support them either. But do it anyway. I think that crafting the language is really important. I think consulting with people from that population, and paying those consultants, to make sure that your language is inclusive is really important. If you want to know how to properly include a marginalized community, the best thing to do is work with advocates in that community and compensate them well and fairly.
6. Where do you see yourself going with this role in the next 5–10 years?
I hope to still be in this role, hitting a stride and crafting more of the future of the brand. I’m coming in with a lot of expertise from where I’ve been, and a fresh perspective and palate, but Brown-Forman has a lot to offer me as far as continuing education in order to excel in this role. Because I’ve inherited such an incredible brand as the master taster, I would hope that I can leave my mark on it in the next five years, and I hope that I can still do advocacy work. I’m excited to come into work in bourbon every day, but being able to also be representative and push the envelope and challenge some of the status quo makes it more of a passion of mine, versus just being excited about what I do. Being able to marry what I care about in civic engagement and social justice with what I do in an industry that’s so fun and vibrant is beautiful, and it’s what I’d like to continue to do.
7. How would you advise younger people who are interested in finding a similar trajectory in the spirits industry?
There are so many more opportunities now for young people wanting to get into this industry, which is exciting. In Kentucky, we have several universities that offer degrees and programs, and not just in production. There are distillation programs, but there are also programs focusing specifically on the business of distilled spirits. Those are great opportunities to get to learn from the beginning, but I just think that finding any opportunity for education and training, even by taking the bourbon tours, is a place to start. And then I would also say find a mentor. I don’t think anybody in our industry would be where we all are without mentorship. Elizabeth McCall has been a mentor of mine for a little while. I never would have applied for this position if Elizabeth hadn’t told me that I should be applying for jobs that are above my qualifications — because I was kind of stuck in a rut only applying for things I thought I could get based on what I had done before — and you don’t grow with that. One of the most important things, not only about being female in this industry but also in any kind of marginalized community that needs representation, is to have both a mentor and a mentee so that you’re always being pulled up, but you’re also pulling somebody up behind you.