In This Issue
Engineering for Women's Health
April 25, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 1
The articles in this issue describe the latest technologies for detection of breast and other cancers, approaches to reduce the incidence of premature births, and remote monitoring for pregnancy, a development of particular interest as the pandemic discouraged many people from going to a doctor’s office or hospital.

An Interview with . . . Paul Drumheller, Chemical Engineer and Whisky Connoisseur

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Author: Paul Drumheller

RON LATANISION (RML): Good afternoon, Paul. When we read of your experiences as a whisky educator and connoisseur,[1] we decided we had to talk to you.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): We got your name from Janet Hunziker—you attended one of the early Frontiers of Engineering symposia.

PAUL DRUMHELLER: Yes, I was a participant in 1997. I spent time chatting with Phil Condit, who at the time was CEO of Boeing Corporation; we talked about the corporate culture of Boeing compared to W.L. Gore & Associates. That was a nice conversation.

RML: We’re delighted to talk with you today and also to learn something about whisky. As you know from our exchange of messages, Cameron and I both have an interest in and fondness for beer, although I do have an occasional Manhattan. We’re looking forward to being educated today.

DR. DRUMHELLER: Fantastic. Since you both enjoy beer: folks who are deeply appreciative of beer are called Cicerones, just as people who are deeply appreciative of wine are called oenophiles.

Whisky actually starts life as beer. It goes through additional steps to be turned into whisky. Your beer knowledge will get us through about 50 percent of the whisky manufacturing process.

RML: That’s great. First let’s get a bit of information on your background and your activities with W.L. Gore & Associates.

DR. DRUMHELLER: My bachelor’s is from ­Washington State University, and my PhD is from the University of Texas at Austin.

RML: Where was home when you were growing up?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Albuquerque. With the exception of undergraduate and graduate school, I’ve lived all my life in the American Southwest—New Mexico, Arizona, Utah. But I matriculated to Washington State University, the young bird leaving the nest; I majored in chemical engineering, but also took significant classes in English composition and mathematics. Then I got my PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, with an emphasis in biomaterials and how they apply to tissue engineering, biocompatibility, and molecular cell biology.

CHF: Paul, I want to back up for a moment. You said you took a significant number of classes in English composition and mathematics. How did you decide to major in engineering?

DR. DRUMHELLER: In high school I had two passions, chemistry and mathematics. I remember ­geometry and calculus very fondly, probably because of the instructor, who has been very influential in my life. In fact, I dedicated my PhD dissertation to him, and later forwarded it to him, wondering if he remembered me. He said, ‘Absolutely, I remember you. What a wonderful gift. Thank you very much for remembering me all these years.’ It made sense to combine those two interests into a single discipline called engineering. But I felt like I needed improvement on my composition skills so I enrolled in those classes.

CHF: Do you enjoy writing?

DR. DRUMHELLER: I do. And I host a blog on whisky—whisky engineering, art, culture, and history—although I’ve been lax about updating it during Covid. It’s difficult for me to remain motivated if I’m not able to interact directly with folks, but our conversation today is going to motivate me to renew that. I have my own style; I like to be somewhat personal and use analogies and “country” stories I picked up from my mother, who grew up in rural Missouri.

RML: Your comment about a teacher who really made a difference in your life is one that we hear often, and it’s a great testimonial to teaching skills and the things that teachers instill in young people. I had the same experience, so I know what you’re talking about. I think that’s wonderful. That in itself makes for a successful beginning to an interview, in my judgment.

DR. DRUMHELLER: I can offer some additional information on that. My wife, who is an electrical engineer, is a coach for a local high school robotics team and has taken some of the girls on the team under her wing. One of the girls she mentored, over 10 years ago, was the first person in her family to attend college. She obtained a full-ride scholarship to Worcester Poly­technic, and now she’s an engineer for NASA, and she credits my wife for being that teacher and that inspiration for her. This is something that has deeply resonated with both of us.

We have funded a scholarship at Washington State University for female engineering students and female faculty in engineering and other STEM fields, to support their education and research. We try to be mentors for the next generation. That’s another passion that I hold besides whisky.

RML: I wish more people had that attitude, Paul, because I think it’s so important. You and your wife are role models, and the fact that you’ve had such impact on young people is a wonderful thing to be able to say.

DR. DRUMHELLER: Thank you. When my wife and I signed the paperwork to complete the scholarship, we both had tears in our eyes. It’s very deeply meaningful that this is our legacy.

CHF: What a rewarding way for you to contribute.

Can you tell us what followed after you finished your PhD—did you go directly to W.L. Gore?

DR. DRUMHELLER: In my work on biomaterials and molecular cell biology, in the laboratory at UT Austin under Jeff Hubbell, we were the first laboratory in the world to look at how can you modify a biomaterial surface with something bioactive—or conversely, something bioinert—to engineer a particular reaction or host response in a patient. That led to about a half-dozen patents and the foundation of a startup company called Focal, in Boston, in the early 1990s. The company exploited the bioinert formulations and materials developed at the University of Texas to try to minimize any inflammatory reaction  during a surgical procedure or during implantation of a device. Focal was a darling of the biotech scene in Boston. A big chunk of its technology was developed at Hubbell’s laboratory, a small part of it by me. But Focal wasn’t able to reach its human clinical milestone, so it no longer exists.

My work on biomaterials and molecular cell biology looked at how to modify a biomaterial surface with something bioactive—or bioinert—to engineer a particular reaction in a patient.

When I got my PhD, I wasn’t certain if I wanted to enter academia or a government lab or industry. I considered the University of Michigan and Sandia National Labs, but I settled on a subsidiary of W.L. Gore called Gore Hybrid Technologies. They were developing a cell encapsulation device for treatment of type 1 diabetes. We had a partnership with a company that was a spinout from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, based on Chris Newgard’s work (he’s now at Duke University Medical School). Chris and his spinout, called BetaGene, were humanizing rat cells for the Gore Hybrid Technologies cell encapsulation device, for implantation in patients to treat their type 1 diabetes.

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Some of my graduate school work, modifying biomaterials to engineer specific responses, included cell encapsulation, and that experience pointed to my hiring at W.L. Gore & Associates. Also, I found their location in Flagstaff very compelling—to move from Texas to Arizona and be so near the Grand Canyon and Sedona, that was a big plus. I was familiar with this part of the country, having grown up in Albuquerque; and living next to the Grand Canyon was a wonderful personality fit for me and my wife.

RML: So you’ve been at Gore ever since?

DR. DRUMHELLER: I have not. I was with Gore Hybrid Technologies for about 7 years, then for 5 years I was a freelance consultant and an entrepreneur. Then I rejoined Gore.

RML: And what is your responsibility at Gore today?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Oh, gracious, there are so many things that I do at Gore. Gore has an interesting culture that is fairly supportive of individuals finding their sweet spot. Over the years I’ve worked as a principal investigator on drug delivery, biomaterials, tissue engineering, photochemistry, and nanotechnology, as well as new product development, project management, and intellectual property prosecution. Recently I’ve also started a role with Gore’s government and public relations team.

RML: I have to admit my understanding of Gore is from my Gore-Tex jacket, which I bought when I was a runner. I had no idea that Gore had such a broad outreach as the product lines you’ve identified. Has that always been the case?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Yes. Gore is diversified into four major divisions: Fabrics, of course, which most people know as Gore-Tex; Medical, with facilities in Flagstaff and in the Delaware-Maryland area, where the corporate headquarters are; Industrial Products—­polymers and chemicals; and Electronics, whose major components are cabling and circuit boards. The company is actually a major supplier to NASA—Gore has gone to the moon, is currently on Mars, and products from our Electronics Division are floating somewhere through the solar system right now.

The company has about 10,000 employees and about $4 billion in sales; the Medical Division is about 3000 employees, with $1.5–1.8 billion in revenue.

RML: I understand that you publish in the open literature rarely, but have 300-plus patents. Is that correct?

DR. DRUMHELLER: I have 300-plus patents ­globally, both issued and pending; in the United States, I have 70 patents issued and pending.

Gore is a quiet company, they don’t publish very often in the scientific literature; they publish much more often in the clinical literature. Any scientific dis­coveries that Gore makes are held as trade secrets, or we want to patent them so that we can turn them into products. As a result, my patents read very much like a scientific peer-reviewed paper, not like a typical patent, because that’s really the only place that I can publish at Gore. So I have only a handful of peer-reviewed papers, and publish instead in the patent literature, which accounts for the number of patents I have both in the United States and globally.

RML: What’s the scope of your patents? What areas are typical?

DR. DRUMHELLER: They include new Gore-Tex types of resins—how they’re polymerized in the reactor and how you can convert them into usable ­medical products; they’ve also been used in applications for ­filter membranes in the Industrial Products Division, for example. I’ve been involved with drug delivery and drug formulations. I’ve worked on nanotechnology, developing nanoparticles for various applications. I’ve developed coatings to decrease or increase friction. There’s a breadth of technologies on which I’ve been principal investigator.

Another role of mine is intellectual property. I’ve helped drive a lot of my own technologies through the US Patent Office alongside Gore’s IP attorneys, and those of my colleagues as well. I believe that’s probably unique at Gore, where the inventor is also a person talking to the Patent Office.

CHF: This is an extraordinary breadth of areas. Are you personally directly involved in the research and development of applications for every one of these products and areas? It’s hard to imagine how you would do that, although you clearly have a zillion of energy.

DR. DRUMHELLER: That’s a good point. I’m well upstream of the product development process. I’m an idea generator, not an optimizer or a manufacturer. I go into the lab, mix test tubes together, and come up with proofs of concept, which then are handed off to businesses that have established and competent product development individuals, who can take these discoveries and turn them into products that we sell to our physicians and patients.  So I’m engaged upstream. I have in the past done some work on the manufacturing floor, but that’s not my sweet spot.

When I was at Gore Hybrid Technologies, one of the coatings that I developed was how to attach drugs onto, essentially, Gore-Tex, which we use not only in our fabrics but also in our medical products.

The chemical name of Gore-Tex is expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE). It’s renowned for its chemical  inertness. How can you attach a delicate drug onto ePTFE? I developed a coating that allows you to do exactly that. The technology was developed as part of the cell encapsulation effort, but it was also used to immobilize the blood thinner heparin on an ePTFE vascular graft. Heparin is an anticoagulant, so when it’s immobilized onto a vascular graft, which is essentially an artificial blood vessel, it prevents blood clots from forming on it as well.

RML: Is this an implantable device?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Yes; it’s under the trade name PROPATEN. I was involved in the initial proof of concepts, but not in taking the product to the manufacturing floor nor commercializing it nor getting the salespeople involved.

PROPATEN became a blockbuster in the vascular graft market. It’s been implanted in over 600,000 people. I consider that one of my biggest professional achievements—it’s saved the lives of 600,000 people.

RML: The satisfaction that comes with seeing something that was a brainchild find its way into the marketplace and successfully into human bodies must be enormous.

DR. DRUMHELLER: It is. When I joined Gore Hybrid Technologies, our mission was to develop a cell encapsulation device using engineered cells that could be implanted in diabetics. But 25 or 30 years ago, the tools necessary to engineer the cell weren’t available. Now they are, so Gore has a joint venture with a company in San Diego called ViaCyte, which has engineered cells using modern technology, and Gore has the encapsulation device, which has a large foundation from work that we did in the mid-/late 1990s. Gore and ViaCyte are currently in clinical trials, and I find that deeply gratifying, that the work we did in the mid-/late 1990s is being utilized today as a possible cure for diabetes.

I find it deeply gratifying that the work we did in the mid-/late 1990s is being  utilized today as a possible cure for diabetes.

RML: That’s what engineering is all about, isn’t it? ­Service to society. That’s as good a demonstration as I can imagine.

CHF: Paul, how do you get involved in these very different areas?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Sometimes I see an unmet need and I’m qualified to address it. I do have a reputation of doing it and then asking for permission—and then doing it anyway no matter what the answer is. ­[Laughter.] Which has been positive and negative for my reputation at Gore.

If we have people already looking at something, I think, ‘What are they not looking at?’ I identify where the white space is, where I can help fill in the blanks. And I think Gore, because of its culture, allows me to do that.

I know some individuals from Genentech, for example, and when I’ve given them the answer I just gave you, there were looks of absolute disbelief, maybe even horror, on their faces—this is something you would never be able to do at Genentech.

CHF: It sounds like you’re pretty well recognized and appreciated at Gore.

DR. DRUMHELLER: I think so. I’ve been at Gore cumulatively now coming up on 25 years. A lot of my research has led to products that are implanted in people. I have patents, and I also have breadth of experience across fields.

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RML: All of what you’ve described to us is fascinating, Paul, but how does it lead you to become a whisky educator? What is it about whisky that attracted you? I understand brewing to a certain extent, having brewed beers, but my appreciation of whisky is limited to Manhattans—it’s usually mixed in something. I want to understand how you made the transition from this wonderful career as a chemical engineer and a bioengineer to this fascinating history with whisky.

DR. DRUMHELLER: Well, I was on a business trip to Europe about 10 years ago, with a couple of colleagues, and one night we went out to dinner at a small Italian restaurant with an incredibly impressive wine menu. My two colleagues, very much lovers of wine—they dedicated parts of their homes to wine cellars—were reviewing the menu and trying to out-snob each other.

I could appreciate their love of wine and that they were students of wine, and I knew that I didn’t understand wine. I knew if I liked a red wine. But these two were talking about different vintages and different grape varieties.

CHF: Don’t forget terroir.

DR. DRUMHELLER: And terroir, absolutely. Cameron, when you bring up that term terroir, that applies to whisky as well, which we’ll get to later in our tasting here. The language of beer, of wine, of whisky—they’re all dialects of the same mother tongue.

As I said, I could appreciate their love of wine. They knew wine, they studied wine, they took these deep dives. Could I love wine? I was looking for something maybe I could be a snob about as well.

When I returned to Flagstaff, I dropped by the local bookstore and went to the wine section and started looking at books—Wine for Dummies, The Joy of Wine—but it just wasn’t making a connection to me. One reason is that when you open a bottle of wine, you have to drink it then and there. Wine doesn’t keep once you’ve opened it. I couldn’t see myself having 50 bottles of wine, where once I open one I have to drink the entire thing.

Well, on that same bookshelf at the end was a book on whisky. I thought, ‘What about whisky? You open a bottle of whisky, it’ll still stay pretty good for several years if you store it properly. I think maybe I could do it.’

CHF: Paul, that is so random.


DR. DRUMHELLER: Not completely random, actually. My mother was a fan of Tennessee sour mash whisky. When I was growing up, I have memories of her pouring it into a glass from a white ceramic bottle, and on special family occasions I could have some.

I had sampled some high-end whiskies at local restaurants, but my main introduction to whisky was Crown Royal or Jack ­Daniels. When I picked up this book that was a good 300 pages thick, it told me there’s a lot more to whisky than meets the eye. This book describes probably 250-plus individual whiskies. It discusses the terroir of whisky, and the body, the structure, the glintiness of whisky—the same terms I saw in the wine books were applying to whisky.

As is my personality, I don’t just take on a hobby or research project, I do a deep dive. With the work I’ve done at Gore, I’ve been taking a deep dive for 25 years. And with whisky, I’ve been taking a deep dive for 10 years.

I became a student of whisky. I started enlarging my library, taking classes online or in person at a whisky festival or conference, and building my own whisky collection based on advice from these books on the more obscure or more high-end or more complex whiskies. Now my collection is over 300 bottles.

I have certifications that are recognized or endorsed by the Scotch Whisky Association, the Kentucky Distillers Institute, and the Institute of Hospitality. So I have not only the passion but also some formal education.

I’m not the only one with an engineering or science degree who has found a passion in whisky. At one festival, for example, a luminary in the field with a degree in analytical chemistry is one of the most famous whisky blenders alive today, a very dapper English gentleman who always wears a tuxedo, even at work. That’s his personality. I met him at that whisky festival. He and I spent half an hour talking about how to use chromatography to characterize whisky. We talked about how to modify the columns, the pressures, the stationary phase, what sort of packing to use to get that information. It was wonderful.

At another festival, I met a distiller, also a luminary in his field, who has a PhD in chemical engineering. His focus was on distillation column design. One of my undergraduate projects was on distillation column design, so he and I, again, spent about a half-hour talking about engineering applied to whisky.

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CHF: You mentioned that you have several certifications. In what?

DR. DRUMHELLER: I have certifications in Scotch, bourbon, and world whisky.

CHF: What does it mean to be certified in those three things?

DR. DRUMHELLER: I’ve taken classes where we cover the history of Scotch or the history of bourbon, some of the legalities. For example, the legal definitions of bourbon, Scotch, and Irish whisky—the three that we’ll be tasting today—are all different. I’ve also learned how to appreciate, critique, and host tastings and help organize whisky festivals.

A whisky steward, or perhaps a wine sommelier, is someone who not only has a deep knowledge and love of a particular spirit or wine but also is engaged in the hospitality industry. I’ve worked with restaurants, festivals, with liquor stores to build their whisky inventory. So I do have that engagement, although I haven’t been paid. Actually, I should correct that: I’ve been paid in kind. I have several whisky bottles that I’ve received as gifts from a restaurant or liquor store that I’ve worked with.

RML: Given that history, I know you can answer a question that has been on my mind for a long time. I grew up in rural northeast Pennsylvania. When I was a kid, we had a chicken coop. In half of it my dad raised chickens for Sunday dinners; in the other half, he had this gleaming copper still and he brewed moonshine. Until one day a carload of guys arrived at our house and walked to our chicken coop with axes and chopped it up for reasons I didn’t understand—I was only 5 or 6 years old at the time.

But I remember seeing some of the fellows that were my dad’s pals, they would go off and drink some of this moonshine. So one day my friends and I decided to try it. We got royally sick. But I’ve always wondered what moonshine was, chemically. Is it close to wine? beer? whisky? What is moonshine?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Do you recall what your father used to create the wort? If he used fruit, he was making brandy. If he used corn, he was making whisky. Do you recall?

RML: I don’t know. But there were a lot of corn fields near us.

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DR. DRUMHELLER: And there are a lot of rye fields as well in Pennsylvania, so he could have been using that. He was distilling moonshine, which is also called white dog, red eye, or new-make. That was whisky he was making, whisky straight off the still.

Just like with beer, you start with the grain and you allow it to germinate. Then you have to stop the germina­tion, which you do by heating things up, or you can use smoke; the Scots like to use smoke pretty often. Then you grind the grain and soak it in a mash tun to suck out all the sugars. You then introduce those sugars to yeast and let it ferment for 2, 4, or 8 days. If you put it in a bottle now, you have beer; if you put it in a distillation column, you’ll get whisky.

RML: My father used to store the product that came out of the copper—it was beautiful, this stuff in ceramic jugs.

DR. DRUMHELLER: I’m guessing that what your father was doing was, after he made a “beer,” he put it into his still. Beer is about 8 percent alcohol, but Ron, that’s not what you drank, was it?

RML: No!

DR. DRUMHELLER: When beer is first distilled, it raises the alcohol content from 8 percent to 25 percent; additional distillation gives 75 percent, up to 85 percent. Your father was distilling probably up to 75–85 percent.

What’s being distilled is not only the alcohol but also a lot of the flavor compounds, which are called ­congeners or feints. Coming off your dad’s still it was probably 70, ­maybe even 80 percent alcohol. It had not yet been exposed to a wooden cask, which calms down the spirit through additive and subtractive chemical reactions. What you had going into that ceramic jug didn’t have any sort of aging. So you were drinking some really hot stuff.

RML: I wish I’d been a little older when I drank it. It think this is a good introduction to our tasting, Paul.

CHF: I’m going to go get two more glasses so I don’t have to do any field mixes—impromptu blends in an unrinsed glass. I’ll pick glasses that keep the bouquet.

Incidentally, Paul, you mentioned beers at about 8 percent. For most people, that’s the upper ABV level[2]; for me, it’s the baseline. Last week I was treated to a beer with 19 percent alcohol. It was so tasty—and it did wonders for my back spasm.

DR. DRUMHELLER: We’re looking forward then to whisky, which is 40 percent alcohol. This is a difference between whisky and beer. The yeast kill themselves once the alcohol content gets too high, and your typical brewer’s yeast can tolerate only about 8 percent alcohol before they start dying off. Some proprietary yeasts can handle 15, 18, 19 percent before they start to die off. The 19 percent beer you had, Cameron, which was not distilled—you can’t call it beer if it’s distilled—used a proprietary yeast that can tolerate those high concentrations.

RML: I was looking at the tasting chart you sent us.[3] What’s the origin of this? Is it used for wine and beer and whisky tasting?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Absolutely. It might have a slightly different structure or adjectives, but yes, this tasting chart is used for wine and beer as well as whisky. It’s also used for tea, coffee, rum, and tequila. All those different beverages have the same type of chart (or it could be in the form of a wheel, for example, rather than a two-by-four matrix). It’s to help you dissect and define what you’re experiencing.

For example, we can say that a particular whisky is sweet. What does “sweet” mean? It’s not really a term that has a firm definition. Honeysuckle is sweet, and so are saccharine, fructose, and glucose, but they all taste vastly different. So when I say something is sweet, how can I be more precise? That’s where a tasting chart helps you to organize your thoughts, impressions, and emotions.

A “woody” flavor comes from a very particular origin in the whisky process; “winey” comes from a different part of the whisky-making process, as does “floral.” “Woody” comes from the maturation process, “cereal” comes from the germination and kilning process. “Fruity” comes from how it was fermented—was it fermented in the yeast for a long time or a short time? “Sulfur” comes from how it was distilled.

Ron, you mentioned your father had copper. Well, what if you’re using a different-shaped column made of copper? How it’s distilled can affect how much sulfur is in there. This is where you can use the tasting chart and what you experience with engineering principles to reverse engineer a whisky to understand how it was made, from malting the grain to distilling the spirit all the way to aging in oak.

That’s something I also enjoy quite a bit with whisky: I can let my engineering brain come forth to not only determine what adjective I want to use for a particular note, but then I can also ask, why is that note there? What could have happened during whisky manufacturing that led to that specific note?

CHF: That’s good because I did want to ask, how does your engineering background inform your approach to whisky—its preparation, degustation, any of the aspects?

DR. DRUMHELLER: As I describe doing this reverse engineering, I’ve visited distilleries; again, I can see the unit operations that they’re using. There’s as much art as there is science in all of this.

Historically, a lot of these unit operations were given very quaint terms. For example, for the catalysis that occurs between the vapor of distillation and the copper in the copper still, back in the 1700s and early 1800s, they didn’t know about catalysis, so they called it “­conversation”: The vapor was “conversing” with the copper.

For the catalysis between the distillation vapor and the copper still, in the 1700s they didn’t know about catalysis, so they said the vapor was “conversing” with the copper.

Something that is very quaint is the maturation process terminology. If the white dog that your father made were put into a cask, the whisky and the cask would “speak” to each other, then after a couple of years the two “embrace” each other. Keep going for more years, they “marry” each other. Then you keep going, and that’s when the “magic happens.”

Let’s sample some whisky, shall we? We’ll begin our around-the-world tour with the Irish whisky Jameson, then come to the United States with Maker’s Mark ­Kentucky bourbon, and then go to Scotland with a ­blended Scotch, Johnnie Walker Black Label. The ­reason to go in that order is that Johnnie Walker Black is made with a smoky whisky, and if we started with that we wouldn’t taste anything other than smoke for the rest of the night.

Let’s each open our bottles. Jameson is whisky at 40 percent alcohol, so we’ll just take a couple of sips.

There is an art and a science to tasting whisky. There are five main elements: there’s the “color” in the glass; the aroma, which is also called the “nose”; the “­palate”—what does it taste like?; the “body”—what does it feel like on the tongue?; and finally, the “finish.”

Let’s look at the color of Jameson. To me, it’s a nice light gold. The color tells you a lot about how long it was aged. This is probably a younger whisky. In fact, this particular Jameson is 3 years old, so it hasn’t had much opportunity to absorb a lot of colorants from the barrel or to have oxidation reactions to give it a darker color.

Let’s give the glass a nice swirl, like you were swirling wine, and look at the legs that form. Wine would call those legs, but whisky calls them “cathedral windows.” So let’s look at those cathedral windows. This is the Marangoni effect that we’re seeing.

In my glass, the legs are taking a pretty long time to form. That means there’s a lot of oil compounds, as congeners. Jameson uses not only barley whisky but also grain whisky, which often has a lot of oil in it.

Now let’s move to the nose. We’re going to pretend that we’re smelling a beautiful flower but we don’t know if there’s a bee in it: approach it carefully. The reason to do that is, at 40 percent alcohol, it might numb your nose so you can’t smell anything. So we’re going to approach it carefully and take a nice deep inhalation. Also, open your mouth a little. That allows more turbulence inside the nose (here’s the engineering coming out). The turbulence inside the nose activates more of your scent receptors.

Give it a nice swirl. Whisky calls those “cathedral windows” instead of “legs.”
This is the Marangoni effect that we’re seeing.

Now we can look at the tasting chart. What are you smelling? I’m smelling what I would say is “cereal”; I suppose I could call it porridge, maybe a barley bread.

If I look under “floral” on the chart, I’m also getting maybe some faint violet, certainly some green leaves in this. What you smell is what you smell. You may have a very different response from mine, and that’s one of the joys of whisky. Just like with wine or beer, everyone may taste the same particular one, but they’re going to get something different out of it.

RML: This reminds me of a flower shop!

DR. DRUMHELLER: I’m picking up those floral notes as well.

Now let’s move on to the palate. Again, we’re talking 40 percent alcohol, we don’t want to numb our tongue, so take a small sip and let it warm on your tongue and coat it, get all the taste buds involved. Also, try to open up your throat because we only have five senses of taste, but we have thousands of receptors for smell, and so the palate is still largely the nose, not the tongue.

I’m tasting those floral notes, but I’m also getting some zestiness, a little tingliness. And what kind of sweet am I picking up? Maybe some nectarines or perhaps marmalade. In the “fruity” section on the chart, there’s something called barley sugar, and I think that’s a great descriptor of what I’m picking up.

Then there’s the tongue feel, which is also the body. For me, this is a fairly light tongue feel. I’m not getting a lot of coating on my tongue. Recall I mentioned that the cathedral windows indicate the oiliness. Here, those oils must be a low molecular weight oil because of how this whisky is distilled—going back to reverse engineering.

RML: I can really feel it on my tongue, unlike beer. When I drink a beer, whether I brew it or buy it, I’m initially very thirsty so I take a big gulp and I love it.

DR. DRUMHELLER: You can’t do that with straight whisky!

CHF: When you suggested taking a small sip and letting it warm a bit in the mouth, it was a little bite-y and sting-y on my tongue.

DR. DRUMHELLER: That’s called “heat.” If it has a lot of alcohol and it prickles your tongue, that’s called a “hot whisky.” That’s what you’re picking up. It has nothing to do with the temperature or spices or anything; it has to do with the reaction of your tongue to the alcohol.

CHF: You’re saying that’s called a hot whisky, which implies that there are whiskies that are not hot?

DR. DRUMHELLER: That’s correct. But it’s just perception: to me this Jameson is not a hot whisky, but to you, it is. Many of the whiskies that I drink are closer to 50 or 60 percent alcohol, so 40 percent is a much lower ABV than many of the whiskies I drink.

Let’s conclude this Irish tasting with the finish. It’s been a couple of minutes, so what are we now sensing on our tongue? I’m getting more of the same—the barley sugar, the florist shop.

What I notice with this Jameson is that the nose and the palate and the finish are all very similar to each other. That would be called a “balanced” whisky. That’s a reason why Jameson is as popular as it is and why it’s often used in cocktails; it’s a great mixer because you know what you’re going to get in all of those phases—the nose, the palate, and the finish.

Why don’t we move on to the next whisky?

You’ll notice with Maker’s Mark that there’s a wax seal on the bottle. Maker’s Mark has a trademark on that and has sued in the past for infringement. It kind of tickles my fancy that they’ve trademarked the drippy wax on the bottle.

Maker’s Mark is a bourbon and is made in the United States from at least 51 percent corn. Bourbon can have other grains in it as well, such as wheat, and it also has barley because barley contains the enzymes necessary to turn the germinated grain into sugars from the starch in the grain seed.

Maker’s Mark has an interesting history. The founder is the Samuels family, and Grandma Samuels had a wonderful baked bread recipe, which is what’s used in this whisky. So this is whisky that didn’t originally come from a beer recipe, it came from Grandma ­Samuels’ bread recipe using corn, barley, yeast, and wheat, and it was modified by the founders of Maker’s Mark into a bourbon.

Let’s go through the tasting exercise again. First let’s look at the color. Maker’s Mark is a little darker than the Jameson. I might call this tawny, maybe auburn. That color comes exclusively from the cask. Bourbon, by law, must be placed in a brand new oak container or barrel.

Maker’s Mark is aged about 6 years. Actually, they could age this for a tenth of a second and still call it bourbon. But with the additional aging, you get more complexity—you lose a lot of the really harsh notes in what your father was distilling, Ron.

I can really smell the oiliness on the nose here. I’m also getting candy corn.

RML: It’s mustier, isn’t it?

CHF: And a little peatier. I know it’s not Scotch, but it has some funky peaty note.

DR. DRUMHELLER: So you’re picking up some sort of smoke.

RML: When I first poured this, it smelled really musty. As I’m swirling it, it seems less so. Is that possible, or am I imagining it?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Absolutely. Just like with wine, whisky breathes. It could also be that a lot of those notes were the first ones to volatilize, and now they’ve escaped the glass over time, so you’re not sensing them as much.

This bourbon is going to taste very different from the Jameson because it has corn. I’m getting candy corn, but I’m also picking up molasses and maybe prunes as well. For the body, this is very coating on my tongue. It has a butteriness to it. Cameron, this is 45 percent alcohol, 5 percent more than the Irish, so it’s going to be even more heat.

RML: I was going to say, I sense more of a buttery feel. This doesn’t bite or tingle as much as the Jameson.

CHF: That’s true for me too.

DR. DRUMHELLER: The Jameson that we had has a lot of grain alcohol, which is known to have that fizzy sensation on the tongue.

CHF: On the flavor, I get a hint of nail polish remover.

DR. DRUMHELLER: That actually is one of my favorite notes. I love whiskies that have that note.

CHF: There’s something kind of chemical in there; I haven’t put my finger on it. I’ve been scanning the chart….

DR. DRUMHELLER: There are 239 adjectives on our tasting chart, which is pretty impressive. I crafted my own tasting wheel with close to 400 adjectives, and the structure of the wheel allows me to identify other aspects of a whisky. But 239 is already overwhelming.

Now we can contemplate the finish. I’m starting to pick up some cracked black pepper, maybe some red wine, certainly some astringency. Just like with some red wines, that astringency, to me, kind of dries out the tongue.

RML: I imagine if you’re doing this with a group of people, you get all kinds of reactions, don’t you?

DR. DRUMHELLER: The largest group of people that I’ve hosted for a tasting is probably about 70. I was the tutor for a whisky class at a state fair a few years ago. Over the course of that weekend, we served about 600 drams of whisky.

Let’s clear our palate with a little drink of water, swish it in your mouth to try to clear out as much of the Maker’s Mark as possible, and we’ll move on to the Johnnie Walker Black.

Johnnie Walker is a blended Scotch whisky, in contrast to the Maker’s Mark. Everything that Maker’s Mark puts into its bottle came from themselves; in contrast, Johnnie Walker buys Scotch from all over Scotland and blends them together to produce a particular taste profile. There are 70 possible different whiskies in this bottle. The reason there are so many is that, as I mentioned, whisky is as much art as it is science, and, even coming from the same distillery, what comes out of one barrel could taste totally different from what comes out of a different barrel.

How do you ensure that the Johnnie Walker Black you’re tasting now tastes like it did 5 years ago, and will taste like this 5 years from now? The blender chooses from a menagerie of different Scotches and blends them such that the final product has the same general nose and the same general palate, the same general finish from batch to batch, year after year.

You also notice on this label that it’s got an age statement: “aged 12 years.” That’s the age of the youngest whisky in here. That means there’s probably some 15-year-old whisky, some 20-year-old whisky, there might even be some 30-year-old whisky—not very much, just enough to give the flavor profile that Johnnie Walker wants to maintain in the Black label.

The history here is that Johnnie Walker was a grocer in Scotland, and also a tea blender. He used his tea blending knowledge in the 1800s to start blending whisky for his customers. His son invented the square bottle so they could pack more whisky bottles on the shelf.

CHF: Very clever. What distinguishes the Johnnie Walker Red, Black, Blue, Green?

DR. DRUMHELLER: There used to be a Johnnie Walker White and a Johnnie Walker Platinum too. They’re just different expressions. Johnnie Walker Red is the budget expression, focusing more of the ground cinnamon, kind of a woody note. Johnnie Walker Black and Double Black get more of the smoky peatiness—black smoke, hence black label. The different colors go up in perceived quality and in price, all the way up to Johnnie Walker Blue, their top of the line. It’s a very soft creamy whisky, with very little peatiness but an amazing mouth feel.

RML: Why are Scotch whiskies blended?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Not all Scotch whiskies are. You’ve heard the term “single malt.” “Single” is not actually a descriptor of the malt, it means that it comes from a single distillery. “Malt” means that the whisky was made with 100 percent malted barley: there’s ­nothing else in it—no corn, no wheat.

A blended Scotch whisky doesn’t have the word “­single” or “malt” on the label. That means it uses single malt whiskies as well as other whiskies that may have been made from corn or wheat, which are called grain whisky. Corn grain whisky is made totally differently than corn bourbon.

RML: One of my friends is very fond of Glenlivet. Is that a single malt?

DR. DRUMHELLER: Yes. You can even have bottles that come from a single cask. Glenlivet has its own single malts that they marry and put in a bottle, but they also have single casks. I have several Glenlivets in my collection.

RML: This one seems to me very sulfurous, like sulfur dioxide or hydrogen sulfur.

DR. DRUMHELLER: That’s intentional. They want to capture that smokiness, that sulfur note, and so it’s purposely placed in there. I like Johnnie Walker Black quite a bit; it’s one of my go-to whiskies, so I’m glad you recommended it.

CHF: Just what I happened to have on hand. I find this very sweet on the nose—like candy, it smells that sweet to me.

DR. DRUMHELLER: Absolutely, Cameron, I’m getting something I might even say is cotton candy—­maybe cotton candy that got too close to the campfire. That sweetness is from the barley used during the mashing and fermentation.

RML: I think it’s the smoothest of what we’ve tried. Maybe because it’s the third.

DR. DRUMHELLER: It could also be because it’s a blended Scotch whisky. With the blended Scotch, you have so many different single malts that you’re mixing together, you can try to get that mouth feel, and the grain whisky used in Johnnie Walker Black helps to tie all the notes together for this nice smooth ­characteristic. Johnnie Walker Black has a kind of creaminess to it as well. It’s around $35–$40 for a bottle, and I think is very pleasant for what it is.

CHF: On the finish, I’m getting a lot of peaty smokiness lingering.

DR. DRUMHELLER: Can you tell what kind of smoke you might be experiencing here?

CHF: Really, I’m thinking along the lines of the peat. I see Lapsang Souchong on the list and that might fit.

RML: This does remind me of tea, I agree. I don’t know what kind, but it does feel like I’m drinking a strong tea.

DR. DRUMHELLER: Peat is used in the kilning process. You germinate the grain, then you have to dry it out. This is done with beer as well.

You have to dry out the grain before you do the extraction to create the mash. Peat is sometimes used for this, especially in the part of Scotland called Islay, because there aren’t any trees there, but there are a lot of peat bogs. Peat burns with a really heavy cold smoke. It has all kinds of guaiacols and tannins and phenols. When you dry out the grain, those phenols and guaiacols survive all the way through the manufacturing process to wind up in the bottle sitting before you. I like to think about the journey of these particular flavors—from 5000 years ago in a peat bog somewhere in Scotland to what I’m now sensing on my tongue thousands of years later.

In a guided tasting we all have our own reactions, but I find that I can really go deep into a whisky and pull out all these notes and have an amazing appreciation that I wasn’t able to have simply sampling my mother’s Tennessee whisky—or, Ron, certainly with the white dog that your father was making.

My appreciation for going deep also extends to beer, for example. Cameron, I have to admit, I’m not an IPA aficionado. I’ve had some imperial IPAs or some black IPAs that I’m okay with. But what I really can appreciate is the structure of a beer. Even if I don’t like it, is it a good beer on its own merits? I can do that even with whiskies that I don’t particularly like: is it still a good whisky, or is it just a terrible whisky?

Having the certifications, doing guided tastings, taking classes in dessert/whisky pairings, in food/whisky pairings—all this has allowed me to dive deeply into whisky and also to bring in my engineering and apply that to whisky.

RML: Well, Paul, I have to tell you, this has been a real treat for me.

CHF: And for me.

DR. DRUMHELLER: I’ve enjoyed it as well.

RML: If you get back to offering tastings, send me a note.

DR. DRUMHELLER: Absolutely. I can talk whisky all day, and I have before! I’d be delighted to have some additional tastings.

Going back to reverse engineering, it seems to me that the oils I detect in this whisky must be a low molecular weight because of how this whisky is distilled.

There’s something else I want to share with you. I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that it was important that I live in northern Arizona, and having a meaningful career has been very important to me.

There’s a personal hero of sorts, a fellow by the name of Everett Ruess. Back in the 1930s he was a vagabond, he wandered the mountains and deserts and slot ­canyons of the American southwest. He kept a diary, and he wrote poetry. Well, he suddenly disappeared without a trace, and about 3 months later his mules were found wandering, starving, in the Utah desert. It’s still a mystery to this day: what happened to Everett Ruess?

In the last letter he wrote is a quote that I find very inspirational. He wrote: “I have not tired of the wilderness. It is enough that I am surrounded by beauty. I have left no strange or delightful thing undone I’ve wanted to do.”

If I were to give a message to your readers, it’s don’t leave those strange or delightful things undone.

CHF: That is the loveliest message.

RML: It really is.

DR. DRUMHELLER: Thanks. And slàinte mhath. That’s “to good health” in Gaelic.


[1]  The spellings whisky (pl. whiskies) and whiskey (pl. whiskeys) are somewhat interchangeable; the former is typically used for the beverage made in Scotland, Canada, and Japan, the latter for the US and Irish drink. Dr. Drumheller defaults to the former spelling. 

[2]  ABV is “alcohol by volume,” a term to enumerate the alcohol content (another term is “proof,” for example, which is ABV × 2).

[3]  The chart is available at

About the Author:Paul Drumheller is a Chemical Engineer and Whisky Connoisseur