With the last decade’s boom in craft whiskey, now literally every single U.S. state has at least one homegrown distillery producing whiskey, whether bourbon, rye, Tennessee whiskey, single malt, or ones even more exotic than that. There are whiskeys made with corn, rye, barley, millet, and even sorghum. There are some that use a mesquite-smoked malt, others that employ port-barrel finishes. Just like the country itself, American whiskey is messy and hard to get a handle on. But, one man wondered, was there any way to tie them all together and produce something greater than its constituent parts?
“It wasn’t just a fun, gimmicky thing, though, it was a very personal thing,” says Michael Bloom. “I’ve never been a collector of closed bottles. I’ve always wanted to open and taste flavorful spirits that aren’t in the mainstream.”
Though the 52-year-old Bloom is not in the spirits industry per se — career-wise he’s a federal government bureaucrat (“and proud to be!”) — he has been drinking whiskey for decades and is a fixture on the whiskey “scene.” In fact, I first met him at an event for my book, “Hacking Whiskey,” in the fall of 2018 in his hometown of Chicago. Even then he was telling me about his ambitions for a “50 State Blend,” something he’d been thinking about since 2015 at least. In an email from October 2018, he wrote to me: “I imagine my first crack at this as a 1/2 oz from every state in a single bottle. But I love the idea of a true National blend, a United Spirit so to speak, and think the collaboration could scale too.”
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If you didn’t know, amateur blending has gotten hot in the last decade, with hobbyists taking to Reddit and Facebook to discuss their blends. Yet only a few have managed to pervade the whiskey zeitgeist, most notably Poor Man’s Pappy — a theoretically cheap blend designed to resemble the sought-after Van Winkle — and another called California Gold.
Bloom has never had any ambitions like that, but he’s been quietly making his own amateur whiskey blends for 12 years now, a hobby that first began when he acquired some Woodinville Whiskey “white dog” and a one-liter barrel. Since then, he’s done blends to celebrate weddings and bar mitzvahs (to open when the kids turn 21!), he’s made a blend for his synagogue’s Purim celebration, and even done charity-related blends like CowaLUNGa, to support Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago’s annual 190-mile bike ride from Illinois to Wisconsin.
But all those blends were made with just a handful of whiskeys. Bloom knew the 50 State Blend would be his most challenging project yet. He’d first, of course, have to obtain 50 states’ (and a Washington, D.C.’s) worth of whiskey. Back in 2018, Bloom only had 18 of the states covered and was able to find a few more at his local Binny’s Beverage Depot. For the rest of them, he worked off “best of” lists on the internet to whittle down the thousands of possibilities.
“I was seeking what’s different and new,” explains Bloom, “not necessarily what’s the smoothest or heftiest, or is even a brand everyone knows.”
To acquire many of the bottles, he was able to order the whiskeys through online retailers like Spirit Hub. Some states would be quite difficult, of course. Despite it acclaimed Louisiana Single Malt, New Orleans’ Atelier Vie Distillery only sells bottles for a few hours every Saturday — luckily, Bloom’s brother works for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and was able to get an appointment when the team was in town to play the Pelicans. Bloom acquired Alaska’s Port Chilkoot Distillery rye when his parents just happened to be taking an anniversary cruise up the Alaskan coast.
“South Dakota was the toughest acquisition and the only one where I felt stuck,” Bloom says. He couldn’t even find friends of friends who knew someone there, one of the country’s least-populated states. Finally, he had the clever idea to reach out to a South Dakota whiskey enthusiasts Facebook group for a little help. The group’s moderator ended up sending him a bottle of Badlands Distillery’s Iron Hills Bourbon.
Meanwhile, until just last year, Hawaii didn’t even have its own whiskey — the Ko’Olau Distillery now offers Old Pali Road Whiskey, a bourbon-style whiskey made from local corn and blended with some undisclosed whiskey from the mainland. That latter point is critical. Aside from being forced to break his own rule with Hawaii, Bloom was strictly looking to acquire whiskeys that had been 100 percent produced within their respective states. That, thus, meant no products that had sourced the ubiquitous MGP whiskey and then simply bottled it at home.
He likewise wanted to avoid any big-boy distilleries, opting for New Riff’s Straight Rye for Kentucky’s entry and Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey for the Volunteer State. He actually considered using an MGP whiskey for Indiana’s entry, but instead opted for Starlight Distillery’s bourbon.
By early March of this year, just as the pandemic was shutting down the country, Bloom had finally collected all 51 bottles and took to his office, trying to figure out how to harness them all. First, the highly analytical Bloom would taste them, not only taking notes, but ranking each on a score of 1 to 100 on nose, palate, mouthfeel, and finish.
“How radically different all these states are,” he says. “All making such interesting stuff.”
While it wasn’t shocking that the much-acclaimed Balcones’ Texas Single Malt Whisky had his highest aggregate score (369 out of 400), there were many other surprises. Like One Eight Distilling’s District Made, a youthful straight rye from Washington, D.C., that, Bloom explains, is “not on most people’s radar.” He also liked a mere months-old single malt from Nebraska, which he calls “red-apple forward.”
Bloom was blown away by another single malt from Idaho, Warfield Distillery’s Certified Organic American Pot Still Whiskey, which he found “extraordinarily subtle, like a grassy Lowlands Scotch.” He had initially balked at Warfield’s $100 price tag, but is glad he went for it (Bloom claims he paid an average of $65 per bottle, including shipping).
By late March he was ready to start blending. For a “first draft,” Bloom measured out 10 milliliters of every whiskey — 14 bourbons, 14 ryes, 12 single malts, one single malt rye, one Tennessee whiskey (of course!), one millet whiskey, one sorghum whiskey, and six uncategorizable whiskeys — to see “if it actually has character.” It wasn’t bad. But he wondered what he could do to make it better.
“Ultimately, I’m striving for a balanced blend with an enticing nose, rich palate, weighty mouthfeel, and lingering finish,” says Bloom, who launched a 50 State Blend website to further detail the project and his methodology. “A dram of 50 State Blend should tell a compelling story and satisfy discerning whiskey lovers.”
For the second draft, Bloom created a weighted score that gave the most weight to palate (43 percent) followed by nose (30 percent), finish (17 percent), and mouthfeel (10 percent). He used the weighted scores to create a proportion of the total blend volume for each whiskey. In other words, the highest-scoring Balcones would contribute 49 milliliters, while the lower-scoring Ko’Olau only 13.5 milliliters. He quickly discovered an issue.
“My scoring gave higher scores to fuller nose and mouthfeel and longer finish so the resulting blend was biased toward outsized and complex flavors,” says Bloom. By the fourth draft, he was finally honing in on a nuanced blend. Instead of relying on pure mathematics, he developed this blend by feel, working from his memory for how the ingredients tasted and would interact with one another. He was quite satisfied with the result, a full-bodied yet balanced whiskey.
“I don’t know how many drafts there’ll be or whether I’ll ever be done,” he says. He’s barrel-aged a few batches and is even thinking of starting a solera system, swapping in new whiskeys from each state at times. “My favorite [drafts] have more of the unusual stuff in it. I don’t want you to taste it and say, ‘This is easy to drink and smooth.’ Who cares?!”
Bloom’s 50 State Blend is already garnering some buzz among whiskey cognoscenti, even though scoring samples of the non-commercial release is nearly impossible. This one seems poised to join the realm of Poor Man’s Pappy and California Gold, as Bloom is already being featured on industry podcasts. The only difference is, it would be very time-consuming and costly for others to recreate the recipe themselves. Not to mention, some of the bottles are extremely limited — single-barrel picks and distillery-only bottlings. Another one, a Single Cask Nation Westland 2-Year-Old, will never be made again. Meaning even Bloom needs to start finding understudies for future blends.
Luckily, Bloom has found that his favorite part of making the 50 State Blend is discovering all the great whiskey being made across our country, bottles like Brooklyn’s Widow Jane and South Carolina’s High Wire Distilling, which makes a red-corn whiskey that Bloom hopes to get a bottle of soon, maybe even in person. But until then, stuck in quarantine like the rest of us, Bloom will keep experiencing the country merely by sipping its whiskey.
“Sampling spirits is a great way of experiencing places when we’re not able to do so in person,” says Bloom. “It’s not an accident that I got this off the ground during Covid.”