With the election just weeks away, one whiskey enthusiast has found a unique way to unite the 50 states. Michael Bloom of Chicago took on the ambitious project of creating a 50 state whiskey blend that includes whiskeys from distilleries in every state plus Washington, D.C. He began the project after the pandemic swept the U.S. in March and has been creating new iterations of the blend roughly every 4 to 6 weeks. So far, he’s made six different “drafts” of the 50 State Blend, which he’s been sharing with friends and raffling for charity.
Bloom explained to NBCLX’s Fernando Hurtado that the project has allowed him to connect with other people during the pandemic and show support for the distilleries he’s featured in his blend. He also hopes it makes a positive statement about the country at a time when it’s divided: “How do we show that when we combine things that are American, we can get a greater product in the end?”
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Bloom: My name's Michael Bloom and I live in Chicago. I'm a proud dad of two teenage girls and husband to a great wife. By day, I am a federal bureaucrat. But in my free time, I have experimented with, and done for quite a while, home whiskey blending.
The 50 state blend is a blend of whiskeys distilled in each state in the United States plus D.C. And the blend itself uses different proportions of those whiskeys to come up with the flavor profile that not only tells a great story, but actually tastes good.
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Hurtado: And so where did the genesis for this 50 State Blend come from?
Bloom: So blending in the U.S. isn't very common at all. In fact, we didn't have distilleries distilling whiskey in very many states until the last 10, 15 years. And now we have them in every state. So the idea of a 50 state blend came from multiple places. One: I love creating and experiencing new flavors. And so I was chasing after them and I ended up with quite a few bottles of whiskey from other states. But ... I realized that some of the bottles would sit... But for me, I'm like, if I had something sweet that complemented the grain-forward style of that whiskey from Nevada, maybe I would drink it more. So I started combining those things. I did the state blends in the last two to four years. I have been blending whiskey in some manner of fashion for over twelve.
Hurtado: What was your first batch like? Was it a jackpot?
Bloom: I would say I'm kind of surprised that I haven't had any epic fails, because I'm nervous about that. Especially when you take a bottle of whiskey that usually costs upwards of, or around, 50 bucks. I don't want to ruin that. But you can always leave room for adjustment… And so I had a blend that I did just a little teeny one liter barrel… Barrel aging actually lets them to mature a little bit and meld. So I did that and it actually was a win and I was happy to share it… I find that I have a lot of willing people to sample what I've done. I have had failures, though. I would say that fortunately they've been few and far between.
Hurtado: So with 50 State Blend, that implies 50 different bottles right?
Bloom: Yes, it does. And it's actually 51 because I include a Washington, D.C., bottle in there. And someday I'd love to include spirits from the U.S. territories as well.
Hurtado: And the actual process – is it literally that you measure out and drop it in?
Bloom: So my first blend was an equal part of everything, just 10 milliliters of everything... I keep notes on what I do so that I can repeat what works or avoid what didn't. But just an equal part blend isn't really saying I'm trying to emphasize any flavors. So then what I did is I had to go through – really hard work – and taste every single whiskey and take notes on them. So I did that over the course of multiple days and scored them on what the nose was, what it smelled like, what the palate was, what it tasted like, what the finish was… and also its mouthfeel, because I really love whiskeys that have some heft to them... And then I created a weighted scoring so that I could figure out, OK, how do I put the most in of the stuff I like the best? And so that was the second draft blend. I've done six drafts now of the 50 State Blend and each one changes a little bit. The second draft, the one I just described actually, emphasized all the big spicy heavy whiskeys... but I realized that that would easily hide or obscure some of the delicate whiskeys that are also in the blend. And so I've become less forceful over time as I get to know what ingredients do what things to a blend.
Hurtado: So I'm curious, how much did this endeavor cost?
Bloom: That's a great question. Not so much that my wife left me. It was a cost over a long period of time. But I would say that the per bottle costs, including shipping in cases, is about $65 per bottle. There were a lot of bottles that were in the 30s and some bottles that were over 100. So altogether that's around, including barrels and then you need little bottles to share it, it's about a $4,000 cost… Some of the bottles that I have are ones that are one-offs or very limited edition bottles… So it was a bit audacious and a bit risky, but it's been a lot of fun.
Hurtado: Did the pandemic kind of supercharge you because you had all this time?
Bloom: Fortunately, I've been able to keep my day job during the pandemic, but one of the things that went missing is that connection to others and the ability to share the same sensory experience…. Everything went online. And when you're online as an enthusiast, you find yourself consuming what other people are sharing. What I really love doing is figuring out, well how do I participate in that conversation? Can I share something to also then make other people excited? And so, absolutely, the pandemic accelerated that process. I will also say that this project is not partisan or political in any way... And that was a driver for me, too, is finding, what's going right? Hey, look at all this American craft that a lot of people don't know from places that they haven't necessarily been. How do I share that? How do we show that when we combine things that are American, we can get a greater product in the end? And I think that feels good to everybody too.
It's great to look for ways that we can still connect with one another. I delivered the first batches of 50 State Blend to a set of friends, about a dozen people, by bicycle, which is something else I like to do in Chicago, and then set up a Zoom call and asked people what they thought. And it was a really cool way to get together with friends or even strangers. And I'd like to see more people figure out how to pursue passion projects and do that kind of thing for themselves, whether it's creating something that's a spirit-based item or just figuring out how to connect with people while staying careful.
Hurtado: Can you describe the flavor?
Bloom: So the blend actually has bourbons, ryes, single malts, some weird other whiskeys as well, like millet and sorghum. Sorghum is very rum-like. And so it takes on components of each of those. I would say that the third draft that I have was more creamy. The fourth was really bold and spicy. The fifth, which was really single malt forward, almost was brooding - kind of had darker notes. And a lot of the single malts, like from Texas and and Santa Fe, New Mexico, have smoke in them… So, yeah, the flavors, it's fun – 51 ingredients, you end up with all these different flavors.
Hurtado: This is not available on the market, right? You can't buy it.
Bloom: I created 50 State Blend as a passion project to see if it could – if it would work, if it would be tasty, if it would be delicious… [But] I didn't just do it for me and to share it with my friends. I also realized that I could do good by creating this whiskey. And so I actually have put bottles of 50 State Blend into raffles for causes that I support generally. A bike ride, a YMCA event that's coming up... I do hope that I can find ways to share it with even more people in the future.
Hurtado: What have people who have tried it say about it? Do they like it?
Bloom: My friends who have tried 50 State Blend often remark that there's a lot going on there, but that they're surprised that there's that many different ingredients and something that has such a good flavor. And that's a huge compliment, not only to me, but the fact that there's quality ingredients straight through in it as well. So yeah, it tastes really good. And the color is nice and it smells great as well.
Hurtado: What's your favorite whiskey?
Bloom: The great one I haven't had yet.