From Wood to Whiskey: How Alex Thomas Became The Sexton’s First Female Master Blender

Alex Thomas, Master Blender of Sexton Single Malt.

Master Blender Alex Thomas, one of the world’s few female whiskey blenders, has spent decades honing her craft. She began her career as a timber merchant in her hometown, spending eleven years studying and learning about different types of woods. Once an opportunity to work at Bushmills, the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, came along, she took it without hesitation. And in time, it led her to her current role as the Master Blender for The Sexton.

Her fascination for the maturation phase of the production process, which stemmed from her extensive knowledge on wood types and the flavor they impart on a whiskey, informed her decision-making and research for developing The Sexton’s signature flavor profile. That research began during her first years at Bushmills, when Thomas gained a wealth of knowledge while under the watchful eye of Colum Egan, one of Ireland’s most revered distillers. Over the next 15 years, her passion for whiskey making only grew, spurring her to complete her Distilling Diploma and travel the world in search for the best cask suppliers.

The Sexton Single Malt.

During her travels to Spain, she spent time with a church warden and became fond of the sweet Sherry taste of communion wine, which is why The Sexton is now aged in expertly curated first, second and third-fill Oloroso sherry casks, after being pot-distilled three times. Thomas established a relationship with the Antonio Paez Lobato family, who have over 70 years of experience, in Jerez, Spain and the casks are built to her own specifications: oak type, toast level, type of wine, or sherry, used and length of time of the air seasoning. Although Thomas uses the Bushmills facilities to craft her single malt, she has been given full creative freedom to make her whiskey as she wishes and has complete control throughout the entire production process.

We’ve had the pleasure of sitting with Alex to learn more about what it was like working under one of the most well-known distillers in the world of Irish whiskey, an inside look at how her previous professional experience informed her development of The Sexton’s signature flavor, and what makes this single malt one worth sipping.

Bourbon Review: Working under Colum Egan (one of Ireland’s most revered distillers) at Bushmills is an opportunity many distillers could only dream of. What were a couple lessons you learned from him that shaped your approach to whiskey blending and understanding flavor?

Alex Thomas: It has been an honour to work with Colum Egan. He has been my teacher and soundboard for many years.

I believe the best thing he taught me is that taste is subjective and therefore the best way to broaden your knowledge of whiskey and its broad range of flavors is to enjoy a few drams and figure it out for myself. We are all unique and I needed to find the flavour profiles that worked for my palate.

He taught me to have a desire to experiment and be creative. Every day I learn something new as I engage with the wood and the spirit, interacting as they sleep in the warehouses patiently waiting for the day they are released to be enjoyed.

He created a desire to believe in myself and to do whatever it takes to fulfill my dreams of creating a whiskey that people could enjoy with friends and family. The Sexton is the realisation of that dream.

It’s not often that you learn about someone in the spirits industry having a background as a timber merchant. Could you speak to how that career experience informed your understanding of whiskey maturation?

Working in the timber industry taught me that each tree is as unique as you and I. As such it will bring its own character out in whatever it is used for.

The stunning grain running through each piece used to create furniture, building etc. is a beauty to behold. For whiskey this same grain brings rich flavours that interact with the spirit laid to rest inside the beautifully constructed casks.

Working with both softwoods and hardwoods allowed me to gain an understanding of how each of the different woods were structured. Most softwoods will be almost perfectly smooth with no grain indentations, while many common hardwoods have an open pore structure, such as the oak we use to construct casks for whiskey maturation. It is this open pore structure in the European oak I have chosen for The Sexton casks that allows the gentle interaction to occur between spirit and wood as the cask’s breath.

Our kind of library. Photo by Sexton Whiskey.

With this wealth of knowledge about various types of woods and their impact on the flavor of whiskey, could you shed some light into your R&D process for selecting casks for maturing your whiskey? How long did it take, and why did you only choose Oloroso sherry casks?

When selecting the casks for The Sexton I wanted a wood that would work gently with the delicate and fruity distillate I was producing.

Finding the right combination of distillation, wood and seasoning to create The Sexton took several years but it was well worth the time spent as I hope you will agree. The journey began in 2012 for me when I qualified as a Master Blender but I had eight years working in the industry to help me to make the right decision.

American oak (Quercus alba) is denser and as such the spirit interacts with the wood less. The casks are charred on the inside when being constructed which will contribute sweetness, and flavours of vanilla, and perhaps a hint of coconut. European Oaks (Quercus robur) are less dense and gently toasted on the inside during construction which allows the spirit to interact with the wood much easier. They will add more spicy, savoury, or peppery flavours.

The European oak used for The Sexton casks is sourced in France, shipped to Jerez in Spain and air dried there for 16 months until it has reached the desired point of humidity needed to make our casks.

When creating The Sexton, I wanted to create a whiskey that everyone would enjoy and that paid homage to those who came before us. I wanted it to be approachable for those who thought whiskey was not for them and memorable enough for the whiskey connoisseur to enjoy the experience. Most importantly, as the Irish Whiskey category continues to rise, I wanted to introduce a liquid that could represent the changing face of Ireland – capturing the heritage and provenance of the past and the optimism and creativity of the future.

My inspiration to use Oloroso sherry casks came from a love of sherry as I was growing up. I used to spend many hours helping my grandmother make her amazing fruit cakes of which sherry was her secret ingredient.

Oloroso sherry compliments the distillate I created and for me resulted in a whiskey that everyone could enjoy their way.

Raising a glass of The Sexton. Courtesy Photo.

The brand’s name, The Sexton, being derived from the Medieval Latin word sacristanus, meaning “custodian of sacred objects,” is used to describe the man who prepared the grave, the last man to witness the body before being laid to rest. Where did this inspiration come from, and what should whiskey drinkers be thinking about when sipping The Sexton?

The name Sexton means custodian of sacred objects, or more simply put, the caretaker of precious things. What better name for this whiskey – I am the caretaker of this amazing whiskey while it rests in the casks and once in the bottle you become its caretaker. We are ‘The Sextons.’

Growing up I remember my father and grandfather having a special bottle of single malt that would have been opened to celebrate when one of us passed exams or got married. But more often it was opened when someone in our family had passed away. I remember our family all coming together, some of whom we hadn’t seen for a long time and celebrating the life of the loved one that had passed. I remember hearing the amazing stories of the things they had done in their life’s and the house was filled with laughter and love.

‘Sexton’ is also a term used to describe the man who prepares the grave – the last man to witness the body and soul before being laid to rest. As such, The Sexton Single Malt challenges you before you meet the man that lays your body to rest to make choices every day that will contribute to a life story worth telling. We are only here for a short time, so let’s make it a good time.

There are many single malts in today’s market, what separates The Sexton from the rest?

Unlike the majority of other Irish whiskeys, The Sexton is crafted using 100% Irish malted barley, a process which helps produce a supremely smooth single malt.

Our barrels are hand-selected from European oak, first air dried for a minimum of 16 months then toasted from the inside to a medium-high level and seasoned with Oloroso Sherry for two years before being shipped to the north coast of Ireland.

We consciously lay our liquid to rest for a minimum of four years to achieve a fresh, unexpected single malt that is deep and memorable in character.

What are some exciting plans for The Sexton’s future that you are able to share at this time?

My ambition for The Sexton is that it is a world-known brand. That it has a reputation for its quality and excellence. We plan to continue introducing it to as many people as we can, so they can experience an unexpected single malt – rich in hue, approachable in taste and deep and memorable in character.

What can whiskey enthusiasts expect from the brand?

Whiskey enthusiasts can expect a brand that will embrace the growing popularity of Irish Whiskey, it’s evident that discerning consumers are interested in exploring new taste profiles. The Sexton Single Malt Irish Whiskey is about introducing consumers to an unexpected Irish single malt.