By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 05, 2023 at 2:02 PM

Joe Henry Jr. will be at Ray’s Wine & Spirits, 8930 W. North Ave., in Wauwatosa, Tuesday evening for a J. Henry & Sons whiskey release event, which is fun, but not, in itself, a remarkable fact. Ray's has such events all the time.

What is especially notable, however, is that Henry – a fourth-generation seed corn farmer from Dane, Wisconsin – will be making one of his first Milwaukee-area appearances since earning the distinction of Master Blender.

Fraley presentation
Nancy Fraley presenting Joe Henry Jr. with a personally engraved prouvette. (PHOTO: J. Henry & Sons)

The 31-year-old Henry, whose parents started the family bourbon business on their farm north of Madison in 2008, has been apprenticing under industry veteran blender and noser Nancy Fraley for the past eight years.

In October, Fraley – who blends for J. Henry – bestowed the title on Henry – gifting him with a personally engraved prouvette, the French tool used to remove samples from aging barrels – in a ceremony held on the family farm, where heirloom grain is grown for the J. Henry & Sons whiskeys.

The event was part of the recent release of the third annual J. Henry & Sons La Flamme Reserve.

Henry has worked in the family business for more than a decade and was named head blender in 2021.

“The title of ‘master blender’ is earned, not given, and there’s no guarantee that an apprentice will ever be declared a master blender,” Fraley said. “To do it the right way, you study for years.

“Once you are deemed a master blender, your own mentor and your peers start recognizing your accomplishment,” she said.

At J. Henry, the new master blender will be in charge of aging and blending whiskeys that have been distilled at 45th Parallel in New Richmond, northwest of Eau Claire, from Henry-grown grains (except malted barley, which is sourced).



 “This is a huge honor, and I’m at a loss for words,” said Henry. “I’m surprised yet I am very excited. I’m one of the younger master blenders, and I’ve got a long career ahead of me. My whiskey-making is just starting, and I’m really excited about the unique spirits we can create.

 “I look at whiskey making the way Nancy (Fraley) does. She’s taken us and me from a simple farming background to becoming one of the most technical and innovative whiskey makers in the country.”

Tonight’s event at Ray’s which starts at 6:30 p.m., will serve as a launch for Henry’s first release as master blender – an heirloom four-grain rye whiskey that he’s been aging for more than four years – as well as for the new Limited Edition Anniversary Blend.

The four-grain is majority rye with red corn, wheat and malted barley.

The 15th Anniversary Bourbon is the fifth "anniversary blend" release and at Ray’s attendees will get a signed bottle of J. Henry’s Small Batch Bourbon, a Manhattan cocktail and pours of their Bellefontaine Bourbon finished in Cognac casks, Four Grain Rye and La Flamme Reserve Bourbon finished in Armagnac casks.

Plus, there will be a live raffle for a chance to buy one of the limited bottles of the anniversary release and other J. Henry rarities.

Admission is $55.

Then, in the future, watch for more rarities to pop up.

J. Henry & Sons recently built a new rickhouse on the farm and has acquired some Calvados and Spanish wine barrels.

“We’re not trying to be like anybody else,” Henry says. “I look at the diverse barrels the way a chef looks at his spice rack. We have more spices to create more unique blends.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.