From Buddhist Scriptures to Distilled Spirits

An alumna’s journey on the path of the liberal arts.

Nancy FraleyAs an undergraduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences, Nancy Fraley (’93) learned how to learn. After graduating with a degree in religious studies, Fraley went to Harvard Divinity School and then on to study international human rights at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

“One thing I got from all my liberal arts education and being able to study a smattering of different subjects having both breadth and depth is that I learned how to learn and could teach myself pretty much anything,” Fraley says.

This skill has come in handy because today, Fraley is not teaching Buddhism or practicing law. She is a Master Blender, also known as a “professional nose.”

“I am what people call a super taster,” Fraley says. “I am really sensitive to smell and aroma. Shortly after law school, I started developing an interest in distilled spirits, whiskeys, and various kinds of brandy. I became fascinated with the production of it.”

While working at a law firm in California, Fraley attended a fundraiser where they were serving distilled spirits. One taste of a Cognac-style brandy changed everything. Fraley quit her job at the law firm and traveled through Morocco, Spain, and Mexico.

“I took some time to travel and try to find my purpose in life and ended up working in the Germain-Robin distillery,” Fraley says. “It was an absolute life-changing experience. I knew after that I could never look back.”

Nancy FraleyFraley is the owner of Nosing Services and provides custom blending, product formulation services, creation of maturation programs, and sensory analysis for distilleries worldwide. She is also the director of research for the American Distilling Institute, creator of the American Craft Whiskey Aroma Wheel, and a teacher of classes on olfactory and sensory analysis for craft distillers.

“It’s a radical shift from how I started out, but in some ways, I don’t find it that radical,” Fraley says. “I think all the grounding I got in my education helps me every day in both direct and indirect ways.”

Fraley first became intrigued with Buddhism in 1978 because one of her favorite actors on the television show Dallas was a Buddhist. She had her first meditation experience a few years later when her mother was in the hospital. Her interest continued through high school, but when Fraley arrived at UT, she was not sure what she wanted to study. She dabbled in political science and spent a brief period as a music major. When she took a couple of courses in religious studies, however, she knew there was no turning back.

“Religious studies was it,” Fraley says. “The thing I really liked about the major was you not only got to study religion, but you got a great smattering of art, architecture, music, economics, philosophy, history, archaeology, law, medicine, and ethics. The discipline of religious studies just touches on so many fields. It was clear that was my path.”

Fraley had support from home for her choice of major, but remembers several people asking her what kind of job she would get with a liberal arts degree. People told her she should go to business school or be an engineer – something more “practical.”

“I never felt the pressure to change my major,” Fraley says. “It’s not just about making money. While that is important, the value that a liberal arts education gives you is to be able to enjoy life and know something about great works of literature, art, or music.”

Fraley is still a champion of the liberal arts and values her experiences in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“I think to be an informed citizen, critically engaged in the world, and really understand it, nothing prepares you more for having a high quality of life and being able to enjoy it in a very rich and complex way than to get a liberal arts education,” Fraley says. “I know now more than ever it is really critical to push the liberal arts and encourage young people starting college to explore philosophy and literature and all those great courses. It will serve you well in life.”