“The single malt Scotch is the most complex spirit in the world.”
Rachel Barrie says this good naturedly but with real intent and honesty. Her passion for single-malts, along with her breadth of whisky knowledge and an eagerness to share and educate makes her an easy choice for our Master Blender/Distiller of the Year.
While Barrie has broken boundaries as one of the first — and still one of the few — female Master Blenders in the Scotch world, our selection process here is more than recognizing that achievement. We wanted to shine a light on her storied whisky legacy; she studied chemistry at the University of Edinburgh (where she also holds an honorary doctorate), and soon afterward became a research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. Her nearly 30-year career includes stops with Glenmorangie, Ardbeg, Glen Moray, Bowmore and Auchentoshan, among others.
Barrie is currently Master Blender for BenRiach and The GlenDronach, two very different creatures in the Scotch world (although both excellent!). BenRiach’s Smoky Ten and Smoky Twelve were our favorite whiskies of the year, a complex marriage of smoke, sweetness and richness — and the GlenDronach’s new Port Wood release brought us a new appreciation of double maturation, as the 10-year spirit spent time in both sherry and port casks.
Below, a few thoughts from our favorite Master Blender of the year on everything from the hidden positives of a 2020 pandemic and her love of German single malts to the biggest misperceptions about her job (hint: it’s not just about nosing and tasting great whisky).
There was a real serendipity on how I got into whisky. I was at university and I hadn’t decided what to do. So I popped into Career Services, and it was the last day that the position at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute was advertised. I didn’t even know that job existed!
My boss for four years at Glenmorangie was the late great Dr. Jim Swan. He was my guru when it came to maturation, flavor, understanding consumers, chemistry … all of that. He took me under his wing. That’s how I am where I am today.
I don’t really think about [being one of the only female Master Blenders]. I just do my job. But I will say in the last few months — and this is one of the silver linings from Covid — I’ve been able to make more of a connecton to people who are asking about whiskey and how to get into it. A friend of my niece reached out; she was starting a women-in-whisky club in the States and asking for advice.
In my world of work, you’re doing PR or the brand wants to tap your mind (or nose) for insights, and then you’ve got the quality and production side. And there are a lot of intricacies, analytics and chemistry, too. I go into the microbiology of the wash and see how it creates flavor. I’ll study the chemistry of the oak. That might surprise people; people think I have my nose in the glass all the time. Plus, I’m traveling to different countries to pick out casks and gain insights; I might be seeing what people enjoy in their food or understanding their palates. Then there’s the analytics and strategic modeling — that’s not the sexy stuff.
This year there were challenges. We did pause production for months, and then we had to get everything in place and get the distillery set up so there was social distancing at every single step of the process. I can’t even travel between distilleries. Luckily, I’ve been able to work with samples in my lab and at home.
Even with Covid, I see whisky continuing to go up in 2021. Our sales forecast for Benriach has been blown out of the water. That’s been really surprising in these times. The interest and accessibility for single malts is there.
I’ve worked with a lot of different companies and cultures, and tasting a lot of whisky. I still believe single malt Scotch is the most complex spirit in the world — here, you’re never far from the sea or the mountain or the valley. The landscape is so diverse, and it’s all a few minutes apart. And with our climate, you can get a much longer maturation than, say, a bourbon.
As soon as you have a different geography, you’ll get a different maturation style. When I think of American single malts, I suppose them to be sweeter, because I guess I’m thinking of them like bourbons. With Japanese whiskies, I find them more ethereal. And in Germany, the single malts have a lot more herbal character.
My goal is to create this balanced character; for the GlenDronach, I want something with finesse and elegance but that’s also weighty and robust. It’s about having those layers and the tension between fine and deeper notes.
With whisky, there is a paradox of choice (Editor’s note: Possibly!). Before our recent rebrand, Benriach was like a box of chocolates. It was confusing; too much in the box, or from one distillery. What I love is bringing out the full sense of a distillery’s character in every release. With Benriach, we have our core — the 10, the 12, the Smoky Ten, the Smoky Twelve — that’s simple. But from there, we have different cask types. So there’s intrigue, but the character is there.
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