Meet the World’s First Female Master Whisky Blender

Just 12 people in the world hold the title of master whisky blender, a role requiring extraordinary sense of smell and supreme distilling know-how. Although this list now includes women, Glasgow-based Rachel Barrie was the first.

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Feb 15 2016, 11:00am

The Springburn Bond in Glasgow isn't what you imagine the home of a Scotch whisky company to look like. There are no sea views or rolling hills here. Located in an industrial estate in the north end of the city, you're more likely to spot a stray dog wandering past than a majestic Highland stag.

But this urban setting is the main operations hub of Morrison Bowmore Distillers (MBD), one of the world's leading high-end whisky producers.

It's here that spirits from the firm's historic distilleries across Scotland are brought for quality testing before being sold. If you've ever enjoyed an Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, or Bowmore single malt, the golden liquid would have passed through Springburn en route to your glass.

And if you've tried the distiller's more select products, chances are it was the work of Rachel Barrie, the world's first female master blender.

It's a title only 12 people in the whisky world currently hold.

"I'm quite bold, that's part of why I'm a blender," Barrie cheerfully says of her position on a typically dreich Scottish day in early February. "I want to transform things. I hate the status quo—which is a bit of a paradox, as I'm also a guardian of tradition."

READ MORE: The Mick Jagger of Whisky Wants You to Drink It Your Way

But how exactly do you challenge the status quo in an industry that can seem dominated by men sporting tweed jackets and red noses?

It helps if you're a problem solver.

"I can't think of another job that has as much variety as mine," continues Barrie. "You have to be able to solve puzzles but also be extremely rational—you must analyse your stock profile, what you can sell, and what you can use in different recipes."

Quality-control-lab,-Springburn-Bond,-Glasgow

The whisky quality control lab at Springburn Bond, Glasgow. Photo by the author.

All of the master blenders know each other personally—this is a tight-knit industry used to regular collaboration—but it doesn't make them any less competitive. A blender's job encompasses everything from creating new whiskies to monitoring stock levels. In a business where it can easily take 12 years for your product to reach the market place, patience is also a virtue.

"There is no formal qualification required to be a master blender. It's a title based on recognition," Barrie explains. "You achieve it through experience—I've nosed around 100,000 casks. I've got to know all the distilleries in Scotland very well."

Unsurprisingly, Barrie sees whisky as the "most complex spirit in the world"—and it would seem the world is taking note. In 2015, the rare whisky market in the UK outperformed gold and wine asset classes and many of the world's leading equity indices. The total value of single malt sold at auction reached £9.56 million that same year, an increase of 25 percent on 2014.

With sales up and increasing global awareness, you could argue that there has never been a better time to work in whisky. But Barrie is still aware of the industry's changeability.

Rachel Barrie recalls her first taste of whisky aged seven: complaining of earache, her grandmother gave her a hot toddy containing a thimbleful of the spirit her family called the "nippy juice."

"You need intuition," she says. "You have to look to the future and think about consumer trends and what tastes people will like."

Whisky achieves its unique colour and flavour by maturing the raw spirit in wooden casks. But deciding on which type of cask to use for the job—sherry or bourbon, Spanish or American oak—is the difficult part. Understanding how a certain whisky will react to individual types of wood is a skill that sets master blenders apart. This is where Barrie's training as an analytical chemist comes in handy.

"It's vital you know how the wood will react—you are spending a lot of money, remember. You're putting stock into warehouses and holding the asset there for decades, potentially," she explains. "Then you need to check the maturing stock and try to predict how the flavours will change."

Barrie grew up in rural Aberdeenshire, close to the Glen Garioch distillery that she now visits regularly for her job. She recalls her first taste of whisky aged seven: complaining of earache, her grandmother gave her a hot toddy—whisky, honey and lemon—containing a thimbleful of the spirit her family called the "nippy juice."

Auchentoshan triple stills

Triple stills used to make Auchentoshan whisky. Photo courtesy Morrison Bowmore Distillers.

After completing a chemistry degree at Edinburgh University in the early 1990s, Barrie had little inclination she would end up working in whisky. Although other women now hold the title of master blender, she admits there's still a perception that making malt is a man's game. Women working in distilleries, to this day, are mostly found in the visitor centre or marketing department.

"After my degree, I thought my career would be in perfumery, or in the oil and gas sector," she says. "I enjoyed malt whisky, but I never considered I could actually work in the industry. Most people considered it to be a man's world. My perception was men would leave school at 18 or whenever, become a mashman at their local distillery, and then work their way up to distillery manager. It was by accident I got into brewing through my degree, which led onto a job at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute."

READ MORE: The UK's Economy Is Powered by Whisky

Simply put, you require an extraordinary sense of smell to work as a master blender. Barrie achieved 92 percent in Arthur D Little odour recognition series—the industry gold standard of testing—where an average score is around 60. Following several years of analysing whisky, she was approached by Glenmorangie in 1995 and was named master blender in 2003.

Why are there not more women working in the whisky industry?

"I honestly don't know the main reason," Barrie says. "I could theorise. It could be the same reason that less women go into computer science. It seems to me women are attracted to industries where other women have excelled."

When Barrie joined MBD in 2011, she asked its director if he could obtain some mizunara casks—a Japanese variety of oak that had never been used in Scotland.

"I had researched it around 20 years ago and thought at the time I must get some casks. I just thought it would work amazingly well with Bowmore," she explains. "We got three casks in 2012, and I specially selected the Bowmore from various years to mature in them. They were sent to the vaults below sea level in Islay. It's very cold, very damp, and very unique."

Blender's lab, Springburn Bond, Glasgow

The "Blender's Lab" at Springburn Bond. Photo courtesy Morrison Bowmore Distillers.

The resulting malt, Bowmore Mizuanara Cask Finish, is just about to launch in Japan, having already impressed critics in the UK.

"I knew it could be done," says Barrie. "It's Islay single malt whisky but with the zen and finesse of Japan. Throughout my career, I have encountered cynics who've told me, 'You can't do that." I always trust my intuition."

There's just time to sample a few whiskies in the "Blender's Lab," which resembles a generously sized country kitchen—albeit one filled with thousands of sample bottles of malts. So which of the malts Barrie has created is her favourite?

"It's like having children, I couldn't pick a favourite," she says. "Each one has its own different character and resonates with me for a different reason."