Cask MasterRachel Barrie, the first female Master Blender to receive an honorary doctorate, spoke to Harvey Nichols about the art and science of whisky.
When did you first taste whisky?
I was brought up in Aberdeenshire, not far from the Glendronach distillery. When I was a child, my grandmother would pour a thimbleful of whisky into a hot toddy to cure an earache. I came to the conclusion that what a whisky hot toddy cannot cure, there is no cure for. And my dad is a connoisseur of fine single malts – The Glendronach being his favourite. He’d share a wee dram on special occasions.
How did you get into whisky as a career?
I developed an interest in malt whisky while studying at Edinburgh University, although all I could afford was a miniature per week, as a reward for studying. Afterwards, with an Honours degree in chemistry, I worked as a research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. My research focused on flavour, and the impact different oak wood casks have on spirit flavour development over time. It was at the Institute that I began to think about the role of Master Blender.
What does it mean to be a Master Blender?
A Master Blender is, first and foremost, a custodian of the legacy, traditions and quality of the whiskies. We work endlessly to perfect quality, ensure consistency and nurture spirit character through filling and selection of the finest oak casks. It involves getting to know every detail – from barley to spirit to the filling of each cask, monitoring quality and deciding when the time is right for casks to be combined and bottled.
What has working at Glenmorangie Bowmore and Brown-Forman taught you about whisky?
Having sampled in excess of 150,000 casks across dozens of distilleries, I can still say every distillery and single cask continues to teach me something new every day. It never ceases to surprise me how individual each distillery is, the culmination of a multitude of idiosyncrasies that are almost impossible to fully dissect. There’s a magic in each location that brings every spirit uniquely to life.
What’s the ideal way to try whisky?
It’s always good to start with a neat dram and a teaspoon and water – first tasting neat, then adding water to experiment and unlock different tastes. Serving with canapés to showcase each whisky’s flavour gives the opportunity to discover the richness of complementary or contrasting combinations.
Any myths you’d like to dispel?
Where once it was considered sacrilege to add ice or a mixer to malt, today we drink it how we choose: neat, in cocktails, with food, at home or at a bar.
If you could go back and give yourself some advice about starting off in the industry, what would it be?
Enjoy every moment and have no fear; have confidence and courage from the start; seek out opportunity and grasp it with both hands. Visit distilleries – they’re a great place to learn, meet friendly people, make contacts and enrich your life experience. The whisky world is your oyster, and if you seek to be part of it, the opportunities are there to take.
“Benriach 10 Year Old Curiositas is my go-to sweet and smoky dram, which I enjoy most outdoors. Made from a combination of sweet and smoked malt, Curiositas is matured in ex bourbon casks, Jamaican rum barrels and American virgin oak. It’s a malt that tastes of honey, roast sugar, maple and spiced baked apple, with smoked pine nuts in the finish; it’s great paired with savoury bites and barbecued roast.”
“The Glendronach 12 Years Old Original is like my closest friend, who never ceases to enrich my life with welcoming warmth and generosity. Being matured in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks, and non chill-filtered, it has everything. It’s rich, elegant, full-bodied and generous with dark fruits, baked sweetness, a creamy texture and the warmth of gentle spice, leaving a satisfyingly smooth finish.”