As part of our coverage for International Women’s Day 2022, we talk Irn Bru, weird casks and how to get more women into the industry with one of the most respected people in Scotch whisky, Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar’s.
Stephanie Macleod’s first job in drinks was working with a Scottish icon. No, not John Dewar & Sons, we’re talking Irn Bru (explainer here for non-British readers). From there she moved into Scotch but, as she admitted to us, she didn’t even like the stuff at the time. At some point, she must have developed a taste for whisky because from working in the lab at Dewar’s, she moved up until she became master blender in 2006.
Macleod is now responsible for the Dewar’s range of blended whiskies plus the single malts that sit under the Bacardi umbrella: Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, Royal Brackla and others. As well as maintaining the quality of classic whiskies like Craigellachie 13 year old and Dewar’s White Label, Macleod is not afraid to experiment. In recent years, her team has launched a Dewar’s 8 Year old finished in Ilegal mezcal casks and various limited edition red wine cask single malts from Aberfeldy.
It’s all go at Dewar’s! We were fortunate enough to spend some time with Macleod to learn what other exciting things she has up her sleeves.
Master of Malt: It’s International Women’s Day this week, are you encouraged by the number of women setting up their own distilleries/ drinks brands?
Stephanie Macleod: It’s exciting what’s going on at the moment in the spirits and the wine industries. There are more and more women launching their own brands. I get a lot of emails and messages via social platforms from young women who are thinking of starting drinks brands – and it is heartening that they have the confidence and resources to make their ideas into a reality.
MoM: What is Dewar’s parent company Bacardi doing to encourage more women into distilling?
SM: For a few years now, we have been making a determined effort to not only be visible to university students and graduates, but also invite them to apply for our intern and graduate schemes. The recruitment process is intensive, but we’ve now got a tremendous wealth of great talent and most of them are women. When I was a student, the whisky industry as a career didn’t feel like an option – that has now changed and we are reaping the rewards.
MoM: How did you get started in the industry?
SM: I did food science at the University of Strathclyde. I was lucky that the department I was in had a close relationship with the whisky industry, some of their research work was sponsored by Chivas Brothers at the time. After I graduated and I went to work for Irn Bru and then my old supervisor phoned me up and said ‘how would you like to join us and study whisky and other foods?’ I said ‘yes, I’d love to!’ but I had absolutely no idea about whisky, I didn’t even like it! Over four years I was trying to find out why whisky tastes the way it does and unlocking the secrets of maturation. I loved it and that’s really when I thought ‘this is the industry that I want to be in’. A role then came up at Dewar’s and I thought ‘I’ll get in the door and see where it takes me’. I was put in charge of the lab and then I was asked did I want to train up to be the master blender because the current master blender at the time was about to retire. So I said ‘yes, I’d love to!’
Master of Malt: How has the job changed since then? Because in the nineties being a blender was a sort of backroom kind of job wasn’t it?
SM: I made that same comment to someone yesterday. I said ‘20 years ago blenders didn’t have to have media training or talk to camera , they just got on with it’. But now a big chunk of your work is communicating what you do to journalists and to consumers. Before a blender would just have worked on a few different blends but now we’ve not only got the blends that we’ve always had, but then there’s offshoots of those, like Dewar’s 8 Series with all the different cask finishes. We’re having to control all of these different casks and then watch what’s going to happen to them in their next cycle and with the flavour profile there. It’s exciting, but I think my predecessor would be shocked by what we’re doing now at Dewar’s.
MoM: And how has the customer changed since you took over?
SM: The awareness of Scottish whisky and the knowledge of Scottish whisky has grown since even I have taken over the role in 2006. Especially in markets like China and Russia. Whereas before they would maybe be wedded to a particular brand of whisky – and probably that would be a blend in the past – but now their knowledge has come on leaps and bounds and now they’re exploring different malts. In the last 18 months with the pandemic, people also had more time on their hands, doing more research, reading more about whisky and asking more probing questions.
MoM: Did you feel a huge responsibility working with a brand like Dewar’s White Label?
SM: I did feel the responsibility but I think when you’re younger you don’t really think about it. It’s just another part of your development. I think if I had thought about it too much I probably maybe wouldn’t have taken on the role.
MoM: Have you got some interesting cask finishes that you’re working on at the moment?
SM: We’ve been looking at some experimental casks, different types and species of oak. Actually, different types of wood as well. Obviously, we can’t call it ‘a Scotch whisky’ when we do that, but we’re just seeing what it brings. What are the differences? It’s almost like ‘why should we use oak?’
MoM: If you had wonderful results with chestnut or acacia or something, would you ever consider lobbying the SWA to allow different types of wood?
SM: I don’t think we would actually. Because the whisky regulations are there to protect us from anyone that is trying to do something that is perhaps not to the benefit of Scottish whisky. But what we could do is release it as a spirit drink for people who are interested in whisky and the effects of maturation and the different types of wood. But there are some interesting colours as well that you get from these different types of wood that you don’t get from oak. Who knows what could happen in the future. Will oak always be in abundance or will we have to, as an industry, look to other species of wood?
MoM: Talking of odd wood, could you tell us about the Dewar’s 8 Mizunara oak finish?
SM: It’s eye-wateringly expensive but they’re beautifully-made casks and I never worked with them before. And although you can look at what other people have done with Mizunara, it reacts differently depending on the whisky that it’s coming in contact with. They’re all made differently and they’re coming from different trees, different growing conditions, so you can’t really say ‘well, this brand tastes of this so ours will taste the same’. When we were trialling the casks, within a month we could see a change in the colour of the spirit and a change in the profile as well. So it was really interesting to observe those casks in action. We’d been told some horror stories about Mizunara – about how much they leak and they’re brittle. But the casks that we got were just exceptional and we didn’t have any of those problems. We’ll be rolling Mizunara out to other age expressions as well.
MoM; How do you go about getting casks for your limited edition Aberfeldy red wine editions and others?
SM: We’ve got a very good cask supplier and she will send us a list of casks based on what we’re interested in, because we want them to be as fresh as possible; we don’t want them when they’ve been lying about and doing the rounds of different vineyards. They send the casks to us, we nose them, we’ll chuck out any that we don’t think are suitable because in this increasing temperatures that we’re seeing in France, sometimes the casks go off. When we nose the casks there’s just almost intuitively we think ‘this is going to go with our whisky’ and then it’s just a matter of sampling to ensure that that does happen. We’ve always got in mind when we want to release the casks for bottling but my caveat to our markets is always ‘well, if it’s not ready then I’m sorry but you can’t have it’ because there’s just no point in us releasing a Côte-Rôtie finish if it’s got no flavour or it’s completely the wrong flavour for Aberfeldy. So it really has to be a beautiful marriage – a real interaction of the two sets of flavour profiles.
MoM: Do you think people are getting the message that Scotch whisky single malts can be used in cocktails or do you think there’s still a lot of resistance to that?
SM: People are accepting it with blends, but we’re certainly trying our hardest to show them what you can do with single malts. Aberfeldy distillery has been doing lots of take-home cocktails. Our Instagram accounts are always showcasing the honey-element in cocktails with Aberfeldy. Some people think they’re being disrespectful to the whisky by putting it in a cocktail but people are always saying to me ‘I just can’t get the hang of single malts, I’d really love to’. I say ‘well try it in a cocktail, experiment and have a bit of fun with it. I would hate for anyone to not want to try a whisky because they think they’re not drinking it in the right way. Probably the most common question that I get asked is ‘how should I drink Scotch whisky?’ and it’s just ‘drink it however you want to!’
MoM: And finally do you have a favourite cocktail?
SM: Well actually my favourite cocktail is probably a Negroni but that’s not a whisky cocktail. I love a Mamie Taylor, so that is whisky, ginger ale or ginger beer, with a squeeze of lime juice. All of my friends told me ‘I don’t like whisky’ and I said ‘well try this’ and they were converted. So if you like it a bit sweeter ginger beer but something more refreshing would be ginger ale.