This week Dr Rachel Barrie from GlenDronach, Benriach and Glenglassaugh is celebrating three decades in whisky and we think that’s worth saluting. Here’s the good doctor herself reflecting on 30 years not out.
You might have noticed on our homepage that we’re shining the MoM-branded spotlight (it’s like the Bat Signal but way cooler) on The GlenDronach at the moment. There’s lots to appreciate about the Highland distillery, which was established in 1826 and is one of Scotland’s oldest licensed distilleries. Certainly owners Brown-Forman believe in its potential, pumping $30.5m into it to ramp up its production facilities in Aberdeenshire.
But the reason we’re appreciating it more this week is due to master blender Dr Rachel Barrie, who is celebrating 30 years in the industry. We’re raising a glass and picking her brains (we’re good at multi-tasking) to mark this milestone, while also offering a branded glass with every purchase of The GlenDronach 12 Year Old, whilst stocks last. We’re also trying to conceal our envy at all the whisky she’s got to enjoy over the years. Seriously, have you seen her CV?
Dr Rachel Barrie: 30 years in whisky
Dr Barrie began her whisky life as a research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, the “perfect job for me at the start of my career,” she says, one where she combined analytics, honed through studying chemistry, with a developing passion for malt whisky. “The team conducted research for the Scotch whisky industry, and my focus was on oak maturation and distillery flavour development. During my time there, and moving on to work in production thereafter, I began to think about the role of master blender. Starting in my early twenties, I knew it would take time to acquire the knowledge, skills and experience to develop fully into this role”.
Before she landed her dream job, Dr Barrie first worked in production at The Glenmorangie Company, where she also got to work with Ardbeg, Glen Moray, and the Bailie Nicol Jarvie and Martin’s blends. It was in 2003 that she became master blender. Soon Dr Barrie was also gaining insight into a number of other distilleries by managing stocks for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. That’s an impressive balancing act.
By 2011, she had moved to Morrison Bowmore Distillers working with Bowmore, Auchentoshan, and Glen Garioch single malts before succeeding Billy Walker as master blender at Brown-Forman-owned BenRiach Distillery Company in 2017. There she assumed responsibility for the BenRiach, GlenDronach, and Glenglassaugh distilleries. I mean, c’mon, how many amazing distilleries is that? I thought my job was cool.
That means that Dr Barrie has had a career defined by managing a number of distilleries at once, rather than focusing on perfecting one. “Over my 30 years in the industry, I’ve had experience working with distilleries with wide-ranging characteristics. I think for any distillery, really understanding your unique DNA is important and sets you up for the future. The first thing I did with GlenDronach, Benriach and Glenglassaugh was really take the time to explore the inventory and refine the signature character of each,” she explains.
Dr Barrie says that one of her favourite things about the current portfolio is how distinctive they are. Because when each has very defined characteristics, the job becomes not just understanding how they differ, but how to bring out the very best in each of them. Dr Barrie says that her ambition is to create a “multi-faceted flavour experience that brings the essence of each distillery to life”.
In her current portfolio, for example, Dr Barrie can assess the contrasting styles of whisky each distillery produces by considering an aspect like their geographical locations or cask profiles. “This shapes the characteristic flavour profiles of each,” she says. “From the sherry cask mastery of The GlenDronach in the valley of Forgue, to the coastal influence at Glenglassaugh in Sandend Bay, to the luscious fruit-forward flavours of Benriach in the heart of Speyside, each distillery’s location uniquely influences its resulting spirit”.
Then there is the eclectic cask collection at the Benriach Distillery Company, aided by Brown-Foreman’s considerable reach, which provides Dr Barrie with so much creative freedom. She points to how the different cask styles at Glenglassaugh interact with its coastal spirit, or the duality of Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso casks at The GlenDronach, which allows her to explore the complexity in character of the ‘light and the dark’. “Blending with Benriach is like an artist’s dream, there are so many cask types and styles of spirit to choose from and experiment with. My vision with Benriach’s new range was to create whiskies with endless flavour possibilities and that is exactly what we did,” she explains.
The changing craft
Across the last three decades, Dr. Barrie notes one person above all others had a distinct impact on her life and career: Dr Jim Swan, the legendary and sadly late whisky expert. “My time with Jim was a journey of learning and discovery, of research focused on questioning, and exploring flavour through detailed analysis, quality measurement, critical thinking, sensory perception and human understanding,” she recalls. “When I think of Jim, ‘the nose ‘knows’’, a phrase I coined in recent years, springs to mind. He had a logical, analytical mind, balanced with a strong sense of intuition and sensory awareness, all qualities of a truly great master blender, with a ‘nose’ that really ‘knows’”.
He was her teacher and mentor, from whom she learned “the science, the art and the ideas from which to deeply understand and make the best whisky possible”. Her approach today reflects the belief that the master blender role comprises equal parts chemistry and artistry. “While science underpins the creation of any great whisky in terms of technical analysis, management of inventory and quality control, my role has a real creative element to it, which I often liken to an artist pulling different elements together to form a composition, but instead I get to paint with flavour,” Dr Barrie explains.
Dr Barrie tells me that there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes when it comes to the art of blending, and often more questions than answers are generated during the creative process. “It’s all about exploration and is a highly iterative process, kind of like a maze, where there is no right or wrong path, just many twists and turns leading to the golden prize at the centre. It is a perpetual process of experimentation and refinement,” she says. “This equilibrium is one of my favourite things about the job, and it reflects who I am as a scientist and artist. This process resulted in some of our most experimental creations yet, including a range of unusual smoky Speyside whiskies such as Smoke Season, The Smoky Ten, and The Smoky Twelve”.
The modern master blender
Of course, a lot has changed over the years. Dr Barrie says that her approach 30 years ago, when she was “full of ambition, fresh out of university and wanted to learn everything all at once”, was built “on a solid analytical base of the science and technology of distillery production, maturation, flavour and sensory science”. Today, she defines her approach to whisky-making as more “strategic, creative, holistic, and richly integrated, but there again, so am I after 30 years!”.
A lot has changed around Dr Barrie too. She notes that we live in a whisky world with increasingly collaborative ways of working and that improvements in communications and analytics have led to greater inclusion and sharing of ideas and information. “Now, I find it much easier to join everything together in terms of whisky creation, from the distillery to the warehouse, quality, delivery and the end drinker, across all geographies in the world. I wish I had another 30 years to work!”
Her responses reflect the passion she has for this industry, and whisky itself. Even 30 years on Dr Barrie is talking about launching the new Benriach portfolio in 2020 as a career-high, a moment of pride that presented her with an amazing opportunity to make a mark on an entirely new range of malts. It’s that love that she attributes her success to. “Passion for what you do is so important. There’s a lot of technical skills needed of course, but being really passionate about whisky and honing the craft really makes the difference and I think has been the key to my success so far”.
Here’s to 30 more years!