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Dr Rachel Barrie: "It’s a great time for women to be working in the whisky industry"

This International Women's Day, Dr Rachel Barrie chats to us about how she got into the whisky industry.

Published: March 6, 2020
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How did you get into whisky and the whisky industry?

It started with my Dad, at home in Aberdeenshire. He had a single malt collection that I was in awe of. On leaving home for Edinburgh University, I used to treat myself to a miniature of single malt every couple of weeks, as a reward for hardwork, and soon tasting and collecting miniatures became a hobby.

With an Honours degree in Chemistry, and unsure what to do next, I stumbled across a job on the last day it was advertised at the University of Edinburgh careers service, for a Research Scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI). Luckily, I got the job.

This proved to be a pinnacle moment in defining the perfect job for me, combining analytics, honed through studying chemistry, with my passion for malt whisky. 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.

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Are you experiencing a change in the industry? If there is a rise in women in the industry, what do you think can women bring to?

It’s a great time for women to be working in the industry. Without a doubt, there are more women involved in whisky-making than ever before.

With increasing skills, knowledge, experience and competency, women are influencing production and marketing, finance and sales, and through inclusive discussion and education, a broader audience can be reached, enriching the experience for all.

What advice would you give someone who is only just starting to get into whisky?

There are so many ways to explore whisky. I’d recommend taking the time to visit and discover the beauty, sense-of-place and character of our distilleries. GlenDronach, BenRiach and Glenglassaugh distilleries can all be visited in one or two days.

For example, you may visit GlenDronach first, deep in the Forgue Valley, nestled in the East Highland Hills, with its robust and full-bodied Highland style, matured in the finest sherry casks from Andalucia in Spain.

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Travel only 16 miles up the road, and you reach the coast, with Glenglassaugh distillery sitting on the crescent beach of Sandend Bay, with its luscious sweet and coastal tropical fruit character. Travel westwards 26 miles, and you will reach BenRiach distillery, in the heart of Speyside, just south of Elgin, midway between the Cairngorm mountains and the North Sea.

With its balance of orchard fruit, sweet malt and oak, with a touch of smoke, you will discover an unconventional and versatile Speyside single malt, distilling both peated and unpeated single malt, and home to arguably the most eclectic selection of casks in the North East.

When exploring flavour, I’d recommend reading the tasting notes on the pack, and thinking about the flavours you enjoy. Sweet or dry? Fruity and/or smoky?

Richly sherried or delicately bourbon cask matured? Try different malts, until you find those you most enjoy. Try nosing and sipping a single malt whisky neat first of all, then add a few drops of water. How does it change?

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What new aromas and flavours does water addition release? Food pairings and cocktails are another fun way to get into whisky, in a world where there are no rights or wrongs!

And there are increasingly unconventional ways for people to explore whisky. I recently worked with landscape artist Ellis O’Connor to bring the eclectic flavours from the different types of casks used to make the BenRiach 10 Year Old to life on canvas - we created a Palette of BenRiach.

The results were incredible - three unique works of art influenced by the tasting notes of Bourbon, Sherry and Virgin oak casks as well as the dramatic Speyside landscape surrounding the distillery.

Scran episode 3: Master blender Rachel Barrie's guide to whisky tasting

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related.

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