A female master blender may still be a rarity, but Rachel Barrie is making her presence felt in the traditionally male-dominated profession

SINGAPORE (Dec 17): Nosing and tasting more than 100 samples of whisky a day may seem like a dream job to most people. But it can be properly done only by a chosen few, known in the industry as master blenders. It takes many years of experience, a very deep knowledge of whisky distillation and, of course, lots of discipline. One woman who fits that bill is Rachel Barrie, master blender for three Scottish distilleries — The GlenDronach, The BenRiach and Glenglassaugh. All are owned by the Brown-Forman Corp, which also owns Jack Daniel’s.

The GlenDronach is nestled in the valley of Forgue, deep in the East Highland hills of Scotland. It is of true Highland style: a heavy and robust spirit, perfect for a long maturation period in sherry casks. At The GlenDronach Distillery, the whisky is distilled in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks, marrying the best of Highland and Spanish skills. This creates whiskies of elegant, complex character, with tremendous depth of taste.

Barrie was in Singapore recently for tasting sessions with whisky lovers and the media at the Grande Whisky Collection in ION Orchard. She was launching the highly anticipated GlenDronach Aged Revival 15 Year Old. I was lucky enough to be one of the first tasters in Singapore of this new single malt. According to the tasting notes, the nose has “an intoxicating burst of maraschino cherry, ripe bramble and dark chocolate mint with hints of orange bitters and walnut liqueur”. That’s quite a tall order. And the palate is described as “honey-glazed apricot and ripe fig with a crescendo of black cherry and muscovado”.

But here is a woman who has nosed and tasted a lot of whisky — around 150,000 cask samples in 26 years — so I trust her judgement and descriptions. And it was an intense sensation for my taste buds. The secret, I was told, was to leave the whisky in my mouth for as long as possible. Perhaps 15 seconds — one second for every year it has aged. Only then do these flavours start to come through. I definitely tasted remnants of dark chocolate, brambles and cherry. Add a few drops of water and it’s almost like tasting a different whisky, with the single malt opening up even more.

During a two-decade-plus career in whisky, Barrie honed her skills at the more well-known Glenmorangie, Ardbeg and Bowmore distilleries. She is one of only a handful of female master blenders in the world, and has received numerous industry accolades for her work developing award-winning whiskies, while also judging international spirits competitions.

Options asks her what it is like to be one of the first female master blenders.

“It’s a great time to be a woman working in whisky; more women are involved than ever before,” she says. “The key is to be yourself, love what you do, think positively and try your best. The only barriers I’ve run into are the ones I’ve built myself, and, over time, I’ve learnt to make them disappear.”

Talking about her day-to-day duties, she says: “I plan the stocks and recipes for the coming year, select new whiskies for new product development and limited editions, write tasting notes and product descriptions, plan the re-rack programmes for the year, and select individual casks for batch releases.”

To create the new whisky, she needs to experiment, source new ingredients, and try things out on a small scale before making significant investments. The development of a new whisky is an exciting but also challenging time for a master blender. “It always generates more questions than answers during the creative process, until everything starts to come together; it’s a highly iterative process, a complex puzzle where there are no rights or wrongs, only many twists and turns leading to the best way forward,” she says.

One of her proudest moments so far was the launch of a limited edition single malt to tie in with the launch of spy comedy film Kingsman. The first bottle went to the film’s producer Matthew Vaughn. He signed all 2,000 limited edition bottles. Barrie bought three for her sons. “That will be my legacy for them. When they are 25, they will get a bottle each,” she says. The bottles are 1991 Sherry cask-matured GlenDronach, individually numbered and signed by both Barrie and Vaughn.

Her biggest challenge is to sample enough whisky, as anything can make a subtle difference to the taste profile, she observes. “The flavours are changing every day. It’s a continuous journey of trying to keep up with the changes. As soon as you sample one cask, you need to sample others, and the list keeps growing.”

As they say, it’s a tough job but someone has got to do it — and increasingly, that includes women.

This article appeared in Issue 861 (Dec 17) of The Edge Singapore.

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Justin Harper is a freelance journalist with a passion for the finer things in life