Rachel Barrie is one of the few women in history to win the title of Scotch whisky master blender.
In his 26-year career, Rachel has smelled or sipped 150,000 different types of whisky.
She is a pioneer in what has been traditionally a male-dominated industry, having held the coveted title since 2003.
As perhaps the most important woman in her field, Rachel can reasonably be described to the First Lady of Scotch whisky.
It is a role that requires a wide range of skills in nosing and the tasting of thousands of barrels of whisky each year to ensure consistency in existing products or to create new combinations of flavors.
Rachel’s passion for Scotch stretches all the way back to his childhood in Aberdeenshire, when she was introduced to “nippy juice”.
“My first taste of whisky was at my grandmother’s house when I was about seven or eight,” he recalls.
“When I had a cold, she gave me a thimbleful of hot toddy – hot water, honey, lemon, and a small dose of malt whisky.
“Cure my cold.”
And he adds with a chuckle: “After that I happened to have a sore ear, sore throat, probably every couple of weeks,”
What is a master blender?
After graduating in chemistry at Edinburgh University, Rachel went on to build a stellar career, working initially as a scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute before going into production at the Glenmorangie Company.
In 2011 he collaborated with Morrison Bowmore, where he developed well known brands like Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Laphroaig and Ardmore.
For the past year, has been the master blender for the us company Brown-Forman’s three Scottish distilleries – Glendronach and Glenglassaugh in Aberdeenshire, and BenRiach in Speyside.
“As a master blender, I have to consider all of the ingredients from barley to bottle, all aspects of quality,” he says.
“There must be a deep understanding of the malts, distillation, technology, and means that the sampling of lots and lots of them – never enough – of barrels of whisky maturing in the inventory to decide how best to use that whisky.”
Rachel says a whisky can contain 150 to 200 flavors, so she is careful what she eats or drinks before the sampling process.
She says: “I am very sensitive senses, which is why I am in my work, so I tend to deprive my senses of intense smells or flavors.
“I never wear perfume – I find it quite unbearable – and I always try to avoid really strong spices. Raw onions – that is the worst thing you can have for the whisky tasting.”‘You can never sniff enough whiskey”
But Rachel also stresses that experience is key for his role.
“I believe that the more you sniff, the more you build up a sensory data bank of knowledge, of perception and, therefore, it is able to be consistent,” he says.
“You have this database of what is good and what is not. It really is training – you can never sniff enough whisky.
“I had a lot of experience to calibrate my nose and my taste buds and I know what I’m sensitive to and what other people are sensitive.”
Sampling whisky may be the day of the job, but Rachel says that he also drinks single for pleasure.
She says: “When I was a student I used to get the thumbnails as a small gift to brighten my day, when I was studying. I could not afford a full bottle.
“Now, if I’m at home or in a hotel or in a bar or on the other side of the world, I always order a single malt Scotch.”
Rachel says that the Scotch whisky industry has undergone major changes over the last 25 years, not least in terms of female participation.
“The barriers have been broken down,” he explains.
“There are more women than there have ever been in the field, whether it is marketing, brand ambassadorial roles, working in a distillery or the bottling line.
“It was extremely rare to find women on the mixing side – if at all. In the last 10 years I have seen some women develop in that role and is now having an influence on the taste of whisky.””The diversity of flavours”
Rachel says that the industry has grown significantly from when he started, with consumers showing a greater knowledge and awareness of single malt than ever before.
“It’s like the chateau wines in 1980, when there were only two or three brands that were known throughout the world,” he says.
“Now you have this diversity of tastes, individual wines that people know and love.
“I think that the same thing is happening with the single malt Scotch whisky.
“If you are in Japan or in the USA, a growing number of people that know what a whole or an unpeated Scotch.”
Whatever the future holds for the industry, Rachel says malt whisky will always feature in his life.
She says: “My philosophy of life is to do what you love and love what you do.
“I managed to make my hobby my work, my work is my hobby. Are intertwined and cannot be separated: you could say that it’s in my blood.”