The world’s first female master blender in Scotch whisky, Rachel Barrie, was originally destined for the medical profession – but her nose scuppered that particular line of work.
“I left school to study medicine and realised I had a very sensitive sense of smell. When I started doing anatomy and carving up dead bodies I realised it was not for me – the formaldehyde and other smells. I changed to chemistry and concentrated on creating smells and colours and reaction.
“A big part of distilling is chemistry, it’s alchemy so it’s easy to transfer skills.” She sees her work as bringing the art to blending, using psychology to create aroma and taste. “It’s creativity, science and art,” she says. “It’s thinking about bringing the whisky to life and connecting with the drinker.”
So medicine’s loss was distilling’s gain as Barrie managed to breach the ranks of males who dominated the industry to make her significant mark on the business.
Since the age of seven, when she had her first taste of one of the Scotches she is now most associated with, Glen Garioch, Barrie has been imbued with the spirit of the Highlands spirit, a passionate imparter of wisdom about the way in which it reflects the local terroir, from its waters to its heathers by way of its honey.
To date she has nosed some 130,000 casks – “not many people have done that” – and is dedicated to broadening the demographic of whisky appreciation. “The human element is still the arbiter of quality,” says Barrie. “There’s not a machine that can do my job. It’s the best job in the world, creating new exciting whiskies, being an ambassador for the industry.”
So back to that first taste of Glen Garioch. Barrie says she has “very firm memories of when my grandmother used to give me milk and honey and whisky. It’s a well-known north east cure for earache. Of course I had earache every weekend after that”.
That was back in 1977, five years after the brand was launched as a single malt, at that time for Inverurie local consumption, although the distillery has been operating in the market town of Oldmeldrum, near Aberdeen, since 1797, making it one of Scotland’s oldest.
The young Barrie set off on her medical studies at Edinburgh University and, on her discovery that her nose was too sensitive for those anatomy classes, transferred to chemistry, gaining a first class degree. From there she was offered jobs in pharmaceuticals and the oil industry, but says: “It was serendipity that led me into distilling.”
She explains: “I helped set up a malt whisky appreciation society at Edinburgh University although I had not made a connection with distilling. Very few people went into that line of work from university – they went from school as mash men or malt men, and it was mainly men as it was very hard and physical labour.