A profile of Rachel Barrie

20 November, 2013

“I was offered a job at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, one of only 20 people looking into the science and technology of whisky [now the technical arm of SWA], having to do with authenticity, measuring what’s in it, protecting it, researching everything from the barley to the oak casks to creating a flavour wheel which encapsulated hundreds of flavours. 

“I worked there for four years – people didn’t realise how amazingly complex it is.”

Barrie makes a comparison between wine production and whisky production and pronounces that there’s more choice in the flavours that can come out of whisky, which is “why there’s been such a rise in interest in whisky over the past few years”.

She adds: “In the 80s people were starting to do that with wine. Now there’s a rise in whisky connoisseurship. Whisky is getting more global appeal, a lot of it coming through the web. People have access to the knowledge and more people are visiting distilleries. 

“I just joined Twitter in February and I am amazed at how many people are Tweeting about it. There’s a real widening of the demographic. Now just about every university in the UK has a whisky appreciation society and every city has a whisky festival, which is all fairly recent – the past five years or so. 

“It’s now cool to like malt whisky. Celebrities are being associated with it. Individual distilleries are more like wine châteaux – there’s a sense of terroir, place and culture and people are really engaging with that. There’s a unique taste from each distillery.”

Rising star

Barrie’s first taste of whisky industry production was with Glenmorangie, where she remained for 16 years, rising through the ranks from product development to become master blender in 2003. 

“Morrison Bowmore approached me two years ago and the opportunity to work with my home whisky was very close to my heart.” She is master blender now for Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch, working on the core range, product development, maturation and deciding on taste and spirit quality. She is the creator of new expressions, backed by a team of four.

But, given the very masculine element that has until now dominated Scotch whisky, just how did Barrie manage to gain her elevated position?

“Because I came in as a research scientist in a very expert side and focusing on flavour and sensory aspects it was a fairly easy transition. It was an area at the time that was developing and an opportunity to be at the forefront of understanding.” 

Barrie cites the research projects in which she was involved. “I analysed oak from Hungary, the US and Spain to discover what was best for whisky maturation. Once you have an expert knowledge you have the credentials. More women are now starting to come through, mostly again from the technical side, similar to me.”

And the peripheral elements to Barrie’s role put her in a strong position to spread the word – she judges competitions and holds tastings for women around the world to widen the demographic.

“I did a tasting recently in New York and there were 150 women in the room, so I am hoping I can bring more women into the world of whisky. The demographic used to be 40-plus men, but now it’s moved to be a lot more about attitude and taste than a traditional demographic. There are now women going straight to Islay whisky to enjoy the peaty taste. I find women who have an adventurous taste in food love the taste of Glen Garioch. It’s a wholesome taste, a lot like artisanal foods.“I was brought up on mince and tatties as a child – the staple food was very plain and simple. Now you can get Scottish wasabi, there are lots more fusion foods around.”

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