Wheels in motion

Sheila Burtles is the trailblazing scientist who was co-founder of the first ever whisky flavour wheel. Kirsten Speirs reports on Sheila’s ground-breaking career in whisky and how her achievements have helped shape our understanding and enjoyment of the water of life

Sheila Burtles is a sensory expert who was the first ever female scientist to advise Scotch whisky distillery companies about flavour. Her work, experience and knowledge – gained over decades as a consultant to the industry – serve as a living legacy of everything we understand about the language of flavour used in Scotch whisky today.

Her most famous achievement is as co-inventor of the first ever whisky flavour wheel in 1979. Working with Dr Jim Swan, she created a new visual tool and shaped a new language used in the assessment and understanding of whisky.

The wheel became a global success, and it has been developed into many new modern versions over decades by authors, academics and major whisky brands worldwide. Subsequent evolutions have even been seen in the development of flavour wheels for the coffee, wine and brewing industries.

In November 2021, at the grand age of 92, Sheila Burtles was presented with the inaugural Dr Jim Swan Award for Services to Scotch Whisky. The lifetime achievement award was presented by Charlie MacLean, on behalf of the Scottish Whisky Awards, the national award programme for Scotch whisky.

The commissioned statue, made from aged whisky casks, joins a fascinating collection of memorabilia at her home in Edinburgh, including a framed copy of the famous original whisky flavour wheel that hangs on the wall.


Sheila’s story and career in Scotch whisky is endlessly fascinating. She was instrumental in the creation of Pentlands Whisky Research (now The Scotch Whisky Research Institute), which in 1976 formed as a collaboration of seven distillery companies who agreed to share scientific research and results in Scotch whisky production.

In its early days, the whisky flavour wheel was an important part of training delivered by Sheila and her colleague, Dr Jim Swan, as they toured distilleries throughout the 1980s and 1990s. They were a highly respected team dispatched to test, teach and train people on flavour and the role of chemistry in whisky maturation. While Jim Swan was the chemistry expert, Sheila concentrated on encouraging individuals to appreciate their individual sense of taste through her own series of tests. Her interests were in understanding what people tasted and she was determined to give them the confidence to help identify and describe it. She championed her belief that whatever we taste as individuals is always right. There are no wrongs.

She is endlessly fascinated by the dynamic interaction of smell, taste and memory. She once presented a famous whisky author with a brown bottle which he duly nosed and declared the word “grandma”. Turned out, grandma used to take this young man to church every Sunday when she would present him with a cinnamon ball to stop him fidgeting. The bottle of cinnamon had woken a memory and had taken him back to that very occasion in a matter of seconds.

Sheila pictured in 2021 with Charlie MacLean and Kirsten Speirs


Identifying sensory skills in people was her passion and she famously made the career of one young junior distillery worker who had been sent to the train station to collect her. In the journey to the distillery, she struck up a conversation about taste and persuaded him to take a sensory test. In reviewing his scores, she discovered a talent for identifying and communicating flavour and his career flourished. He became the distillery’s most dependable sensory expert, sent to nose casks throughout the warehouse and report back to management.

In other breakthroughs, she also persuaded Jim Swan to welcome individuals onto their training courses for the first time. Training had previously been the privilege of distillery staff, but she was curious when she met a young journalist keen to learn the ways of sensory science. Interested in his perspective, Sheila persuaded the bosses at Pentland to welcome the journalist on the course, and so continued the career of a young Mr Charles MacLean.

Sheila and Jim were a formidable and good-humoured team. She remembers how she was famously referred to as ‘Bumbles’ in training sessions in reference to her awkward surname, which was regularly mistaken for something else. She enjoyed the humour and the jostling; she was unphased by her regular appearance as the sole female in a distillery.

Instead, she was confident in her knowledge, bold in her approach and often audacious in the interests of progress.

While she was dedicated to her career, her personal life also flourished. She met a young doctor while on holiday with friends in Spain and married Dick Burtles in 1959.

Dr Burtles was a paediatrician and became a highly respected doctor at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. They had two daughters, Sally and Emma, and settled in Scotland where Sheila continued her career in whisky and her husband developed his work as a paediatric anaesthetist, specialising in heart surgery.

The joke was regularly made that she had the anaesthetic which everyone wanted.

The Scottish Whisky Awards team is proud to recognise Sheila Burtles’ long career as a trusted scientific adviser to the industry, a trailblazing ‘woman in whisky’ who combined her busy career with family life way ahead of her time.

The whisky flavour wheel is far from being her only achievement, but should be remembered as a global success which serves as another historic reminder of why Scotland is the world’s leading whisky nation.

Kirsten Speirs is the founder of the Scottish Whisky Awards, an independently chaired programme which celebrates Scotch whisky