Dr Rachel Barrie
A 30-year career at the very peak of whisky research and production is a feat that few can lay claim to. Dr Rachel Barrie, however, can proudly boast just that. Her journey has taken her from a rural upbringing in northeast Scotland via the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, working with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and onto her current role looking after three distilleries. Along the way she has collected honorary doctorates, multiple awards and entry to the esteemed Keepers of the Quaich. SMWS ambassador Lee ‘Connas’ Connor caught up with Rachel for a chat about her three decades in the world of whisky and about what’s coming next
My greatest influence was the late, great Dr Jim Swan, who employed me in my first role at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. I describe Jim as ‘the Einstein of whisky’
LC: Who was Rachel Barrie before she found whisky? And what first led her into a career in this world?
RB: I grew up in rural Aberdeenshire, I enjoyed an active and richly varied childhood, much of which was spent outdoors on the rich and fertile land close to GlenDronach distillery. We also surfed and kayaked on local rivers and in the sea at Sandend, just a stone’s throw away from Glenglassaugh distillery. Growing up I studied dance and music, performing in the theatre locally in Inverurie and Aberdeen, while continuing to work hard at school. After getting good grades, I was faced with the quandary of whether to study the arts or medicine, so I began studying for a medicine degree.
However, after some time, I decided to change to chemistry, as I was most curious about the creative and sensory side of science. On graduating from the University of Edinburgh, I spotted my ideal job on the last day it was advertised at the university career service; after a swift application, I was given the role of research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. In 1992, my career in whisky began, and 30 years later, I’m still here and enjoying every minute!
LC: How did you approach being involved in the industry? Can you remember who and what influenced you along the way?
RB: My first job in whisky opened my eyes to its beauty, complexity and intricacies. I quickly realised that there was so much to learn, explore and discover about whisky. I focused on unearthing the complexities of malt, from the influence of different yeasts, gravities and length of fermentation to the influence of oak wood quality and warehouse conditions in the maturation process.
My greatest influence was the late, great Dr Jim Swan, who employed me in my first role at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. I describe Jim as ‘the Einstein of whisky’ as he looked deep into the nature of both whisky-making and human sensory science, with the goal of making whisky the very best it could be. This continues to be my mission, trusting my intuition while continuously gaining new insights, learning from others and exploring flavour. On this journey, I have learned from so many people, all of whom continue to shape what I do today.
LC: In terms of the various roles you’ve taken, how have they contributed to your understanding of the spirit?
RB: Every role I approach in the same way as life, through a lens of endless curiosity on a quest to understand everything better. Curiosity has led me to work with distilleries and maturing inventory across every geographical region. From the Highlands to the Lowlands, Speyside to Islay, all of which I experienced at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society when managing their diverse range of whisky stocks, covering not only Scotch single malts, but also other world whiskies. Most recently my time working at Brown-Forman has continued to deepen my understanding and appreciation of the individuality and diversity of every spirit.
LC: Fascinating, and what are your memories of your time with us here at the SMWS?
RB: I was master blender for The Glenmorangie Company at the time, part of my role was managing the stock for SMWS when it was a subsidiary, when I looked after cask selections and quality control. I had to know the stock intimately, assess the maturing quality of each cask to judge readiness for bottling, and choose the six to 12 casks per week submitted to the Tasting Panel. I also chaired the weekly Tasting Panels and collated and compiled the final tasting notes. When I felt the casks needed a little more nurturing to reach the Society’s high standards, I arranged additional maturation into bespoke casks to ensure the whisky became the ‘best it could be’. I’d then check in on the cask maturation every few months to see how it was coming along, and when I deemed it ready, submitted to the Panel to score.
Working with the Society gave me a great opportunity to get to know virtually every distillery in Scotland, and the flavour nuances of different ages and cask types. I would describe it as a rich, kaleidoscopic experience, with every facet of whisky experienced and explored.
LC: Fond recollections, indeed! So, what attracted you to GlenDronach, Benriach and Glenglassaugh distilleries? How do you go about maintaining their signature styles?
RB: I thrive on diversity, and the ‘power of three’ distilleries are the perfect balance of depth and breadth of flavour discovery and whisky creation. The GlenDronach is my dad’s favourite malt, with its deep and complex character, matured in luxurious Spanish oak sherry casks, creating a richly rewarding taste and long and satisfying finish.
Benriach distillery is known for innovative maturation using an eclectic mix of cask types – it welcomes experimentation in the quest to create a world of flavour. Benriach crafts unpeated, peated and triple distilled spirit, matured in a diverse range of oak casks from all over the world. The distillery is one of just two remaining in Speyside to operate its own onsite floor maltings.
Glenglassaugh’s motto is “Per Mare Per Terras” meaning “By Sea and By Land”. One sip reveals a spirit shaped by land and sea, with luscious fruits and rolling waves of sweet coastal flavour following maturation in bourbon, sweet sherry, and rich coastal red wine casks.
LC: What are your significant achievements, and which do you think is most important?
RB: I am really proud of what we have all achieved together at Brown-Forman. Being awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh for services to the whisky industry was a huge milestone for me back in 2018. As well as entering the Whisky Hall of Fame and being made a Keeper of the Quaich in 2019, receiving a Lifetime Achievement award in 2021, and most recently Master Blender of the year 2022.
One of my proudest moments so far has been the launch of The GlenDronach Kingsman, both the journey to create this highly revered whisky and signing the first bottle with film producer, Matthew Vaughn. I have a bottle stashed away for each of my three sons and hope that, in future years, they will savour the whisky and experience as much as I have.
LC: What are your thoughts on the future of the industry and your place in it? What’s on the horizon in terms of new products, projects, or innovations you can share?
RB: To prepare for future growth, investment in oak wood quality and provenance has never been more important, to sustain the core range, and explore new product opportunities. Brown-Forman has its own cooperage in Kentucky, so we have a superb source of the highest quality oak and are extremely fortunate in these times of growing demand to have a sustainable supply of quality Jack Daniel’s ex-bourbon American oak casks.
In terms of projects in the pipeline, I am excited to say that new releases are planned from all three distilleries, showcasing some truly exceptional whiskies. There’s much work to do to support the malts on their path of growth, which makes for a very interesting and exciting future ahead!
One of my proudest moments so far has been the launch of The GlenDronach Kingsman, both the journey to create this highly revered whisky and signing the first bottle with film producer, Matthew Vaughn