Often referred to as Scotch Whisky’s First Lady and a member of Whisky Magazine’s illustrious Hall of Fame, Rachel Barrie is one of the world’s most revered Master Blenders with over 30 years of service to the whisky industry. She joined Brown-Forman in 2017 and is responsible for crafting the exceptional quality and unique identities of The GlenDronach, Benriach and Glenglassaugh’s Single Malt Scotch whiskies. In this Q&A Rachel shares her insights into the industry and explores why whisky is attracting a more diverse audience than ever before. Read on to discover more this International Women’s Day.
Tell us more about your role as Master Blender – what does a typical day involve?
Every day is different, I could be nosing whisky and writing tasting notes, planning the cask programmes for the year, or hand-selecting the cask bottlings that we release each year across the three distilleries. It is a privilege to oversee the wood policy, be the guardian of spirit quality standards and ensure that every drop of whisky is the best it possibly can be. As well as whisky-making, I usually get the opportunity to travel for around four weeks each year to all corners of the globe, spreading the word about The GlenDronach, Benriach and Glenglassaugh and sourcing oak casks for maturation, from Kentucky to Spain. A huge part of my role is to shape the future of each distillery and bring each to life through bespoke, considered maturation in quality oak casks.
As one of only a handful of female Master Blenders in the world, what more do you think needs to be done to get more women involved in whisky?
Progress is being made, but there is still a long way to go. I strongly believe that developing and supporting women as they rise is key to attracting and retaining talent and this is something that Brown-Forman continues to do. To improve things in this area, Brown-Forman doesn’t just shout about the number of women in certain senior positions, I think it’s more about the offerings and attitudes that are displayed on a regular basis to empower its employees. Kirsten Ainslie joined the team in 2021 and has certainly proven the importance of fostering future generations, ensuring that women remain at the forefront of the brands’ future vision. It’s all about the normalisation of women in whisky and International Women’s Day is really important for the promotion and celebration of females in the industry.
With over 30 years of experience in whisky, what changes have you seen in the growth of diversity and inclusion since you started your career in the sector?
Over the past 30 years, it has been wonderful to observe the ways in which the whisky world is tackling diversity and inclusion. Without a doubt, there are more women involved in whisky-making than ever before. With increasing skills, knowledge, experience and competency, women are influencing production and marketing, finance and sales, and through inclusive discussion and education, a broader audience can be reached, enriching the experience for all. The industry continues to evolve and welcoming Kirsten (our Assistant Blender) to the team demonstrates our long-term commitment to investing into and growing our wonderful single malts. As the industry continues to grow and appeal to a wider audience, I hope that it will provide more opportunities for employment and representation at every level, which will not only create a richer working environment where we can learn and grow from understanding each other’s perspectives, but also create the best recipe for future success.
And what changes have you observed in the industry in general?
The whisky community is becoming ever more diverse, which is wonderful to be a part of and the ways to enjoy whisky are becoming more diverse too. Single malts are now breaking into the cocktail scene with most good bars offering a single malt cocktail on their drinks menu. The whisky industry has also adopted increasingly collaborative ways of working. Improvements in communications and analytics have led to greater inclusion and sharing of ideas and information. Now, I find it much easier to join everything together in terms of whisky creation, from the distillery to the warehouse, quality, delivery and the end drinker, across all geographies in the world. I wish I had another 30 years to work.
What are the key trends for the next five years we should look out for?
I am seeing a seismic shift in consumer trends. Consumers want to know who is behind their whisky and are taking a real interest in the intricacies of production and getting facetime in with bespoke tastings is now more important than ever. Tastings have always been popular, but increasingly consumers are looking for more experiential ‘fun’ serves that play on flavours, colours, textures, aromas and interactivity. Sherried whiskies like GlenDronach remain popular, but I’m finding that people are showing a keenness to branch out into more diverse flavour profiles such as Benriach’s eclectic fruit-forward portfolio and Glenglassaugh’s luscious sweet and salty flavours. Premium spirits are also increasingly sought after, tying into the overall trend of ‘drink less, drink better’.
You are a person of great influence. What advice would you give to young professionals starting out in the industry?
Enjoy every moment and have no fear; have confidence and courage from the start; seek out opportunity and grasp it with both hands. The whisky world is your oyster, and if you seek to be part of it, the opportunities are there to take. The three sayings that have remained with me most on my journey and led me to where I am today are: do your best and forget the rest; seek balance in every day; and success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day-in and day-out.
What is your advice to a whisky novice going into a whisky bar, when they don’t know what to order?
Whisky is a highly versatile spirit that can be enjoyed in many ways. When it comes to ordering from a bar, I always encourage people to be adventurous and open to trying new things, so if a traditional neat serve isn’t for you, a delicious alternative is to try whisky over ice or mixed in a cocktail. For a more experiential ‘fun’ serve with a twist, I recommend the Benriach Penicillin – one of our most popular cocktails which perfectly mixes smoke, lemon and ginger.
Luxury is highly subjective – what does it mean to you?
For me, when it comes to luxury, Scotch whiskies have had this attribute for longer than almost any other spirit. The way our whiskies are produced, and handcrafted, the use of casks with particular qualities and the time taken to mature the product all help create unique differences in character and flavour. It’s far more about authenticity, craftsmanship and the finest ingredients to create something unique and ground-breaking in how it tastes.
Finally, what is your life motto?
My biggest mantra is ‘love what you do and do what you love’