Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at podcast@vinepair.com.

In this “Next Round,” VinePair co-founder and CEO Adam Teeter talks to Brown-Forman’s master blender of Scotch whiskies, Dr. Rachel Barrie, about her nearly three decade-long career in whiskey — and how it has changed as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

The Edinburgh-based master blender works with three Scotch producers: GlenDronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh. Barrie describes herself as a “custodian of spirit quality” and calls her nose her “greatest asset.” When it comes to her role as a master distiller, Barrie says “it’s probably the most varied job in the whole industry, because you have to know everything.” Indeed, Barrie does everything from researching flavor profiles, to bringing these whiskies to new audiences.

When she began working with Brown-Forman three and a half years ago, her job largely consisted of analyzing casks — traveling to Spain and the U.S. for sherry and bourbon casks, respectively. Now, although she can’t travel due to Covid-19 restrictions, Barrie explains that virtual tastings are giving her the ability to reach an even larger audience all across the globe.

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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter. And this is a VinePair Podcast conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes in order to examine how we’re moving forward as a drinks business during the Covid-19 crisis. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Rachel Barrie, master blender of Scotch whiskies for Brown-Forman. Dr. Barrie, thank you so much for joining me, or can I call you Rachel?

Rachel: Of course, please call me Rachel.

A: It’s funny. My father and my brother both have PhDs, and so I’m so used to calling people “doctor” that it was like a default. It’s much easier to call you Rachel, so thank you.

R: That’s absolutely fine. Thank you very much for asking.

A: Where do we find you today?

R: Oh, I’m, I’m at home in Edinburgh, Scotland. Which isn’t far from our head office in Edinburgh.

A: How are things in Edinburgh right now?

R: Fine. We are social distancing, and we have all the good practices in place. And my family and everyone at work is fit and healthy.

A: Edinburgh is such an amazing cocktail city. Are bars reopening. Are they open? And what does that look like?

R: Yeah. Bars are open, but they have to close by 10:00 p.m.

A: OK.

R: So we have that kind of curfew — the Covid curfew — by 10:00 p.m. at the moment. But they are opening.

A: Tell us a little bit about your role at Brown-Forman and the whiskies that you work on.

R: I joined three and a half years ago. My career spawns nearly 29 years in whisky, but I came to Brown-Forman three and a half years ago, really to bring the whiskies to life, to create new portfolios, to develop the woods strategies for maturation, and to really bring the whiskies to new consumers.

A: That all sounds really interesting. Can you tell me a little bit about what you mean when you say “bring the whiskies to life” or “work on the wood maturation?” I think a lot of people aren’t familiar with the role of a master blender. Also you work at single malt distilleries, but I think we’re used to master blenders when it comes to blended Scotch. If you could explain a little bit about what you do on a day-to-day basis that will be super interesting.

R: It’s extremely varied. It’s probably the most varied job in the whole industry, because you have to know everything. Obviously, I’ve done a lot of research into flavor over the past 29 years, and you really have to know as much as possible — I’m still learning — but right from the barley in the field, right through to the bottle going down the line, and right into the markets. So I have a very varied job. And three and a half years ago when I started, it was analyzing thousands of casks and nosing. It’s mostly sensory. The master blender role is very much about the world of flavor, about creating flavor, about every step in the process that nurtures that flavor that then is delivered to the consumer, consistently. I’m really a custodian of spirit quality in many ways. And my nose is my greatest asset. In addition to that, it’s deciding which wood the spirit is going to go into. So all of a sudden Scotch industry, we can use so many different woods, really a world of flavor. Everything from U.S. bourbon casks, to sherry casks, to Marsala casks, to red wine casks, whatever. I get to travel the world, or have done, previously, just to source many different types of casks to enrich the flavor of the single malts.

A: Amazing. Do you have an insurance policy on your nose?

R: I have life insurance, not specifically on my nose. But maybe I should.

A: Because all the athletes have insurance policies on their shooting arm or their throwing arm or whatever. So, I had to ask. As you said, you basically take the liquid from the point of distillation through to bottling, but even the sourcing of the grains, et cetera. How has that changed for you, or what adaptations have you had to make because of Covid?

R: It really kind of hit us in March. Into April, there was a pause while, I think, the whole world kind of took stock of what was happening, and just paused in terms of the operation. And then we started up with lots of practices in place. Social distancing, the visitor centers closed, production started up again after a few weeks of not being able to distill, because in a distillery people are distanced. A distillman is a far distance from a masheman, and the same goes for the warehousemen, so we were able to start up again, just at a slower pace. And then in the bottling area, it’s social distancing, and it was a slower pace. But we’ve still been able to continue producing with all the PPE and the protective gear.

A: You mentioned that a lot of your job is also sourcing the casks that you’ve finished the single malt in. Has that impacted your job at all? Because obviously, you were saying that you traveled a good bit. Or do you have places where you source the casks from now that trust, and you know what you’re getting from a lot of those places? Is there not as much of a need to travel as maybe you would have in the beginning, three and a half years ago when you first started?

R: Yeah. I’ve been looking at wood and sourcing oak for nearly three decades. I know most of the key players and have those relationships, so I can order casks and whatnot from home, I have those relationships. We just need to agree on the quality, the specification, and get them on a container and a ship to Scotland, and then filled. So it is continuing. Although, I must admit I do like my trips to Louisville, to Jack Daniel’s, and to Woodford Reserve. And so I’ve not been for a year. And also to Jerez, Seville, in Spain, another one of my favorite places. In a normal year, I would tend to go there twice a year. I’m hoping for next year.

A: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about Jerez and Spain, in particular. The GlenDronach is very much known for its sherry cask finishing. Correct?

R: Correct. GlenDronach goes right back to 1826 when the distillery was founded by James Allardice. It was first in sherry casks because that’s what was brought into the United Kingdom from Spain as shipping casks, and sherry was bottled in the U.K. And then the casks went for GlenDronach.

GlenDronach, I spend a lot of my time, a huge amount of my time on the quality of the sherry casks. We specify Spanish oak, which is very, very rare, very expensive. The casks are toasted, they’re filled with sherry. Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez are the ones I celebrate for GlenDronach — especially the Pedro Ximenez, the king of sherrys. It just married so beautifully with our robust Highland style to give us a real, full-bodied single malt. It’s also elegant and fruity.

A: When the casks come in they’re not drained at all? I mean, they’ve been drained of the sherry, obviously, but there’s probably still residual sherry in the cask, correct?

R: Oh, it just goes into the stave. There’s an interaction between the wood and the sherry, and the sherry within the stave is not actually sherry. It’s sherry that’s reactive with the wood. So it’s a way of seasoning the wood for us, as well.

A: Amazing. Another whiskey professional I talked to recently, and I’m curious for your thoughts because you deal so much with sherry, had basically said that at this point in time, the whiskey industry is basically what’s keeping the sherry industry afloat. A lot of the sherry industry is basically just filling casks with sherry in order to supply the massive demand of sherry casks amongst the whiskey industry. Is that something that you’ve seen as well throughout your career? Is that something that you think is actually true?

R: Well, I mean, the sherry casks today are the best I’ve ever seen them. The quality is just unbelievable. It takes me back nearly 30 years to the sherry casks in the early 1990s. They’ve really mastered the art in Jerez of how to meet the perfect sherry cask for Scotch maturation. It’s incredible. Back in the day, it was the shipping casks that came into the U.K. that were used for Scotch, and that practice stopped in 1986. The industry had to work together and work with the sherry producers in Jerez to create the perfect sherry casks. A lot of research.

A: If I understand you correctly, it seems like a lot of sherry producers are actually producing sherry with the understanding that the cask will be used for Scotch down the road? Understanding from the moment that they even get that cask for their own use first, that there will be a secondary use. And so they’re working with you even before they fill that cask with sherry?

R: Absolutely. And the thing is that is the same as back in the day. Although the sherry industry used to reuse their casks a lot. And they shipped to the United Kingdom in shipping casks, which were actually fresh oak casks. And that’s what then went on to be sold into the industry. It’s not too dissimilar from then in many, many ways.

A: A lot of the maturation in sherry, as you noted, came just from the fact that that’s the casks that were available, that’s what was shipping to the U.K. But what is it about sherry casks that you think are so special when it comes to Scotch maturation?

R: I mean, for me, we’ve got very defined specifications, and not every sherry cask is the same, it can be different oak. We were very specific in specifying Spanish oak because it is a hybrid that gives us a duality of character, and that is so important. They’re also very thick staves, solid structure, and they tend to be made in larger sizes, as well. Around 500 liters in capacity. So you’ve got these different dynamics going on and, and you’ve got the sherry, and, partly because of the reactions with the sherry with the wood, it means that there’s lots of the wood left. but the acidity of the sherry has also broken down that wood, as well. There’s loads of chemistry going on, and it’s a very solid cask. It tends to give you a very long maturation. The casks last a long time, so we could fill them a couple of times. We also keep more of the angel share inside of the cask — which is quite nice — with the bigger size of casks.

A: So you’re losing less whisky.

R: In addition to that, with GlenDronach, I would say we probably buy the most Pedro Ximenez casks in the industry. That style is just perfect for GlenDronach. Not all sherry casks are the same. Pedro Ximenez gives you this lovely sweetness, with elegance and fruit, which is perfect for GlenDronach. It means Valley of the Brambles, and brambles are dark fruit berries, so you can imagine how that would work.

A: I don’t want to spend all of our time talking about GlenDronach, you also do work with two other distilleries. One of the distilleries is just about to re-release or re-package all of its Scotch, right? BenRiach. Can you tell me a little bit about that and what Scotch is that you’re releasing, and also what that’s been like to think about releasing new Scotches during this time that we’re all going through?

R: When I started at BenRiach three and a half years ago, the moment I started, it was like being a child in the sweets shop because the distillery has the most variety. The name comes from Ben, little hill, and Riach, which means diversity in terms of the type of farming that was done. It’s on a hill that was to the Riach farm. I love this because I’ve worked in the industry for many years and going to BenRiach was like every experience I’ve ever had in one distillery, because BenRiach makes peated malt, which is basically sweet and smoky. It also makes a classic orchard-fruit-laden style, and triple-distilled. So we’ve got these different styles and then also it’s got the most eclectic range of casks in Scotland. This is part of the explorer in me, sourcing casks from Marsala, to rum, to bourbon, to sherry, to red wine, virgin oak all over the world. And then what I got to do was basically to paint with flavor and create the new range. That was a really exciting journey in the past few years. And I’ve just been talking about it really for the past few weeks.

A: In terms of launching the new range, I would assume as we’ve discussed earlier, you would be traveling? You probably would go to a few key markets, talk to the press, like myself, or you would talk to bartenders, beverage directors, et cetera. Now you’re not doing that. Do you find that a lot of this is now mostly on Zoom and things like that in which you’re trying to talk to as many people as possible? And how is that different for you?

R: Yeah, initially I felt really strange, and it feels a bit artificial. However, I’m absolutely loving it, because I’m getting to speak to probably thousands of people from around the world that there’s no way I would reach in such a short span of time. One day I could be speaking to people in Singapore or in Taiwan, the next day it could be the U.S., and with people from all over the U.S., from the West and East Coast. All over, as long as we get the timing right. It could be all around Europe as well. I don’t need to waste time getting on a plane, I can just be in front of people and, as long as they’ve got the whisky as well, we’re sharing that experience together, and I get to take them to the range. I’ve actually reached more people through not traveling.

A: That’s amazing. There are some positives coming out of this in which we are realizing that there’s other ways in which we can interact and we can taste liquid and get to have conversations with people that actually make the liquid that don’t mean us having to travel to where the liquids are made. Or you have to travel to where we are in order for us to connect and really get to know what goes into making what’s in our glass. Which is really, really cool. We’ve always had this technology available to us, we just haven’t taken advantage of it the way that we have now and realize, “Oh, yeah, this was always here and we probably should use it more.”

R: Absolutely. And to connect with more people, I’m almost more culturally aware because I’m speaking to more people than from all over. It’s fantastic. And then getting their feedback as well when they’re tasting it, and what they enjoy, I’m getting that all in quite a short period of time. It’s very enriching for me to get that feedback.

A: That makes a lot of sense. So I have a question for you that I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask, because you are the master blender at a Scotch portfolio that is owned by one of the most well-known bourbon companies in the world. And you’ve been in the business for 27 years, which is amazing. So I imagine that you’ve seen the taste profiles, especially with the American consumers, change. And when you started in the industry, bourbon was not what it is now in the U.S. — it was not this behemoth that everyone was obsessed with. And while I think we like to believe and romanticize that everything that’s created isn’t influenced by other liquids — that it’s just the artistry of the people making it — we have to admit that there is influence. My question for you is, how have you seen this bourbon boom influence the world of Scotch in the past 10 years? And maybe not in the distilleries you work with specifically, but with other ones. I’ve noticed a lot of distilleries now coming out and being very clear “these are bourbon-cask- finished Scotches” and really trying to go after the bourbon drinker. How has that impacted your day-to-day in terms of the whiskies you’re creating, or has it not at all?

R: We are particularly lucky in being part of Brown-Forman, because it means we have access to all these great Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester casks, and also the virgin oak, because Brown-Forman has got its own pepperidge, so the same casks actually go to Jack Daniel’s, and we get some for BenRiach too that haven’t even been filled with bourbon. That’s quite interesting. Obviously, it means that we’ve got more casks to pick from, we can experiment more with Woodford Reserve casks or rye barrels that previously held Jack Daniel’s rye, different variants of each of these two. Since there’s been more experimentation in bourbon, it means we can experiment more too. And equally, with the oak, there’s been lots of work done on the oak for Jack Daniel’s and Woodford. So I can tap into that expertise with different toasting and charring levels and whatnot as well. It’s a real collaboration there, and I think people can use more first fill bourbon casks than ever before, which is great for malt because it just brings out all of its sweetness and fruitiness and really dials it up. I think it’s great for, for the quality of single malts. We rely on the quality of the bourbon industry as well.

A: So do you think that the rise of bourbon in the U.S. is influencing the flavor profiles of Scotch, or influencing what an American consumer is looking for when it comes to Scotch?

R: I’m not sure about that. I think with Scotland historically, same with everywhere, actually, there were more blended Scotch drinkers in the world, with the big blends. And really, it’s actually more like wine in some ways, single malt, and the consumer is now waking up to the richness of tastes that you get from a single malt that you perhaps don’t get from a blend. I think there are more American consumers gravitating towards single malts because they’ve got more sweetness, the creaminess, the mouth feel, the fruitiness. Everything is really rich. And, obviously, bourbons have a rich flavor as well. And they’re not the same. They’re definitely very different. And I would say we’ve got a greater diversity, in many ways, of style, going from really quite full-bodied, smokey whiskies to extremely fruity whiskies, and we can use different casks. So I think the world has opened up to the flavor of whiskey as a whole, whether it’s American or Scotch.

A: That makes a lot of sense. And for those listeners who are curious as to when you say the single malts are fruity or more round, is that because they are just malt, and when you have a blend you are blending in grain whiskey as well?

R: Blended Scotch is a blend of grain whiskey which has been distilled in a continuous still, which is a big tall still, alembic still, and single malt Scotch whisky is distilled in copper pot stills, similar to Woodford Reserve, but with single malt we’re using 100 percent malted barley, and barley is arguably the most complex material in the world that you can brew with and you can distill with.You can have a very, very, very wide range of different flavors. And everything from orchard fruit, to dark fruit, to biscuity flavors, and then when you peat it over fire, as we do with some of BenRiach in our smoke season, we use peated malt. It has this really sweet smokiness, I think the bourbon drinkers are going to love it, because it’s more like a sweet barbecue than it is like sea salt. It’s quite different. I’m really excited for what people in the States think about BenRiach’s Smoky 10 and Smoky 12. But we also have in the new range, the Original 10, and we have a new 12 Years Old as well, which I think the consumers will also love because it has the richness of a 12 Years Old. With age, you get a richness of character that’s impossible to replicate any other way.

A: That’s really cool. So, I have one last question for you that’s a kind of a hot button. I just want your own opinion. I asked this last week to the founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon, and so I’m curious what you think as well. We’ve had this question from VinePair readers and listeners of the podcast in the past. We prize age when it comes to whiskey. Is there such a thing as a whiskey being too old?

R: If it’s in good wood and it’s an exceptional spirit, there’s no such thing as a whiskey being too old. I think it’s all to do with the quality at the end of the day. But if you get an unexceptional GlenDronach, BenRiach or Glenglassaugh in quality wood, top- quality spirits, it’s just going to be like the Holy Grail. There’s a certain elixir-type category that develops with age. In a good oak cask, it’s going to give you really, really, deliciously syrupy, concentrated flavor you’ve never experienced before. In a poor-quality cask, it’s obviously not going to be quite so great.

A: Rachel, thank you so much for taking the time today to chat with me about everything you’re up to, and also giving us a little bit of an update on how things are going in the Scotch industry in Scotland, now that we’re all facing Covid-19, and what’s happening at Edinburgh. I really appreciate you taking the time. So thank you so much.

R: No, thank you very much for inviting me on. And I would just say to everyone get healthy and stay well.