Interview of Rachel Barrie, Morrison Bowmore Distillers
Rachel Barrie is an emblematic whisky figure. She is the first woman master blender, a whisky creator (e.g., Glenmorangie Signet, Ardbeg Supernova and more recently, at Morrison Bowmore with e.g., Bowmore Devil’s Cask, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch Virgin Oak, Auchentoshan 1979), brand amabassador and judge at different panels.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Rachel Barrie. Since numerous interviews with Rachel Barrie have been published (see references below), covering rather general aspects, I decided to ask her more specific and/or technical questions, that were of interest to me, and hopefully to you as well.
Listening to Rachel Barrie is like music and I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did.
About you, Rachel Barrie:
Whisky-news (WN): Should a whisky be done at your image or reflects your personality, how should it be?
Rachel Barrie (RB): This is an unfair question (laugh)! It should have character, soul, be multi-layered, enigmatic and it should tell the story of its life.
It should welcome you, be engaging, start off with telling you how it is today. As you get to know it and develop the conversation further, e.g., with some water, you will discover its journey through time, its life-experience, its storms and battles, its light and dark contrasts, and how it has achieved its multi-layered persona with complexity and balance. Finally, it should tell you about where it was born, revealing the soul and character from where it was made.
For me, both Bowmore and Glen Garioch embody the strong character of their birth region: a life of contrasts with extremes of weather but outstanding natural beauty. Glen Garioch embodies the ‘granary of Aberdeenshire’ with its welcoming rich malty heart and Bowmore reflects the multi-layered complexity and enigmatic balance synonymous with the elemental isle of Islay.
WN: What is your role in the marketing of new product (e.g., packaging and development of “feminine products”), besides acting as ambassador?
RB: I provide marketing support through developing prototypes for liquid product development, writing tasting notes, telling the story of the whisky and supporting activations. New product development now involves making the liquids shine in addition to the job of whisky-making. This encompasses conducting tastings for design agencies, communicating the story of whisky creation and providing activation ideas, whether it be food pairings, ideas for press kits, digital media or developing the stories, and this part of my role has increased in recent years. I am also involved in answering customer queries and supporting the provision of detailed technical information on new products, as well as contributing to PR press releases and providing support for product launches.
WN: Talking about education, some years ago, a well-made educative movie was produced by MBD, with Andrew Rankin and Charles Maclean on the late singlemalt.tv. Is there any plan to repeat this type of exercise?
RB: I would love to do more to promote Scotch whisky via the media, to bring whisky to life and educate people online, since it is difficult to cover the whole world during a master class, which has a very limited audience.
I believe that, as an industry we need to better convey the diversity of style and individuality of the character and taste of Scotch whisky through a variety of media channels, blending with music, landscape, food, science and the people who make it of course!
WN: What is the proportion of your time spent between verifying the quality of new make, consistency of your core products and developing new ones (i.e., creation)?
RB: In terms of the whisky-making part of my job (which makes up about 80% of my role), I spend around 20% of my time assessing and studying new-make spirit quality (with a view to predicting maturation character), 35% working on the cask selection recipes for core expressions, and 35% of my time on the creation of new products. Another 10% is spent monitoring the quality of maturing stocks, deciding on when to re-rack into different oaks, and looking at experiments with a view as to how to best manage stock going forwards.
WN: How long does it take you to make a new whisky, e.g., a Glen Garioch batch? How difficult it is to create a new?
RB: When creating a new whisky, I believe the most important considerations are to bring out certain distinctive characteristics of the whisky not showcased before, to bring its story to life and to create a taste that appeals to the target audience.
For the Glen Garioch 15 YO Renaissance, I first analysed the stock profile of Glen Garioch distilled between 1997 and 1999, checking the profile for bourbon and sherry matured stocks, both 1st and 2nd fill casks, from a wide range of distillation dates. It took around 2-3 months of sampling and experimenting with prototypes to find the optimum balance of rich sweetness, robust spiciness and developed fruitiness that I was looking for. I then vatted the stocks together, ran the vatted whisky back into oak and allowed the new whisky to marry for around 6 months prior to bottling.
Another example is the Glen Garioch 1998 wine matured. I sampled the stocks in consideration of a possible new expression in 2011, but it was not bottled until 2014. In 2011, I judged that it still had some way to go to achieve the perfect balance of complexity and flavour integration; wine casks provide more intense tannic spices and berry fruit character, but also subtract less of the base character from the new-make spirit so often require a longer maturation to integrate all the flavours. During cask construction, French oak wine barriques are heated simply to bend the oak staves with very little toasting of the surface, in contrast to bourbon barrels which are heated to very higher temperatures providing a char layer. Full wine cask maturation provides an extremely complex and robust spirit, full of flavour, but it does take a little longer.
WN: Since you have a scientific background, with a degree in Chemistry, are you still involved in scientific experiments at Morrison Bowmore Distillers?
RB: Yes, I am particularly interested in flavour complexity and always want to learn more about how each new-make spirit changes and develops during maturation in different oaks. I have a gas chromatograph (GC) and a high performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) in the lab as well as several other scientific instruments. I also Chair the Flavour Quality Technical Liaison Group and am on the Research Management Committee of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, and sit on the Scientific Committee of the Scotch Whisky Association, helping to steer scientific research for the good of the industry. My strongest interest is how whisky reacts with wood, but also in how spirit character is influenced by different conditions (e.g. different warehouses, position in warehouse, barley harvest, fermentation time or distillation parameters). When I nose a new-make spirit, differences can be quite subtle, however from experience, I know that small differences can become greater during maturation. I believe this is the Holy Grail: to best understand which parameters influence the evolution of new-make spirit into a uniquely flavoursome single malt whisky with complexity, intrigue and balance, and through this understanding, ensure quality is sustained for the future. Every day I discover something new.
WN: In you work, what is your most challenging activity and why?
RB: I believe the most important challenge is managing the stock profile and cask selection recipes to ensure the sustainable on-going supply of the highest quality consistent-tasting whiskies. My role as both a guardian and custodian of whisky quality is both an honour and a huge responsibility.
WN: As a woman and mother of 3 sons, how do you manage your work/life/family balance?
RB: I do as much of everything as I can and embrace the opportunities as they arise, but often have to compromise and say no to some things too! I do what feels right each day, living a life full of contrasts, variety and complexity (much like the whisky I work with), but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
WN: In the whisky, the current trend is to move from age statements to NAS whiskies? What do you think will be the next trend?
RB: I believe there is much scope to achieve greater flavour complexity with NAS whiskies, through greater flavour understanding and use of the highest quality oak. A move to NAS whiskies should signal greater innovation as producers look to achieve a distinctive balance of malt and oak-derived tastes. For example Glen Garioch Virgin Oak is arguably one of the richest NAS malts with its robust and rich malty heart matured in virgin American mountain oak, a whisky I describe as a ‘velvet explosion’ of taste!
WN: With the exception of the core range, the Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve and the 12 year old, small batches are released. The concept of batch is linked to the limited availability of casks of Glen Garioch?
RB: This is linked to batch quality, individuality of character and stock availability. For instance, the 12 year old has a balance of spicy, heathery, fruity and creamy tastes. The new Renaissance 15 years old is much richer (almost ‘baked’ in character), with dried fruits and toffee sweetness reflecting the warmth and depth of the Highlands. A new batch of Renaissance will be released every year over the next 3 years, until it reaches 18 years old to illustrate how Glen Garioch changes and matures over time. This will show how complexity and depth develops as well as the ‘top notes’ associated with maturation age. The ex-bourbon and sherry casks are married together for over 6 months, ideal to knit together the complexities in Renaissance.
WN: What is the selection process for new products and single casks bottling of Glen Garioch? Do you make a preselect ion or do you work based on the customer requirements, as for instance the new 40 year old 1973 Glen Garioch for the Whisky Exchange?
RB: It is really a combination of both pre-selection and customer requirements. At the start of the year, the decision is made as to how many casks should be released to customers from a range of years, and then, based on sampling and stock knowledge, I will reserve a number of exceptional casks that showcase the best of Glen Garioch from those years. The specialist retailer then gets the opportunity to select their cask from my pre-selection, based on which cask they like best!
WN: Can we expect more Glen Garioch from the early 1970s to be released, or even older casks?
RB: We have a few casks left from the peated period going back to near the middle of the 20th Century. They are all very special indeed. Indeed, one cask of Glen Garioch 47 year old (released recently as ‘The Last Drop’) has just been crowned Scotch Single Malt (single cask) of the Year 2015 in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.
At Morrison Bowmore I am lucky that we have beautiful and highly complex stocks of Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch whisky, the result of producing consistent spirit quality to the highest sensory standards, an exceptional wood sourcing policy, and very diligent management of the stock profile on a long term basis.
This has resulted in the diverse range of whiskies on offer - from highly innovative NAS expressions, through exceptionally well-balanced and complex core and aged expressions, to some of the finest and oldest most phenomenally interesting whiskies I have ever tried!
WN: Rachel, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. This has been very much appreciated and I wish you all the very best. I am looking forward tasting your new creations!
A non-exhaustive list of interviews with Rachel Barrie can be found below:
©www.whisky-news.com, 14 November 2014