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Dr. Rachel Barrie: The Maestro Behind Exceptional Whisky Blending

Hailing from the Scotch-rich region of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, Dr. Rachel Barrie was destined for a career in the world of Single Malt whisky creation. Her remarkable journey began with a solid foundation in chemistry, honed during her studies at the University of Edinburgh. Little did she know that her path would lead to becoming one of the most influential figures in the whisky industry.


Needless to say, when the opportunity presented itself to attend a guided tasting with Dr Rachel Barrie herself, flanked by the never not charismatic Brown-Forman advocate extraordinaire Andy Tsai, we made a beeline to Elizabeth Bay House, which stands as a timeless emblem of Sydney's history.


Given that Elizabeth Bay House’s halls whisper secrets of an era long past, we were reminded that, in the end, it is not just bricks and mortar that define a home but the stories, ambitions, and passions that have graced its halls, one could not have asked for a better backdrop for Dr Rachel Barrie’s adding yet significant facet to the manor’s grandeur and history.


From Research Scientist to Master Blender

Dr. Barrie's journey commenced as a research scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, a role that allowed her to combine her analytical skills, honed through her chemistry studies, with a growing passion for malt whisky. During her tenure, she focused on oak maturation and distillery flavour development, delving deep into the science behind whisky's complex character.


As she worked her way through the industry, Dr. Barrie transitioned to production at The Glenmorangie Company, an iconic distillery known for its commitment to excellence. Here, she had the opportunity to work with renowned brands like Ardbeg, Glen Moray, and the blends of Bailie Nicol Jarvie and Martin's. In 2003, her journey reached a significant milestone as she assumed the role of Master Blender.


However, Dr. Barrie's portfolio was not limited to a single distillery. She embraced an extraordinary balancing act by managing stocks for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, gaining insight into a diverse array of distilleries.


By 2011, she had embarked on yet another chapter, joining Morrison Bowmore Distillers. Her responsibilities spanned Bowmore, Auchentoshan, and Glen Garioch single malts. This breadth of experience was a testament to her versatility as a master blender.

In 2017, Dr. Barrie's career reached new heights as she was appointed Master Blender for Brown-Forman's Single Malt portfolio.


Here, she assumed the mantle for BenRiach, GlenDronach, and Glenglassaugh distilleries, overseeing a remarkable range of distinct flavour profiles, which were going to be the focus of the event.


A Career Defined by Diversity


Dr. Barrie's career has been marked by her ability to manage multiple distilleries simultaneously, rather than merely focusing on perfecting just one. She emphasizes the importance of understanding each distillery's unique DNA and character, a task she accomplishes by taking the time to explore their inventory and refine their signature profiles.


As we delved into Glenglassaugh’s recently released Sandend and Portsoy expression, Dr Barrie pointed out that geographical location and cask profiles play pivotal roles in shaping the respective flavour profiles, with the coastal influence at Glenglassaugh in Sandend Bay playing an integral role.


From the get go Dr Barrie emphasized that she embraces the philosophy that "the nose knows," emphasizing the importance of sensory perception and intuition in creating outstanding whiskies.


Glenglassaugh's Resurgence: A Toast to Tradition

After a slumber of over two decades, the hallowed stills of Glenglassaugh were reawakened in 2008, ushering in a renaissance that culminates in the unveiling of a brand new core range in 2023.


Situated on the untamed shores of north Aberdeenshire, this distillery finds its sanctuary behind the pristine beauty of Sandend Bay, where Master blender Dr Barrie spent her youth and honed her surfing skills, and now, in a symphony of liquid artistry, she pays homage to this beloved bay through an unpeated single malt creation.


Glenglassaugh’s Sandend expression has journeyed through time, maturing gracefully in a harmonious blend of bourbon, sherry, and manzanilla casks. Its character is a testament to this diverse maturation, a fusion of flavours and aromas that paint a vivid picture of its coastal birthplace.


The very first encounter is a delightful dance of buttery fudge, reminiscent of a sweet embrace. It is joined by the comforting presence of vanilla ice cream, followed by the vivacious notes of candied mango and the intriguing allure of salted papaya, hinting at the distant sea.


As the elixir graces your palate, the flavours unfurl like a rich tapestry. Tablet, a beloved Scottish treat, takes centre stage, accompanied by the lush sweetness of grilled mango and the warm embrace of toasted vanilla. Boiled pineapple sweeties and creamy barley add depth and complexity, making each sip a revelation.


The grand finale arrives with the flourish of grapefruit and juicy berries, their vibrant notes harmonizing with the persistent vanilla and butterscotch. In the background, a gentle coastal breeze caresses the senses not unlike what graced us at Elizabeth Bay, a whispered farewell to a truly remarkable dram.


What was going to be proffered next took me by surprise and proved to be my favourite dram of the day:


Glenglassaugh Portsoy: A Swell-Calibrated Symphony of Smoke and Sea


Glenglassaugh’s Portsoy is an exceptional little number that has matured in a symphony of casks, including sherry, bourbon, and the storied Port casks. The result is a whisky that dances on the palate, marrying smoky depths with the allure of the sea.


As you approach this masterpiece, the nose is greeted by waves of coastal character. Sweet layers of tropical fruit entwine with the herbaceous embrace of peat. Toffee and milk chocolate offer a comforting sweetness, while a hint of sweet soy sauce and mackerel adds an intriguing layer of complexity.


The palate is a revelation.


Chocolatey malt lays the foundation for a symphony of flavours. Grilled pineapple and treacle toffee take the stage, while beneath them, a mesmerizing dance of sticky soy dances against a backdrop of smoky peat, leaving an indelible mark.


The elongated finish is nothing short of awe-inspiring.


Maritime peat smoke mingles with peppery oak. Stewed berries and charred tropical fruits make their presence known, guided by the embrace of rich oak. Seaweed, salted liquorice, and dark chocolate-coated salted almonds linger, ensuring this journey's memory remains etched in your soul.


The next stop of our journey led us to the eclectic cask collection at the BenRiach Distillery Company, which aided by Brown-Forman's extensive reach, grants Dr. Barrie unparalleled creative freedom.


BenRiach: Where Complexity Meets Affordability

BenRiach, with its diverse array of ages, cask types, and finishes, has always been a tantalizing enigma, challenging us to decipher its essence given how its spirits intermingle to yield an array of flavour possibilities, resulting in a diverse range of experimental creations.


One aspect that adds to the mystique is BenRiach's releasing whiskies with the same age statement in both smoky and non-smoky variations—peated and non-peated. This duality leaves connoisseurs intrigued and sometimes bewildered.


BenRiach The Twelve: A Textured Elegance


BenRiach’s Twelve exudes a rich texture, perhaps owing to its additional two years of maturation as compared to the Ten core expression. With a slightly higher alcohol content, it offers a mouthfeel reminiscent of smooth butteriness—an intriguing contrast.


As a self-proclaimed peat enthusiast, I eagerly anticipated the BenRiach Smoky Twelve , and it did not disappoint.

Clocking in at an ABV of 46%, it brings a sweeter, earthier peat to the nose, accompanied by spicy malt notes, smoked meats, dried oranges, and a delightful touch of cinnamon.

On the palate, it offers a melange that is in equal parts informed by sweetness, earthy smoke with a tantalizing saline twist and hints of brown sugar.


BenRiach's core range proves to be a treasure trove of accessible and well-crafted offerings. These whiskies, both in terms of flavour and price point, are perfect for those new to the world of whisky. The common denominator of maturation in a consistent combination of casks ties them together.


As Dr Barrie elaborated throughout the tasting, it became apparent that her approach to whisky-making has evolved. What once began as a career defined by ambition and a thirst for knowledge has transformed into a more strategic, creative, holistic, and integrated approach. As a master blender, Dr. Barrie relishes the intricate art of blending, where experimentation and refinement go hand in hand.

Having had a chance to chat and ask Dr Barrie a few questions, she compared this process to navigating a maze, with numerous twists and turns leading to the golden prize at the centre—an exquisite whisky. This perpetual journey of exploration and creativity fuels her passion and commitment to crafting exceptional spirits.


The key element that shone through the tasting sessions was Dr Barrie’s passion.


Her journey is a testament to the enduring allure of whisky, the dedication to honing one's craft, and the artistry of blending flavours to create liquid masterpieces. Dr. Rachel Barrie's legacy is one of passion, expertise, and an unwavering commitment to delivering the some of the finest whiskies on this earthround, while shattering glass ceilings, which was elaborated on during the Women in Whisky panel discussion that she spearheaded later that day amidst the current and next generation of Australian female whisky distillers, blenders and industry luminaries.


GlenDronach: A Sherry Lover's Dream


The journey culminated in deep dive on what for those who have a deep affection for sherried single malts is a name that should resonate with your whisky-loving soul.

The GlenDronach 12 Year Old, a beloved classic, is a testament to this devotion. It embarks on a maturation journey in a marriage of Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez casks from Spain. The result is a symphony of flavours, with abundant notes of dried fruits and the warmth of Christmas spices weaving through every sip.


Begin with a symphony of rich cereals, reminiscent of a struck match. Raisins and cinnamon follow suit, entwined with the allure of caramelized sugar. As you dive deeper, the nose evolves into a sweeter realm, with hints of PX sherry and the delightful presence of raw ginger. Creaminess arises, carrying the essence of hazelnuts.


What materialized on the top of the mouth is a burst of fruits and peels, accompanied by a luscious buttery texture. Picture indulging in a pain au chocolat, with a touch of marmalade on toasted bread. As the palate unfolds, it grows firmer and nuttier, with the enchantment of spiced raisins.


The finish of GlenDronach’s 12 is Pavlovian response evoking as it unveils smoky toffee, concluding with the delightful crunch of nut brittle, leaving one lusting for another dram.


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Words by AW.

Photos courtesy of @rbwhiskymaker, Brown-Forman and AW.


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