As a girl, Dr. Rachel Barrie grew up writing science fiction stories, enthralled by the wild imaginations of the creators behind such 1970s blockbuster films as Star Wars and E.T.
The elements that make science fiction so compelling—a prophetic vision for what could be—make Dr. Barrie one of the greatest whisky blenders alive. While science fiction often looks outwards into space, hers is an infinite one-way journey into a micro-universe found inside a dram. She revels in the thousands of joyful and smelly molecules that ping from the rim of a glass and make their way deep into our souls. She’s a master at harnessing the best of these aromatics, some of which can be a portal into the future and some of which can be a portal into the past; keys that unlock all the senses.
If you’ve tasted Scotch in the past few years, chances are you’ve enjoyed a whisky whose organoleptic personality she’s created, including single malts from Glenmorangie, Ardbeg, Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Glendronach, BenRiach, Glenglassaugh, and Glen Garioch. As a master blender, she anticipates how particular casks of whisky will mature, which ones should be blended together (if at all) and when the time is right for bottling. She’s tasted more than 150,000 barrels spanning almost three decades in the business, and speaks of them as if they were precious family members who grew up and entered the world.
While she’s moved among a number of Scotch companies, her mark upon casks and bottles endures long beyond her tenure at any of the brands. “Everything goes into them and becomes your heart and soul,” she says.
I first tasted one of Dr. Barrie’s creations about fifteen years ago while sitting in a class held by her in a laboratory at the Glenmorangie offices on the outskirts of Glasgow. It was a particularly dreary day, even for Scotland, but when Dr. Barrie spoke, she lit up the room and breathed life into the whisky’s little planet. She invited me along her journey to discover the miraculous relationship between the wood of the barrel and the unaged spirit. The combination of the two can interact to create thousands of different smells. Since then, I’ve unearthed many elegant top notes, such as tropical fruits and florals in her creations—aromatics that are often silenced by too much wood. This can occur in unskilled hands. She gets that balance right.
Dr. Barrie tasks herself and those around her to identify many of these smells—whisky contains more aromatics than just about any other spirit and even wine. Attend one of her lectures and you’ll get lost in suggestions of lush and elegant tropical fruits found in one dram, or the oily, robust richness of another. If you are lucky, a spirit might contain all of them, a feat that she calls “The Holy Grail.”
To share a dram with Dr. Barrie is to experience the antidote of a fast-paced, digital always on life. She’ll pull your focus inward while coaxing you to keep keenly aware of your surroundings, noticing the smells wherever you are.
In fact, the trick to perfecting the creation of a good whiskey, she says, is “mindfulness,” a word she peppers throughout our recent conversation. Whisky speaks most clearly to her when she’s away from the distillery and the external world is closed off; that usually happens when she quietly walks by the sea or is sitting peacefully. “I am inspired most by nature and I use my senses a lot—it’s a big part of how I live. My senses inform me more than anything—when I am nosing a whisky, I am not thinking about anything else. I am free flowing. I am there with nature, in the here and now, absorbing it, with no constraints—this is all part of the creative process.”
She even goes so far to share that whiskey actually “speaks” to her, and if you should ever meet her in person, she’ll translate what it means to say to you.
The current brands for which she is now the guardian (Glendronach, Glenglassaugh and BenRiach) “very quickly got under my skin because I know exactly what they are trying to say to me.” She describes them as all “roots and heritage, very old school, and certainly reminiscent of Scotch born in the 1960s and 1970s.” Fifty years ago, she says, Scotch drinkers would have experienced more richness and a full-bodied oiliness in Scotch whiskies–elements that are harder to find in newer bottlings. She plans to resurrect this particular personality in Glendronach, which uses an old traditional cast iron mash tun and is matured in a musty warehouse deep in a valley filled with bramble.
Dr. Barrie’s shift to a more ethereal, intuitive whisky approach from a more scientific and analytical one evolved over more time than many craft cocktail bartenders have been alive and slightly less time than Dr. Who’s run on the BBC. (I put that at about 35 years.) She began her whisky career in the early 1990s at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute as a research scientist after studying chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. She counts industry legends, Dr. Jim Swan and Dr. Sheila Burtles, as key mentors, both of whom were founders of the Institute in the 1970s. “Once you get that kind of scientific programming in your brain,” Dr. Barrie says of her years of analytic study, “it then becomes intuitive.”
This June, Dr. Barrie was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Edinburgh in chemistry, making her the first Scotch whisky master blender to receive such an accolade. According to Dr. Andrew J. Alexander, head of the University’s chemistry department, “I really do think though that we’ll not find any other person with an honorary degree for whisky making, and that would be a nice thing to underline for posterity.” Amazingly, the only other degree given by the school to a master blender was awarded to Dr. Joy Spence of Appleton Rum.
If good science fiction is, as James E. Gunn put in his book, Speculations On Speculation, a “branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places,” then Dr. Barrie has indeed absorbed these tenets and applied them to some seriously otherworldly whiskies.
Drinking one of Dr. Barrie’s creations is a way to communicate with her on a different dimension. With each sip, I try to calm my incessant left-brain chatter, allowing myself to sink into a chair. My eyes close and I visit places I’ve forgotten I’ve been.
Tonight, as I nose a whisky smelling slightly of vanilla and coconut, I am a child dressed as Princess Leia, kicking thick piles of leaves that cover my front yard a nose buried in a pillowcase filled with chocolate and sugar. I am happy.