Tasting Drams With Bowmore Master Blender Rachel Barrie

by Amanda Schuster

It has been said that women have more sensitive palates than men. That women are able to detect aromas and nuances those of the male persuasion sometimes miss, and are better at identifying specific flavors in foods and beverages. One of the most important positions in the whisky world is that of Master Blender, whose keen senses of smell and taste are relied upon to determine the quality of the final product. However, guess which gender traditionally dominates that role?

Rachel Barrie of Bowmore is one of the few females in the world to hold this distinguished title. She has quite the task, as she is not only in charge of Bowmore distillery’s releases, but also those at Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch (pronounced “Glen Geary,” rhymes with “eerie”), all part of the Bowmore family spread throughout Scotland.

So how did Barrie earn this prestigious title for one of the most prominent Scotch producers? A combination of right place, right time, and boundless enthusiasm. She had always been interested in the Scotch-making process. She attributes her natural gifts as combined hereditary traits – a sharp sense of smell from her dad and a talent for describing flavors and aromas from her mom. After earning her graduate chemistry degree, Barrie became a Research Scientist at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. From there she worked as a researcher and Product Development Manager at Glenmorangie, already in charge of key grain to bottle decisions, and was eventually promoted to Master Blender, the first female ever to do so. She came to Bowmore in 2011.

In her first year at Bowmore, Barrie dug right in to select new releases from all three distilleries. During a recent afternoon at the NoMad Hotel in New York City, she presented three of their signature marks, accompanied by “mystery” drams from each distillery, which are destined for release in the coming months. These selections were chosen among a vast range of casks at each distillery. It was up to Barrie to taste through these casks and decide which ones were worthy of bottling for limited editions. One barrel among hundreds at each distillery. The joke is “How do you choose among your children?” But this is precisely what Barrie has to do to be a successful Master Blender. No pressure or anything. 

The trick was to choose representations that don’t stray too far from the aesthetic of the distilleries, but at the same time, offer something different to entice the public. The selections were each fascinating to taste in their own way, like jazz variations on their source material.

The well-aged Auchentoshan (let’s just say in America it’s well past legal, but not so old it doesn’t get carded now and then) spent its final maturation in Oloroso sherry casks. This adds a much deeper hue and richer flavors than the lighter, more tropical signature releases of this Lowland malt. Modern Glen Garioch whiskies are unpeated, however the “mystery dram” hails from a time when the distillery still used peat in their production. The resulting whisky has a subtle, sweet smoke that wafts delicately around floral and pine notes. And if Bowmore’s home at Islay is known for its brooding weather, the selected whisky reveals its sunnier side. It’s light both in color and tone, with soft, malty flavors and comforting accents of cookie dough and sweet barbecue smoke. A drop of water frees its more savory notes of olive oil, rosemary and even, baked ham. 

Attention gift shoppers: The signature Scotches of all three distilleries are all widely available year round and highly recommended additions to any collection, especially since they are prime examples of three distinctly different regions and styles. Definitely look out for new limited editions from Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and Bowmore in the coming months. As you do, think about everything that goes into those bottles from grain to barrel, and how much the details matter. The world is lucky to have someone like Rachel Barrie among those who make that call. Our taste buds thank her.

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