Dewar's guardian

Dewar's guardian

Caroline Dewar meets the latest in the line of Dewar's master blenders

People | 20 Apr 2007 | Issue 63 | By Caroline Dewar

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The master blender at Dewar’s in Glasgow is a calm and collected presence as she welcomes you to the premises. Following Tom Aitken’s retirement in summer 2006, Stephanie McLeod is now one of only a small number of senior women on the production side of Scotch whisky.Her role is quality and consistency guardian of the Dewar’s blends and malts and of all incoming whiskies and casks. She will also be creator of any new offerings. Only in her 30s, she has put in plenty of hardwork to get here – and it is a job she obviously enjoys.So how did it happen? First there was a degree in Food Science from Strathclyde University. That was followed up by a stint at Barr’s, the soft drink producer and then four years as a research assistant on whisky back at Strathclyde. Part of her work there was sensory and chemical analysis which continues to inform her domain at Dewar’s.“Part of my research was to unlock the secrets of maturation – and we’ve still not done it.” After that, a move to Wm. Lawson’s QC team, which subsequently became part of Dewar’s. In 2000 she was put in charge of the laboratory where she set up a sensory panel – a new feature there. In 2002 she was asked if she was interested in training formally as a blender and worked with Tom to deepen her expertise and knowledge.So what are the day-to-day tasks of a master blender? Are they locked away in labs all day, creating? For Stephanie, her days involve running the two test laboratories apart from her own nosing lab and those cover all ingredients from barley to bottle. Distillery samples undergo chemical and sensory analysis at each stage to check consistency.Samples of new spirit, blend batches and production line samples are nosed. Reports are done for distilleries on whiskies received and e-mails and letters replied to. Casks are nosed to guard against mould or mustiness and to ensure they have the properties sought.She supervises laboratory staff who look, among other things, at major volatile congeners in whisky. Copper content in new spirit is monitored – it is important as a catalyst in maturation but levels must not be too high.“Is the female nose better?” Stephanie’s view is that everyone has some ability in this area but some are better than others to start with, whether male or female. Practice and training help to develop a keener nose.Enthusiasm is just as important to her.Turning to the Dewar’s blends and malts, how does Stephanie view the development of premium blends?“This is of great interest to us. We have very buoyant forecasts for Asia. It’s a very exciting time. Consumers now take more interest in flavour. Our premium blends are still growing in emerging markets. Dewar’s 18 Years Old and Signature have been launched in the last three years and our Dewar’s 15 Years Old blended malt is currently in Taiwan only.Looking at our malt portfolio, Aberfeldy at 12 and 21 Years Old have only recently been formally launched in the USA. We’re looking at our other malts to see what we might want to develop in line with what markets want too. They are currently available only at the distilleries and at Dewar’s World of Whisky.” Those who have never encountered a blender might be curious as to how they go about that task. How does Stephanie begin blend creation and can a move from small test to large volume change the liquid?“The brief is always based on general flavour and specific age profiles. I start by thinking about the flavour profile to be created.Usually, I think of the blend as a structure – I begin with my framework malts and then the malts I want to hang on there that will add interest and complexity. Various permutations of the malt blend are sensory analysed (nose, taste, mouthfeel, colour), always blind and a selection is made. For the grain element – again, test blends are compiled, and then blended with the malt element. A number of blends are made up, analysed blind and preferences selected.These are then presented to a trained sensory team, blind, over several days and a preferred blend emerges. I work with very small volumes to begin with, but generally I’ve found that the parity between the small test volume – one litre or so – and the actual blend to be excellent, so far.” What about finishes? Stephanie says: “We haven’t gone down that route in Dewar’s yet. They seem to be doing well. It certainly gives more choice and variety but is not something I would buy myself.” In terms of blends she places no particular one on a pedestal but simply states that Dewar’s own blends are very precious to her.Her main ambition is to build on the work of previous blenders. She wants the best wood and the best new make spirit.“If a market would like a new blend it’s my job to produce it in terms of flavour profile required. I would like to create something of my own – I’m a scientist, I love experimenting! But only when I have time. As a group, Bacardi is very interested in innovation and actively encourage it – within reason.” I asked Stephanie if, like some old-school blenders, she throws a fit if anyone comes into the labs wearing perfume or after shave.“No – but I don’t like it.You know, it’s a big sacrifice that I can’t wear perfume every day. I just prefer to encourage people on our sensory panels not to wear anything like that.” Not irascible then – which is the impression you get from the start with Stephanie.Calm assurance prevails.
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