From concert pianist to connoisseur

From concert pianist to connoisseur

Michael Jackson talks to Rachel Barrie, a woman who had childhood dreams of being a ballerina or a concert pianist, but became Glenmorangie's Product Development Leader.

People | 16 Feb 2001 | Issue 14 | By Michael Jackson

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Ambitions? Between the ages of five and ten, I wanted to be a ballerina. From ten to 15, I switched to concert pianist. Then I wised up, I realised that your have to be absolutely exceptional for careers like that.” Rachel Barrie punctuates her brisk replies with a chuckle. She leans away as she laughs, head thrown back. The gesture is not calculated, but the body language is disarming. Perhaps she is thinking that this is all too stereotypical: that every little girl wants to be a ballerina. Not necessarily a concert pianist, though. Nor with such chronological precision. Five-to-ten, then ten to 15, like ages for different vattings of malt whisky. Those careers never came to realisation, but Rachel did dance: “Ballet, tap, disco ...” She still looks like a ballet dancer: small, neat, feminine, hair tied back. She laughs a bit too much for a concert pianist, though. Despite these artistic leanings, she recalls that “at school, I chose logical and scientific subjects: maths, physics, chemistry,
biology.” Chemistry brings us neatly to smells, one of the dominant topics in both our lives. “I realised at an early age that I was very sensitive to smells. I remember things because of smells.” Like? “Music: the musty, woody, walnut smell of the piano at my grandmother’s. Hill
walking: heather, the spicy smells of pine cones. Then there were the smells of the kitchen. I was always interested in cooking. My father has a good sense of smell, though my mother is better at describing aromas.” Rachel’s childhood, in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, sounds idyllic and
successful. It was still a market town, only just beginning to be changed by the oil industry. Rachel seems to have been good at everything. Good looking. Self-effacing. I remember, in my own schooldays, hating kids like her. Desperately seeking schadenfreude, I press her: “No setbacks?” A breakthrough: “Blood and gore. The smell of formaldehyde. It’s my most horrendous memory. I will never get it out of my system. I was only 17.” It turns out that we have left Inverurie. We are now in the big city. Sounds like the Edinburgh of Burke and Hare. She was studying medicine, with a view to being a GP but was “put off in my first year.” She switched to chemistry, attained an honours degree. “I could have taken various routes: petro-chemicals, detergents, cosmetics. It was just luck that I found a job with Scottish and Newcastle Breweries.” She worked there for about a year as an analytical chemist: measuring different flavours in beer, comparing the same products from various breweries in the group and working in quality assurance. She says she was “never much of a beer drinker.” Not even in her student days? “I don't really like the hoppy flavours, the bitterness. I have noticed, in my limited experience, that women react badly to bitter characteristics. In beer, I preferred estery or malty flavours.” She preferred whisky, citing Glenmorangie and The Macallan. “They were the main ones. I do also like peaty malts. I don’t find peat bitter. Malt whiskies are easyto drink, you don’t have to take copious amounts. They are wonderful to sip.”

After a year in brewing she heard about an opening at the (Pentland) Scotch Whisky Research Institute, got the job and spent three years there. She worked on sources of flavours, from barley to yeast to oak – especially the latter – with Jim Swan, renowned for his pioneering studies on maturation. Their work looked mainly at the geographical origins of the oak and the use of air seasoning versus kiln-drying in the production of staves for casks. She recalls spending a lot of time burning oakshavings for flavour analysis by mass spectrometer. This was useful background when she joined Glenmorangie, where wood is a preoccupation of the company’s Head of Distilleries, Dr. Bill Lumsden. When she joined the company, in 1995, her intitial spread of concerns ranged from barley to bottling and packaging. At first she ran the laboratory, then managed quality assurance. In recent times, with many other versions, and wood finishes, her job title has evolved into Product
Development Leader. While much analytical work employs tools like gas chromatography, her biggest preoccupation has been in nosing and tasting. In her early career, she was doing “simple tasting”: looking for samples of beer or whisky that did not conform to the required aromas and flavours. Later, she was “breaking down” whiskies into their aroma and flavour components, identifying them and measuring them. To further this work, she also trains, tests and leads members of tasting panels for Glenmorangie, Glen Moray, Ardbeg and the company’s blends and other products. She noses whiskies from the still and from the cask. At one stage, she sampled 10,000 casks to establish the influences on flavour of the various maturation warehouses and of different “zones” in each. Today, she noses about 5,000 casks samples a year in order to know “inside out” the character and extent of the company’s stocks and be able to help blender John Smith make selections for bottling, whether in principal versions, single casks or special editions. On a nosing day, she might get through 100 samples. Between 10 and 20 per cent she will actually taste. I ask her two questions that are often put to me: don’t you get bored with visiting distilleries? And don’t you get tired of nosing? She has much the same answer as I do: “I find it fascinating that everyday when I go to work I learn something new. I think I know about whisky, but there is always the sample that can lead me somewhere I have not been. I can nose a cask and suggest how it might be used; six months later, its aromas and flavours may have developed in directions quite different from my expectations. “When I feel I have got it right, I get incredible satisfaction from that. In those moments, I feel my work has been really worthwhile.” Do people ever think that her job is an unusual one for a woman? “Occasionally, I get the feeling that people are a bit surprised but they never come and say it.” Has she ever felt held back by her gender? “I might have held myself back but I don’t believe anyone has obstructed me.”Rachel is 31. She and her husband Hamish have a son Alexander, who is two and a half. She gets out the clarinet for nursery rhymes, but is no longer dancing. Another of her passions is running: “Five miles in the evening and at weekends.” Therefore a good cask at the far end of the most distant warehouse, or racked in an awkward corner, would hardly escape her – mentally or physically.
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