Interview

Master blender Stephanie Macleod on the future of Dewar's

As John Dewar & Sons marks its 175th anniversary, master blender Stephanie Macleod shares her thoughts on blending and what’s in store for the future
By Millie Milliken
Stephanie Macleod among the whisky casks
Stephanie Macleod among the whisky casks
Number 111, High Street, Perth. This is the address at which, on 15 May 1846, John Dewar set up a modest wine and spirit merchant shop. Around the same time, he began making his own blended whisky.

In the 1880s, the company was inherited by the founder’s two sons – Tommy and John Jr. The latter took over responsibility for the whisky and its production, while the former focused on marketing their product. In 1890 they hired master blender AJ Cameron, a champion of the double-ageing process, and this marked the beginning of Dewar’s worldwide success, leading to receipt of a Royal Warrant, a cask being dispatched to the White House and the now-iconic Dewar’s White Label.
Craigellachie Distillery

Fast forward 175 years and John Dewar & Sons (JD&S) is part of behemoth spirits company Bacardi and boasts more than 1,000 awards to its name. When it comes to talking about blended Scotch whisky, Dewar’s is never far from the conversation.

The company is also the owner of five other whisky brands which, despite being less well known in general, each lay claim to their own staunchly loyal fanbases – namely, the Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Craigellachie, The Deveron and Royal Brackla single malts.

This year, to honour the company’s 175th anniversary, master blender Stephanie Macleod has has created the Dewar’s 175 blend using whiskies that were all filled into cask on 15 May – that fateful founding date. Once matured, the malt and grain whiskies were blended together before going through the double-ageing process that Dewar’s is now so well known for. Only 175 cases of this special whisky have been made, and it is now available exclusively from Aberfeldy Distillery and its online shop.
Royal Brackla Distillery

As it happens, Macleod only just missed the company’s 150th anniversary when she joined in 1998. As many early tales of whisky professionals go, the spirit was not always on this master blender’s radar. It all started with a food science degree from Strathclyde University. “The department I was in was focused on sensory analysis, but also sensory analysis of whisky,” she tells me of her introduction to the category.

After a stint in the soft drinks industry, her old supervisor, John Piggott, offered her a position back in the research department. Due to her love of academia she took it – and her love for whisky shortly followed: “I knew nothing about whisky. I didn’t like whisky… But I fell in love with whisky. I couldn’t believe the diversity of flavour you can get from distilleries that are run in the same way and use the same ingredients… there is so much richness to whisky.”

Four years later, she found herself in the position of quality panellist for packaging and liquid for JD&S, before the buyout by Bacardi and a move to the lab – more specifically, being in charge of it. She went on to set up the brand’s first sensory panel and in 2006 she was elevated to the role of master blender – a title which, 15 years later, Macleod still values greatly. “I feel very privileged to be in the position I’m in,” she says. “Master blender roles don’t come up very often… I try not to take it for granted.”
Royal Brackla Distillery

Her most recent bottlings are a showcase of Macleod’s unique fingerprint on the Dewar’s brand. The Double Double range is an extension of Cameron’s double-ageing process, taking the same maturation path used in the 175 blend, before a third ageing step in neutral oak casks and a final fourth finishing in sherry casks (the 21 Years Old in ex oloroso, 27 Years Old in ex palo cortado and the 32 Years Old in ex Pedro Ximénez).

Macleod is also adept at playing around with cask finishes, as manifested in the brand’s Smooth series. Here she has taken blends and finished them in casks that previously held rum, Ilegal mezcal and ruby port. Most recently, a Japanese mizunara oak cask–finish was added to the range, and a ‘Calvados Smooth’ is in the works too. “I guess what makes it different is that normally finishes are reserved for single malts,” says Macleod of the rationale behind the range. “But what we’re doing is trying to showcase what a blend can do as well.”

Now, Macleod is turning her attention to wine casks, starting with French before looking further afield. Red wine casks will inevitably feature, but she is also interested in other varieties that may not be as commercially viable. “There are so many interesting white wines, orange wines and biodynamic wines out there, but they are hard to get hold of and you do have to watch white wine because of the sulphur content,” she muses, before explaining that oak species and seasoning is also a focus for her team. “We’d really like to look at different types of oak and the different ways of treating the oak… American white oak and European white oak are completely different.”

Of course, beyond continuing to produce popular whiskies, for Dewar’s to still be around for its 350th anniversary, there’s the small factor of the Scotch Whisky Association’s (SWA) 2040 target for net-zero emissions to wrangle with. Thankfully, it’s something Macleod and the wider team are confident they can hit, even perhaps ahead of target. “I think everyone found it quite shocking,” she says of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2021 report released in August, “but what we are hoping to achieve is net zero by 2030.”

Stephanie tells me that they will achieve this by moving all operations to biomass boilers, an energy source that has already been implemented at Royal Brackla and Aberfeldy distilleries. The company also has a carbon-capture partnership with Forestry and Land Scotland, helping in the restoration of the peatlands, despite not being a heavy user of peat itself. For Macleod, sustainability is the biggest issue facing the whisky industry in 2021, despite years of attempts to reduce the category’s impact on the environment.
Royal Brackla Distillery

“The whisky industry has always tried to be sustainable, and we’ve always recycled as much water as we possibly can, but we are heavy users of water and we are looking at ways we can use it more efficiently,” Macleod explains. As a result, JD&S is looking to cut its water usage by 25 per cent by 2025 and its greenhouse gases by 50 per cent by the same deadline. “We’ve been on this journey since the early noughties, looking at what our water use is and always having targets. Sure, it’s Scotland, it rains all the time, but we’re starting to see that we do need to worry about it when we’re getting winters with less and less snow.”

Another big issue in the industry is packaging, she says, sharing that JD&S is trying to use more sustainable sources not just for packaging but its ingredients as well: “We’re pretty much nearly at zero waste to landfill, and we’re hoping to be plastic free by 2030, with secondary packaging down to zero by 2023. I think everyone is now looking for as little packaging as possible for whatever they’re buying.”

It’s not just the SWA’s targets that the company wants to be able to get ahead of; Macleod notes that she is starting to see the expectations of customers changing too. “Our new whisky drinkers are not only into the whisky but also interested in what we’re doing about sustainability,” she says.
Royal Brackla Distillery

Looking forward to the immediate future, the company and brands are both expanding apace. The team is growing, and one new member in particular is exciting Macleod: a young woman transferring from the Bacardi team in India is showing a real aptitude for the sensory side of the business. (She just has to wait to get out of her Covid hotel quarantine before she can finally get to work!)

Elsewhere, there are plans to build a new creative hub – hopefully in the middle of the maturation site – where the team on the ground can mix with the brand team, sit together in a lab environment, play and experiment with the spirit. These are big dreams, targets and plans for what started as one man blending whisky on Perth’s High Street.

“Blending is all about the experience and coming across things – kind of one massive puzzle,” concludes Macleod. Here’s to another 175 years of playing with the pieces.
The Dewar"s Double Double range