Stephanie Macleod on championing women in Scotch
The award-winning master blender for Dewar’s became enamoured with whisky during a stint as a sensory analyst. Since then, Stephanie Macleod has thrown herself wholeheartedly into the industry – and is leading the way for more women to do the same.
*This feature was originally published in the March 2020 issue of The Spirits Business
In 2019, Dewar’s master blender Stephanie Macleod made history by becoming the first woman to be awarded Master Blender of the Year in the International Whisky Competition (IWC). Macleod was celebrated for her work on the Dewar’s Double Double blended Scotch series, created to emphasise the brand’s double‐ageing process with an enhanced four‐step maturation method. Thanks to the high ranking of one particular whisky in the range, Dewar’s Double Double 32 Years Old, Macleod was awarded the title.
“It really was a great honour,” says Macleod, master blender and malt master at John Dewar & Sons. “I did feel very proud of myself and the team who brought everything together because it was because of the blend that I got the award. It was a very special moment.” And it was also a mark of just how far the industry has progressed since Macleod first joined the whisky world.
“Women have always played a key part in Scotch whisky, right from when Scotch whisky began to be more commercial,” says Macleod. “It is good to see that there is now a deliberate focus being placed on women in the whisky industry because that means young women coming through secondary school, going into further education, now see this positive communication around women in whisky, then perhaps see the whisky industry as being a place where they can work and develop a career. If it’s not in view, if it’s not visible, then you don’t consider it.”
She adds that Dewar’s now has a graduate programme in which students and graduates are brought into the industry and trained in different fields. “And many of those graduates and students are women,” she adds, “so it’s wonderful to see, and heartening for the future.”
After graduating from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland with a degree in food science, Macleod enjoyed a nine‐month stint working for soft drink Irn‐Bru. It was during this period her former university supervisor contacted her to see if she would be interested in studying whisky, among other things, including wine and cheese. Macleod worked as a sensory analyst at the University of Strathclyde, focusing on a project aimed at unlocking the maturation secrets of whisky.
“Before I started studying whisky, I really had no idea how it was made,” Macleod admits. “I didn’t really think that I liked whisky. But when I discovered that the whisky was clear and then it went into the casks, and something apparently magical happened, that’s when I became hooked and knew the whisky industry was where I wanted to continue my career.”
In 1998, Macleod joined Dewar’s in the spirit‐quality laboratories at the firm’s head office in Glasgow. “Bacardi had just acquired the Dewar’s brand at that point, so it was an exciting time to join,” she notes.
Speaking of being one of the few women master blenders, she says: “I must say, when I was given the position of master blender, a lot of people were surprised when I told them what I did because the perception back then was that the master blender had to be a man,” Macleod recalls.
But she insists she never found it hard, or felt daunted, by the male‐dominated landscape. “It was very strange for a woman to be doing that type of job. And it’s not as if it’s a manual job, or something that requires greater strength, it’s just that it has perceptions. Even now, people are still surprised – but it’s less than it was.”
THE SMOOTHEST BLEND
The award‐winning Double Double range that launched as a travel retail‐exclusive last year is testament to Macleod’s skill. The idea behind the range was to create “the smoothest blend you’ve ever made”, Macleod explains. So she delved into the company’s archives, right back to the first master blender, AJ Cameron, for inspiration.
“He brought together the malts and the grains by their region, then he married them in their regions,” Macleod explains. “So I decided to bring the malts together as a blend, and marry the malts, and the same for the grain whiskies.” The selection of malt and grain whiskies are then blended into one liquid and rested in select casks in the warehouse. The whiskies are then finished in three types of Sherry casks. The 21‐year‐old release is finished in oloroso Sherry casks; the 27‐year‐old is finished in Palo Cortado Sherry casks; and the 32‐year‐old is finished in Pedro Ximénez casks.
“We put each age statement into a different type of Sherry cask to try to explore what each type of Sherry would do for the blend because for this range I didn’t want to have a ‘copy and paste’ of the recipe for the first one, to go onto the second one, to go onto the third one,” Macleod says. “I wanted each one to reflect a different aspect of the Dewar’s house style.”
Cask experimentation has been coming thick and fast from the Dewar’s brand this past year, which also brought out a rum cask‐finished expression – Dewar’s Caribbean Smooth. The first expression in a planned line of experimental cask finishes, for Macleod, Caribbean Smooth wasn’t just about combining Scotch whisky with various casks, it was about combining different cultures. “It was about being quite playful with it because obviously we’re combining Scotch whisky with beautiful Caribbean rum, and it really does give a very laid‐back feel to our Dewar’s blend,” she adds. “The two just really complement each other, and you get these ripe banana flavours coming through, and it just transports you to the Caribbean on a dull, wet day in January.”
Macleod’s ability to experiment with cask finishing was extended last year when the rules governing Scotch whisky were relaxed to allow distillers to use a broader variety of casks for maturation. The only exceptions to the rules are wine, beer, ale or spirits made from stone fruits, or those that have fruit, flavouring or sweeteners added after fermentation or distillation. It’s a move Macleod believes will be beneficial for the whole category.
“We don’t want to do anything that will put people off drinking Scotch whisky by making it completely alien to what they believe Scotch whisky is,” she says. “It just allows us to showcase the things we haven’t been able to do before. Being a whisky blender, I love to try out new things and experiment. So this is just heaven for me because I can start playing about with all these brilliant casks.”
Macleod and her team have already embraced the rule changes, and this month are planning to launch what is thought to be the first mezcal‐finished Scotch whisky, in collaboration with Ilegal Mezcal. “Last year, they sent us a consignment of beautiful casks that had previously held Ilegal Mezcal,” Macleod says. “We took the casks, nosed them, then we filled them with Dewar’s eight‐year‐old, similar to the Caribbean Smooth blend.” The whisky was rested for a month and tasted weekly by Macleod and her team to make sure the mezcal didn’t overpower the whisky.
“We had thought about doing this before but obviously we weren’t able to call it blended Scotch whisky,” Macleod reveals. “But now with the relaxations in the regulations, we can call it Scotch whisky – and that’s important for us. So it’s exciting times at Dewar’s.”
But Dewar’s is only one piece of a puzzle that Macleod oversees. In 2014, when John Dewar & Sons expanded its Scotch portfolio, launching multiple aged expressions from all five of its malt distilleries, Macleod also took on the title of malt master in addition to her master blender duties. She is responsible for looking after Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Craigellachie, The Deveron and Royal Brackla.
“It’s always been part of what I’ve done, but we just wanted to kind of give me my alter ego of malt master,” she laughs. “But whether you’re blending different types of malt and grains together, or blending different casks together from one distillery, there’s always still the case of balance and looking for interest. It’s great fun, but we have got endless spreadsheets with tables of what needs finishing. The blending room is awash with all these beautiful coloured samples sitting ready to be nosed. It’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it.”
One of the most notable releases to come out of the malts portfolio recently was a 51‐year‐old Craigellachie – made all the more unique thanks to the brand’s unusual launch tactic. Whiskies of this age often have the power to command price tags of tens of thousands of pounds, so to see Craigellachie opt to dish out drams of this limited release for free via balloted events was novel.
“We were all surprised when it was suggested we would democratise such an expensive whisky because you know it is a valuable one; we all see the huge price tags that are put on very old whisky,” says Macleod. “I mean, what kind of price tag do you put on something like that? But it fitted with the character of Craigellachie, the kind of maverick, bad boy of Speyside because it doesn’t really fit with the typical Speyside flavour profile.”
Whether Craigellachie will pursue more “disruptive” marketing initiatives will remain to be seen, but age statements will always play a crucial part of John Dewar & Sons’ single malts portfolio.
“We are absolutely and utterly, truly committed to age statements,” insists Macleod. “Not only in our single malts, but in our premium blends as well.” Last year, Royal Brackla updated its three age statements for travel retail, which are due to launch in May. The new line‐up comprises: Royal Brackla 12 Years Old, which has been finished in oloroso Sherry casks; Royal Brackla 18 Years Old, which has been finished in Palo Cortado Sherry casks and will replace the 16‐year‐old; and Royal Brackla 21 Years Old, which has been finished in oloroso, Palo Cortado and Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks.
“Age statements are like a signpost, a map for whisky drinkers, and if you then take that away it can sometimes leave people not quite knowing where to go,” Macleod says. “So we truly believe that age statements are important, and we have to do a lot of careful planning of our inventory to ensure that we can support these age statements, and it’s not something we do lightly. It does take a lot of hard work to retain them.”
At Aberfeldy, age statements play an equally prominent role. Last year, the distillery unveiled an interactive experience for visitors, letting them fill their own bottle from a choice of three 40‐year‐old single cask whiskies. “People are really appreciating the difference that the cask can make to the whisky,” Macleod notes. “Consumers are interested in that kind of raw experience that you get from a single cask bottling.”
Interest may be growing, however that also means brand loyalty has been diminishing in recent years. But consumers flitting from one brand to another don’t overly faze MacLeod.
“If you can constantly produce whiskies that will hold their interest, that keeps people loyal,” Macleod explains. “Each time you bring out something new, they’ll think ‘oh, I really liked the last one, I’m going to try this one too’. We can’t ever be complacent that we will hold the loyalty of our whisky drinkers; we have to win them over every time, and our brilliant brand team are always finding ways of doing that – it’s my job to ensure that we’re bringing out whiskies that are interesting and relevant.”
To ensure brands stay current, last year John Dewar & Sons partnered with Amazon to host an online whisky tasting – Amazon UK’s first live‐streamed event. Hosted by Macleod, alongside drinks writer Alice Lascelles and Aberfeldy brand home ambassador Matthew Cordiner, the interactive whisky tasting was filmed at Aberfeldy Distillery in Speyside, and streamed to audiences in the UK and Germany.
“Everyone was really nervous; we were all wondering whether this was going to work, would the technology work, would anybody tune in – but they certainly did,” remembers Macleod. “It really was a terrifying experience, and I’ve never done live anything ‘Age statements are like a signpost, a map for whisky drinkers, and if you then take that away it can sometimes leave people not quite knowing where to go. So we truly believe that age statements are important’ really, but it worked out well. It was a great experience and I’m hopeful we’ll do something similar again.”
With so many achievements already attached to her name, it’s hard to see what’s left for Macleod to accomplish. But there is one goal still on Macleod’s wish list – for blends to be given more appreciation.
“Some people think only single malts have the flavour and complexity, but I believe with the Double Double range we’ve shown that blends can be just as interesting and complex as a single malt,” she says. “It would be great to see our whisky drinkers put blends back up there as something that the whisky connoisseur or the whisky discoverer will reach for, as well as other single malts – I hope we can one day make that happen.”