Words by: Jane Ryan
An ardent love of all-things whisky-related, a trusted secret keeper of the Dewar recipes and one of only a few females in her category. Meet Stephanie Macleod, the Master Blender for John Dewar and Sons.
A lot of people ask me how I got into the job, as if there's some dedicated path to become a master blender. Obviously you have to have passion for the product. But this job is always dependent on someone leaving or retiring at the right moment. For me it was a lot about being in the right place at the right time.
I'm always being asked about being a woman in this industry and for some reason it continues to surprise me, I don't know how to answer it still. The demographics have changed dramatically over the past 10 years and there's much more women in the technical side of whisky. I don't tend to feel as if I'm in a male dominated profession, even if I'm the only female in a room I don't feel like the odd one out, but maybe I just don't notice these things.
It was an immensely interesting time when I joined in 1998 as between being interviewed and actually starting work Bacardi acquired Dewar's. I read it in the newspapers and remember thinking this is going to be exciting, and I was right, the company expanded from one distillery to five overnight and suddenly I was part of this huge brand.
I've always got new products in the pipeline. As a blender you have to respond to what's happening in the market. Since taking over in 2006 as master blender the amount of new products has been quite incredible. Typically we start with a consumer need and then I'll work with the marketing team to devise a liquid brief. What strength is it to be? Blend, single malt or blended [vatted] malt? We'll talk about the main flavour properties, who will drink it, and with what. The latest one - Dewar's Highlander Honey - launched in the States and is completely new territory for Dewar's, which made it an exciting project for me.
When I created Dewar's 15-year-old, principally for the Chinese market, I had samples of green tea sent to me from China because I knew they wanted to mix their whisky with it. I make up some pilot blends, and then usually I invite the market to come to me or I got to them and do blind tastings with products already on the market. This stage is always enlightening as it can completely change things.
We were relatively late in releasing single cask bottlings. That didn't happen until 2007 but they are inherently difficult as they relying not just on choosing the right cask, but the whisky has to be able to be enjoyed neat as well as with water. But they do allow us to show off our different aspects, so we might choose a sherry cask or bring out another dimension to the classic Aberfeldy taste.
When I'm not busy creating I'm part of a long control line that ensures everything from the distillery right through to finished products is perfect. This starts with new make spirit to ensure it's defect free, and ends with maturation.
Our blends are what make Dewar's so famous and the recipes are a guarded secret that only the assistant blender and me really know. There's a hierarchy on our software that allows access and it's not that we don't want employees to know, but we have to preserve recipes, and if anyone accidently changed something crucial it would be disastrous. But the guys who tip the casks into the blend, we don't blindfold them or anything so they have a good idea of what's in there. Learning the recipes wasn't some dramatic initiation ceremony like everyone hopes, I was simply given passwords for the system and that was that. But it was a proud moment for me.
I'm constantly encouraging whisky drinkers that there are no rules. You don't have to drink it neat or add a dash of water, unless that's what you want. You can add ice, soft drinks, however you enjoy it. People shouldn't be frightened of whisky, it's versatile. I enjoy a nice dram in front of the fire but I don't drink it every night. I don't tend to make cocktails at home but I do appreciate a good whisky cocktail. Our brand ambassador Andy Gemmel is a wizard with them and makes an elderflower and ginger beer punch which is outstanding.
No two days are ever the same as a master blender, but perhaps that's true of most people's jobs nowadays, we're all expected to do more and more. But it's a great job, I love doing it and I love the variety of people I get to meet and speak with.