Stephanie Macleod: from IRN Bru to Dewar’s master blender
Stephanie Macleod took time out of her busy schedule to chat to Pour & Sip this month. How busy? As well as being the master blender behind Aberfeldy, she’s also got the entire Dewar’s portfolio to look after. But that’s not all, she also sports the title of malt master as well! Want to know her story? Silly question, of course you do.
Stephanie Macleod never knew that a revered job in the whisky industry was in store for her. “I really didn’t think that I liked whisky, I didn’t think it was in any way applicable to me – it was something that older male relatives drank,” she tells me. Which is likely the origin story for many women now involved in the industry (myself included). Her career began, funnily enough, studying food science at Strathclyde University, after which she graduated and began working for IRN Bru. After nine months, her old university advisor got in touch and offered her a place in his whisky research group.
It was through working with whisky that she realised what was so alluring about it, mostly the process of maturation and the role of the cask: “the variations that we get in flavour because of the stills, fermentation, mashing… I just fell in love with it at that point.” She decided that she wanted to get into the whisky industry properly, and so she joined Dewar’s – ”I just wanted to get in the door.”
She started off in liquid and packaging quality control – think labels and cases – but Dewar’s always kept in the back of their mind that she had a sensory and analytical background. Eventually she moved into the lab and set up the sensory analysis panel. Her big break came when the current master blender was set to retire, and Dewar’s offered the role to her. She took over the role in 2006, and in her own words, “ever since then it’s just been full throttle!”
Transparency in whisky making
Transparency is something that has become a more prominent topic within the industry in recent years, but being a blender, it’s not so easy for Macleod: “I think the Scotch whisky industry has been guilty in the past of being very secretive, but part of the reason for that is – especially for a blend – the malts and grains that we use aren’t our own brands.” Nobody wants to highlight other brands over the blend itself, and on top of that many distilleries don’t want it to be known that they’re being used in other blends. Maturation, cask types, and production processes, however, McLeod loves to talk about. “I think it’s come at a time when our whisky drinker’s knowledge of whisky has increased exponentially from when I started, and you can see that in the quality of questions that I get asked,” she tells me.
“We might have been late to the party, but we’re looking a lot at cask finishes now,” Macleod says. Well, they can’t have been that late, because Dewar’s was one of the first to finish Scotch whisky in ex-mezcal casks! In 2019, when the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) relaxed the rules around the permitted cask finishes within Scotch whisky (along with Tequila and Calvados casks). “For a couple of years actually we’d been looking at mezcal casks, but we didn’t want to sacrifice calling it a Scotch whisky. We already had a partnership with Ilegal, so now we use their casks.”
Blend is not a dirty word
There’s an unfair reputation surrounding blends (and grain whisky) as inferior, and Macleod deals with this assumption a lot throughout her career. “Whether you’re blending casks for a single malt or a blend, you’re blending. The same skills are applied,” she says of the creative process. “It’s been a mission of mine to show what a blend can do.”
She recounts a time at a whisky fair in the mid-noughties when she changed someone’s mindset around Dewar’s 18 Year Old, which was ‘I don’t really do blends’. “To his credit, he said ‘I didn’t know that a blend could taste like this’,” she recalls. But I wonder why it happened in the first place, and with her 15+ years of experience, Macleod has some wisdom to impart on the matter. “We’ve probably done it to ourselves as an industry,” she begins. “We always price single malts above blends. Sometimes blends don’t have age statements on, but all of our premium range do, so it’s very easy for our drinkers to see progression. I think it’s about demystifying whisky.”
What’s it like being a woman in the industry? “Well, I’ve never been a man!”
While it can be said for many industries, whisky in particular has been known for being something of a ‘boys’ club’. But hopefully this is changing, and when we chat International Women’s Day is on the horizon (though it’s been and gone now), which seems like a good time to ask about Macleod’s experience. However, there’s no use going in and asking what it’s like being a woman in the industry, because, as a few female distillers and blenders have pointed out (including Macleod), they’ve never known it from a man’s point of view. “I have to say that, on the side that I’m in the whisky industry, I’ve never felt that I didn’t belong – even though I had no knowledge, I was never made to feel an outsider,” she begins. “Having said that, I was often the only woman in the room at that point.”
But change is afoot. For a number of years now, Dewar’s has been going to graduate fairs and encouraging students to apply for Dewar’s programmes, talking to them during their degree, and telling them about what the whisky industry can offer. “The first year we did it, it was mostly women that applied – so naturally it was mostly women that got the jobs!” It’s a classic case that if you don’t see something, you don’t know it’s there, just like Macleod: “When I was at uni, I didn’t see any sign of the whisky industry, but that has now changed. With more women in the workplace than ever before, and whisky being the biggest employer in Scotland, it’s only natural that more women are going to be here.” Now there are more women in the room than ever before, a far cry from McLeod’s first days at Dewar’s. “I do feel that the future is bright – I know I’m very lucky to be doing the job I’m doing, and in the industry I’m in.” Well, Stephanie, we’re lucky to have you.