As a newly-minted graduate, Stephanie MacLeod didn’t think much of whisky back in 1992, when she graduated from the University of Strathclyde with a degree in food science. “I didn’t know much about whisky until I started to study it, nor did I particularly enjoy it,” she says. Her first job, post-degree, was in soft drinks, but from there she accepted a position as a research assistant back at her alma mater. “The main area of focus was the influence of maturation on the flavor profile of whisky,” says MacLeod. “From that point on I fell in love with whisky and with the whisky industry. So, when a position in the quality department with Dewar’s came up in 1998, I applied for it.”
Over the next several years, MacLeod rose through the ranks. “I started off in quality looking at both the liquid and the packaging. After a year or so, I was put in charge of the lab, and I set about establishing a sensory team. Then, in 2004, I was asked to consider training to be Master Blender, so that I could assume the role when the incumbent retired. After a nanosecond’s consideration, I accepted the position and in July 2006 took over the role of Master Blender.” MacLeod is the seventh Master Blender in 170 years of Dewar’s history and the first woman to hold the role.
“The most important part of my job is ensuring that the flavor profile of our blends and single malt deliver the consistent flavor that our loyal consumers expect,” she says. Her first blend was Dewar’s 15, followed by Dewar’s Legacy and 30 Years Old Ne Plus Ultra. She also established the flavor profiles for the new malts: Aultmore, Craigellachie and Royal Brackla.
“There aren’t many downsides to my job, but the bit I enjoy the most is creating new blends and new single malt expressions,” says MacLeod. “I also love discovering interesting casks in the warehouse. From time to time we release single cask expressions of our malts, and to find the right one, we need to sample each cask. It’s a very time consuming process, but when you find the right cask — it’s a joyous event.”
How does MacLeod drink her whisky? “In the blending room: neat and then watered down to 23% alcohol, however, at home — it depends on me, the whisky available, the weather! I love Dewar's White Label and Dewar's 12-Year with ginger ale, wedge of lime and ice. ‘Signature’ usually neat but sometimes I like a block of ice, the malts usually neat or with a splash of water. I’m not a huge cocktail fan, but I am starting to experiment with whisky cocktails — there’s one that our visitor center, Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery, developed with Dewar's White Label, St Germain Elderflower liqueur, Martini Prosecco and lemon juice that was sublime.”
The young woman who didn’t think much of whisky has vanished. MacLeod has completely converted. “I love to talk about how it’s made, the malt whisky process, and the miracle that two malt distilleries sitting side by side, both using the same ingredients: malted barley, water and yeast — milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling — can produce flavor profiles that are completely different to one another. Scotch whisky is amazing! I love talking about the grain whisky process and the difference in style from malt whisky. I love telling people about how we organize our whisky inventory into different flavor categories to aid the blending process, and the importance of maintaining balance in a blend. There’s lots of misconceptions about whisky, that sometimes prevent people from trying it — but they should, [because] there’s a Scotch whisky out there for everyone’s taste.”