Industry Insiders: Stephanie Macleod, Dewar’s Master Blender

As master blender of Dewar’s Scotch Whisky, Stephanie Macleod’s job requires a mix of science and art. Creating such whiskies as the iconic Dewar’s White Label, Dewar’s 12 Year Old, Dewar’s 18 Year Old, and Dewar’s Signature is no easy task, but with a background as a sensory analyst at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow – the gritty home of Dewar’s – and years of whisky experience, she’s up to the challenge. Since we’re more than casual fans of whisky, we asked her about how it’s made, and, more importantly, the best way to drink it.

How exactly do you blend Dewar’s? Do you have a recipe or do you just wing it every time? 

We have a recipes for all of our brands. We’ve got hundreds of different types of whiskeys we work with, and each go into different types of casks. We manage the inventory by splitting it up into different categories. We might have a fruity category, a grassy category, a peaty category, etc. The recipe might call for a certain percentage of Category A spirits in it, a certain percentage of Category B spirits, and so on. We have substitutes if certain components aren’t available.

What’s it like creating a new blend compared with something you’ve been doing for a long time?

For Dewar’s White Label, it’s tried and tested. When we’re creating a new blend, there’s lots of trial and error. I’ll do some pilot blends of what I think they’re looking for so I’ve got a sensory picture of what they require. That makes it more tangible. Then we have more pilot blends and more testing in the lab, and we’re taking them home as well.

Oh man. Homework. 

It’s important to taste it in a more relaxed atmosphere to make sure there’s nothing else coming through other than what we want. I’ll try it with different mixers.

So there’s a proper Dewar’s lab in Glasgow, with the white coats and everything?

We have a lab complex, and we have a sensory room that has been set up to specifically assess samples of whiskey. We even have red light to minimize color differences. All our perceptions are recorded on computer. But we also have the blending room where we’re basically sloshing about lots of different malts and grains, putting them together in little sample bottles, leaving them for a while to settle, and then testing them.

Sloshing about sounds perfect. What’s the procedure for tasting the samples?

The first phase of testing is done in the blending room. Seeing what works and what doesn’t. Then the actual sitting in front of a panel is done in the sensory laboratory. Along with sensory work, we’re also running it through chemical analysis to make sure there’s nothing untoward with the whiskey that we’re either blending that day, or introducing as a new product. The components of the blend have been tested from the beginning. Everything is rigorously tested through the whole process.

So exactly how many whiskies are blended to make Dewar’s?

Marketing says up to 40 different whiskies.

Well, if that’s what marketing says …

Ha, yeah. We have to work within the confines of the Dewar’s house style, but we can tweak it and show different facets. We draw samples from different casks and we set them out in the blending room. Let’s try a bit of this and a bit of that, put it in a sample bottle, leave it to settle, and taste it. All the while we’re writing down, recording what we’re putting in. Once I’m satisfied with three pilot blends we’ll go to the market and see what they prefer. We’ll go through all the iterations of the different blends.

Sounds like fun.

That is the part of my job that I like the best because it’s creating something new. It’s really interesting to discover and create exactly what your customer wants. That is obviously what we all want to do as blenders, create something in your name.

Dewar’s is doing a number of different things, right? 

We also do quite a lot of single-cask expressions, like Aberfeldy. One single cask from that distillery, a particular year, a particular cask.

Take me through the tasting process. How should I be experiencing whisky?

Okay, let’s use the Aberfeldy 21 as an example. First, I would advise a tulip-shaped nosing glass, but if you don’t have that, a wine glass that’s tapered at the top. Make sure it’s clean, of course. Sparkling, everything about it. Crystal is a good start. You want something with a thin rim. Put a quantity of whisky in the glass. First you’re going to admire its color, so you gently swirl it. Hold the glass by the stem so none of the odors from your hand – hand cream, aftershave – get in the way of the flavor. If possible, it’s a good idea to have a watch glass at the top to keep the odors inside the glass. Now swirl the glass, admiring the legs as it runs down the inside of the glass. You’re looking for a deep golden amber color. Take off the watch glass and dip your nose into the glass, taking short breaths. The first thing that hits you with Aberfeldy 21, for example, is a sweet honey nose. An intense sweetness, and a wonderful creaminess. Then you’ll find floral notes, also a kind of Christmassy note. Dried fruit, sumptuous plum notes, and a hint of coconut. The coconut comes directly from the oak. It’s oak lactone that causes that. Although you notice that the wood is there it doesn’t overexert its influence. You still know it’s Aberfeldy.

Come on, I want to drink.

Take a small sip to start with, just to coat your palate. Let it go all over your tongue. There’s a wonderful sweetness coming through. Some whiskies are quite dry. There’s a wonderful malty, cereal note resting on the palate. A note of expensive chocolate. So the finish is long, and you’ll find that its full-bodied. It feels fuller in the mouth, doesn’t feel thin. Slightly spicy.

Sounds good. 

That isn’t the end of the story. We then add some still water at room temperature. In order to explore all the aspects of a whiskey you really should add some water to it. You’ll notice that strands seem to form, and it seems to squirm in the glass. That’s the whiskey accommodating the water. When we add the water you get fresh fruit and more creamy notes coming out, and a slight smokiness at the very end. Adds another layer of interest. Some people taste orange marmalade. But it’s always good to have the right glassware and the water is the right temperature, not fizzy. 

Anything else I need? 

The company of friends is always good as well.

Dewar’s Scotch Whisky is available pretty much everywhere. We like drinking it in bars like the Brandy Library in New York. Check out the BlackBook City Guides for more great places to enjoy a dram. Download the apps, subscribe to the newsletters. Knowledge is power.