Q&A with Stephanie MacLeod, Master Blender for Dewar's

Images: Dewar's

We spoke with Stephanie MacLeod, Master Blender for Dewar’s and the first female Master Blender of the Year awarded by the annual International Whisky Competition.

There are some intriguing parallels between the production of whisky and operating a bar, restaurant or nightclub.

For instance, some view being the captain of the ship—for example, a master blender or a bar owner—as a solitary position. In some ways that’s true—if everything goes well, the person at the top is credited and sometimes recognized with awards. And if things go poorly, the boss is ultimately responsible.

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The reality is that without a strong, high-performance team motivated and led by a true leader, none of the elements required to succeed will come together. From staying current and delivering on expectations to remaining relevant and attracting new consumers, the hospitality and spirits industries are mirrors of one another.

Below you’ll find Stephanie MacLeod’s insights into whisky, consumers, hospitality, and much more.

Cheers!

1. What does it mean to you to be the first female named Master Blender of the Year by the 2019 IWC?

It was a real surprise, actually, because sometimes you find out that you’ve been nominated for an award and you know that it’s coming—or possibly could be coming—but this came completely out of the blue. And what was wonderful about it was because Dewar’s 32 Year Old, which was the first of three that we launched at the start of this year, had scored over 90 points. And so that meant, then, I got this amazing award.

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The fact that it was related to a blind assessment—completely blind assessment—of a number of other wonderful blends and that ours won just made it all the more special that that was why I was being recognized. And the fact that I’m the first woman is great for all the other aspiring master blenders and master distillers, people that want to work in the whisky industry and the spirits industry in general. It means a lot to me and also the team at Dewar’s because although my role is seen as quite a solitary role, I can’t do anything that I do without the support of the people in distilleries, the people that work in the warehouses, people that design the packaging as well… All these elements have to come together in order to produce these award-winning blends.

2. What challenges do you face as a master blender?

The challenge that we have in the industry is that everyone loves whisky, and that they’re wanting more and more of it. And not only do they want more of it, but they want it to be more interesting and more characterful than it’s been before. They want different types of expressions, so those are the challenges we face, and making sure that we have enough spirit leak down in the right type of casks in order to fulfill the demand that we see 12 years, 20 years, 30 years in the future.

3. What consumer trends do you foresee taking hold in 2020?

I think everyone is seeing that people are drinking better. So, they’re looking for older expressions but also, along with older, really great character. That doesn’t always come with age—that can just come from a really great cask. We just launched Dewar’s 8 Year Old in the rum casks and when I was over in New York and Boston in October presenting it to some consumers—and I didn’t realize that there were some consumers there that were actually from the Caribbean—and they said, “Yes, we’re absolutely getting Caribbean rum from this.” And they didn’t have to say that, so people are looking out for things that are adding a new dimension to the typical flavors of Scotch whisky. It’s not really just about how we’re presenting Dewar’s Scotch whisky, but it’s also how we’re launching it, how the packaging is looking—is it appealing to all generations of whisky drinkers—and how we are talking about the whisky, as well.

Dewar's Caribbean Smooth 8 Year Scotch whisky

So, it’s not just about, with Caribbean Smooth, it’s not just talking about that it’s matured in Caribbean rum casks but also that we’re bringing together two cultures in one spirit, and all these really fun things there: we can talk about the Caribbean versus Scotland, completely different parts of the world, completely different climates. But when you bring the two spirits together in the form of the Scotch whisky being finished in rum casks it makes perfect sense.

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These are the trends that we’re seeing—people are looking for something slightly different because if they’re not going to be drinking as much and they want it to be better, they want each sip that they take to be amazing, and that’s what I’m trying to do with the blends that we’re creating now.

4. Founded in 1846, Dewar’s is a well-known brand with a lot of history and heritage. How are you ensuring the brand is innovative and resonates with younger legal drinking age consumers?

We’re trying to do that through flavor, so the Caribbean casks is one example. For the Double Double range that we did—the 21, 27 and 32—that wasn’t just a cut and paste of the 21 Year Old recipe then pasted onto the 27 and then pasted onto 32. For each one of those I wanted to highlight a different facet of the Dewar’s house style.

So, the 21 was to be the elegant toffee and fruity notes of Dewar’s, the 27 was to be the citrus notes of Dewar’s and the honey notes, and the 32 Year Old was to be the smoky element of Dewar’s. So, a sherry cask—a different type of sherry—was there to enhance those flavor profiles, and that was something that we’ve never done before in Dewar’s.

Dewar's Double Double Scotch whisky series

We also introduced them in half-size bottles which then made it much more appealing to every size of budget as well. So, by selling those half sizes, we could then make price point much more appealing as well. They had an interesting story, an interesting shape of bottle—we’ve never bottled that shape of bottle before—so people were just intrigued the story of how we created these amazing blends. But the fact that they were so accessible also made them appealing as well. So, we’re doing things like that.

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We’re just doing different things that we hope will not only interest our drinkers that we have in the moment but also draw younger drinkers into whisky because whisky is all about the long term. Although we’re seen as being a very traditional industry and steeped in traditions, we’re always looking forward to the future to ensure that we can satisfy the needs of our markets well into the future.

5. You hosted the first-ever live stream of a Scotch tasting. How did you prepare for that?

Well, that was quite nerve-wracking, I have to say. I’ve done a lot of work on camera but then there’s always a comfort of knowing that if you make a mess of it, they can redo it. Obviously, this was live, and so there was really no room for error.

Amazon had approached us to do this special three-pack of our malts and we were joined by a spirits writer, Alice Lascelles, and it actually turned out to be great fun. The best bit about it was that it was interactive and we got lots of great questions coming in—we had about 500 questions come in over that hour. It was just an amazing way to reach out to so many people, I think over 30,000 people, engaged in a live stream, and so more than that have actually watched the video after it. You can’t reach that many people in an hour if you’re talking to people or doing an event in travel retail, for example.

It’s an incredible way of reaching lots of people in a short space of time, and it was a really fun way of doing it. I think this is really the way that things are going to start happening, especially when we’re looking at, “Should we be flying as much as we are?” Live streaming is an amazing way of reaching people and still getting that interaction.

6. Do you foresee bar and restaurant operators participating in live-streamed tastings?

I definitely can see that happening and I think it’s a really good way of perhaps reaching bars and restaurants that are really loyal to Dewar’s but because of where they are, they’re maybe not quite so easy for me to get to. So, we can do these specialized streams for those guys and we can do it from the distillery or from my blending room and just having a lot of fun with that technology.

7. Was there a question that was asked during the live-stream tasting event that really stood out to you?

There was one great question where someone asked me, was I ever surprised when I opened up a cask—am I ever surprised by the results. And I was like, “Absolutely, all the time!” Because although we know what a sherry cask is supposed to deliver or a bourbon cask is supposed to deliver, you never really know what it’s going to be like until you actually open up the cask and take out a sample. So, that was a really insightful question. There were lots of great questions, but that was a really great one about the casks.

8. How has studying STEM and food science informed your mastery of Scotch?

There’s a lot of science behind the making of whisky, and a little bit around the blending of whisky. But certainly, then in the processing of it to make that final product. And although it’s not compulsory—there have been past master blenders that haven’t had a science background—whisky is just a very complex mixture of different compounds, so if you have a science background it helps you to make sense of, “What does that mean?” And it just makes it more interesting as well. If I know some whiskies, there’s something about them that I’m not quite sure about, then I can pass that to our laboratory and they can run it through the gas chromatograph, and we can see if there’s anything behind the tasting notes that I’ve created. So, sort of looking at the sensory and comparing it with the chemical analysis.

And certainly for people that I’ve recruited to work in my team, I’ve always stipulated that a science background is something that we’re looking for. Through the STEM subjects we’re trying to attract students and graduates so that they are thinking about the whisky industry as their career. We’re looking for scientists, we’re looking for engineers, and mathematicians as well because our stock model is fiendishly complicated. We’re always trying to model “what if” scenarios. So, if Dewar’s White Label gets to a certain level of cases what do we need to do, what actions do we need to take, in order to satisfy that. These are all the disciplines that we’re looking for in the whisky industry.

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So, for me to have that background in science and also research, I believe, has helped me in the problems that I have to solve every day and then imparting my knowledge to other scientists, other people in the industry. But also, our consumers now are much more educated in Scotch whisky and they want to know the science behind it, so I think it does help to have that background.

9. Going further down the science road, are you and Dewar’s committed to sustainability efforts?

Yes. We use biomass boilers in two of our distilleries which means that we’re not so reliant on fossil fuels. We’re constantly trying to take weight out of our bottles. But obviously, in the luxury forum, weight and packaging is also seen as being something that’s required. So, it’s a delicate balance that we have to look at, but certainly sustainability is something that is very much to the fore of everything that we do.

We are global and we do ship out to lots of countries, and unfortunately there’s no virtual way of drinking Dewar’s. We have to ship the bottles to our global markets but if we can do that in the most sustainable way possible then we’re certainly considering it.

10. How do you and Dewar’s combat the perception of Scotch as a pretentious drink for older people?

With Scotch whisky, we want our whisky drinkers and those who are looking for something different to drink over the holiday season that’s coming up to experiment with Dewar’s whisky. It’s there to be enjoyed. Scotch whisky was made hundreds of years ago not to be in fancy packaging and to be enjoyed at fireside in a leather armchair. It was made to be enjoyed with friends. Scotch whisky is all about friendship, it’s about hospitality, it’s about sharing stories, and experimenting with it as well.

Mixing it up as a cocktail, having an Old Fashioned, and not worrying about, “Am I serving this Scotch the right way?” You’re buying it—drink it however you want to drink it. If you want to put it in a pitcher with lots of ice, kind of like how you would serve beer almost, then do that. But I would implore everyone to try Dewar’s, try the Caribbean Smooth, and try it with a cocktail you can find on Dewars.com, just have fun with it, and not to stand on ceremony with Scotch whisky because that’s not why it’s made. It’s made to be enjoyed and perfect for drinking with friends.

11. Can you tell us about Dewar’s releases coming planned for 2020?

There’s nothing that I can talk about at the moment but we do certainly have new releases planned for next year, and some of them are completely different from anything that we’ve done before.

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As much as we love inside product release information, we also love a cliffhanger. We can’t wait to see what Dewar’s has coming for us all in 2020.

Something else MacLeod mentioned was that she and Dewar’s value feedback from operators, bartenders, and consumers. If you have something you want to share with the brand, speak with your reps and reach out to Dewar’s—they want to hear from you.

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