Mature caucasian woman posing with Dewar's whiskey bottles
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The Future of Scotch Whisky With Stephanie Macleod

This article was published in partnership with Dewar’s

If you’ve ever wondered how one becomes a master blender at one of the world’s most storied distilleries—there’s no clear-cut answer, especially today. Quiz your local master distiller about their career path and it’s likely zig-zagged among fields. It makes sense considering most kids don’t grow up aspiring to break into the spirits industry. That usually comes later in life thanks to a flash of inspiration.

For Stephanie Macleod, the award-winning master distiller of Dewar’s, a career in whisky didn’t occur to her until she graduated from university.

“What first caught my attention was the chemical and sensory side of it,” says Macleod. “I’m a scientist by background and graduated from the University of Strathclyde in Food Science. At that stage in my life, I had no understanding of whisky and it didn’t seem relevant to me. However, when I started to work with it and understand the subtle nuances and the impact of distillation and maturation on the flavor profile, I was hooked and knew the whisky industry was where I wanted to be.”

Caucasian man's hand pouring Dewar’s 12 Year Old whisky into glass on bar cart
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Fresh Eyes at a Historic Distillery

Rather than delve right into the world of distilling, Macleod took the educational approach, returning to her university to deepen her understanding of the science behind whisky, including the maturation of Scotch whisky “from a sensory and chemical point of view.” Today, all of that schooling is coming in handy as she holds the reins of a 176-year-old Scotch whisky distillery.

Since taking hold of the illustrious title in 2006, Macleod has gone on to bust misconceptions about women not just fitting in but thriving in a once male-dominated industry. In fact, she’s taken home numerous accolades, including four consecutive years holding the title of Master Blender of the Year.

“All awards are very welcome, and indeed Dewar’s is the most awarded blended Scotch whisky, but the first award I received from the International Whisky Competition was incredible as it was an award for our then newly released Dewar’s 32-Year-Old, which, in turn, bestowed on me the Master Blender of the Year.”

From her first-ever blend on the job, Dewar’s 15-Year-Old, to the innovative process involved in the Double Double range, Macleod has contributed her creativity and STEM knowledge to the distillery over the past decade and a half.

Those efforts have consistently lauded applause from the whisky community, like when she helped launch the aforementioned Double Double series in 2019—a range of three aged expressions (21-, 27- and 32-Year-Old), each with a four-stage aging process. That process culminates in not one but three separate finishes: in oloroso sherry for 21, palo cortado for 27, and pedro ximénez for the 32.

Dewar’s 12 Year Old whisky on table with glass
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Looking toward the future

“Dewar’s has 176 years of blending traditions, and so it was a great sense of pride and excitement to have accepted the invitation to become the seventh Dewar’s Master Blender and indeed the first woman in that role,” says Macleod. “I very much felt the weight of responsibility in 2006 when I assumed the role.”

Luckily, Macleod is not alone in that history-making. More women than ever are both drinking and making whisky, with the Scotch Whiskey Association estimating that 40 percent of the country’s 11,000 industry employees are now female.

“Today my team consists of mostly women from Scotland and across the world, so when I compare the business now to when I joined Dewar’s, the tide has most definitely turned: Women thinking of joining the Scotch whisky industry today have a number of female leaders in the industry to look to for inspiration and advice, which was something I didn’t really have when I joined in 1998.”

Besides the shrinking gap of gender inequality, Macleod has been seeing other exciting trends in the whisky industry by keeping her finger on its pulse, such as the now-ubiquitous trend of cask finishing. The cask finish process involves the removal of an already-aged spirit from its original barrel to a different barrel in order to add dimension and new flavor. Cask finishing is a key step in Dewar’s Double Double range as well as its 8-Year-Old Cask Series range.

“We have been experimenting with different cask finishes for more than 10 years now, so we’ve built up a depth of knowledge in that area,” says Macleod. “Most recently, we relaunched Dewar’s 12-Year-Old, which we now finish in 1st-fill American oak bourbon casks. It’s a small change but has made a big difference to the liquid: 1st-fill bourbons are part of the cask profile of the blend, so double aging in 1st-fill bourbon casks amplifies the already-present creamy vanilla and spicy notes.”

So, after all this progress, where does she go from here? Macleod says her main goal is to keep the spirit of curiosity alive.

“Experimenting and innovating has been at the cornerstone of the brand since it was founded, from our first Master Blender perfecting the double aging process to our most recent innovation in the form of Dewar’s Cask Series, where we finish our 8-year-old whisky in casks from around the world. And, importantly, to be a custodian for the brand. Carrying the weight of the Dewar’s legacy is an honor. A big part of that is training and inspiring the next wave of Scotch whisky talent to carry on the legacy of both Dewar’s and that of our country’s whisky traditions.”

Mature caucasian woman posing with Dewar's whiskey bottles
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Drink Dewar’s Like a Master Distiller

“For celebrations or having friends over, in addition to serving Dewar’s 12 on the ‘rock’, I also serve it as an unexpected, surprisingly delicious cocktail. The many variations of a highball will always be a favorite, but my holiday go-to right now is the “Merry & Bright,” which incorporates seasonal flavors of fig and vanilla.”

Merry & Bright

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 oz. Dewar’s 12-Year-Old Scotch Whisky
  • 0.75 oz. lime juice
  • 0.5 oz. vanilla bean syrup
  • 2 tsp fig preserves
  • Martini & Rossi Sparkling rosé, to top
  • Thyme sprigs and fresh fig slices, to garnish

Instructions:

  1. Shake all ingredients (except the rosé) and strain into a glass (tulip, white wine, or Collins) over fresh ice.
  2. Top with rosé.
  3. Garnish with thyme sprig and fresh fig slices.

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