“I believe you can detect smoothness on the nose as well as the on the palate,” says Stephanie Macleod, the master blender at Dewar’s. It’s the earnest credo of someone who wants everyone to maximize their sensual enjoyment of a fine whisky — but there’s a whiff of swagger to saying you don’t even need to taste something to tell that it’s good.
Then again, the nose recovers more quickly from fatigue than the tongue, which enables MacLeod — the first woman to hold her position in the distillery’s 160-year history — to do her job.
We’re at Absinthe in Hayes Valley for a brief stopover on her way to the Women of the Vine symposium in Napa, where Macleod describes the Dewar’s house style as “very approachable, very fruity, ester-y, and moorish,” meaning there’s a touch of smokiness — although she’s quick to qualify that “approachable” does not mean one-dimensional.
“Every time you dip into one of our products, you get something different,” she says. “It’s great to taste with a friend or a group and say, ‘Did you get that?’ ”
Aberfeldy, a 12-year-old single-malt scotch, embodies Dewar’s house style. Produced at the only distillery — also called Aberfeldy — that the Dewar family built, it’s full of a honeyed sweetness that contains a nice syrupy quality. Add a bit of water to a snifter of it, and the nose and palate change, letting the smokier notes emerge. Macleod calls these the “hidden flavor treasures.”
Dewar’s is as famous for its blends as for its single-malts, and here, the science of distillation begins to take on the characteristics of an art. Dewar’s 12, for example, is a blend of malt and grain whiskies. Grain whiskies, Macleod says, are like a slightly more flavorful equivalent of vodka. They come off the still at a higher strength, allowing them to absorb more flavors from the wood of the barrels as they age. It’s a “skeleton on which to put the tissue,” as she has it.
Macleod has been Dewar’s master blender since 2006. While the role would seem to be a rather lonesome one, sniffing and tasting in solitude on rainswept heaths covered in lichens and Early Hair-grass, she insists that it’s a team effort — although there are gothic, Macbeth-like facets of the job, such as the Macduff distillery in Aberdeenshire that might be haunted.
Referring to Craigellachie 23, an almost-quarter-century old whisky that won gold at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in 2016, Macleod says the team was pleased when they initially sampled the casks.
“It’s always a rainy day up at the warehouses,” she says. “Everybody’s drenched, and the guys are standing about, and you hit upon something and let all the guys smell as well. … We’re relying on the distillery guys doing what they do well and letting you know if there’s a problem.”
“I reap the rewards of the time and effort and love that these guys have put into at the start,” Macleod adds. “There’s a guy that’s been at the company for 40 years.”
The Dewar’s warehouse might be a boys club, but women are becoming better represented in the world of whisky as the artisanal revolution causes hard-and-fast gender divisions to fall away. The master taster at Woodford Reserve in Kentucky is Jennifer O’Neill McCall, and S.F.’s own Wendy MacNaughton illustrated The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whisky Know-It-All. Two of Dewar’s distillery managers are women as well.
Having grown up believing that whisky was a man’s drink — and admitting a preference for peach schnapps until her mid-20s — Macleod now believes that there exists a whisky for everyone, from the Royal Brackla that she calls “summer in a glass” to the exceptionally balanced Dewar’s 18. She also notes that many of Scotland’s distilleries claim to have been founded on Christmas Day — which was secondary to New Year’s, as holidays go — with “many strong women at the fore of production.”
The harder obstacle might be putting one’s own personal stamp on a product often takes longer to emerge than 17-year cicadas do.
Macleod loves the element of surprise, the fact that two casks filled at the same time at the same distillery can yield starkly different whiskys. The labor of augmenting a particular flavor profile over time is what animates her work, and most of it has to do with how much maturation potential the wood in the barrel has left. It’s a chemistry lesson. With fresh wood, there are additive reactions (where the spirit gains color and vanilla compounds), subtractive reactions (where alcohols and more sulfurous flavors vanish over time), and the interactive reactions, which she says “has us all scratching our heads.”
“It’s the part that we’d really love to get a handle on,” she says. “I spent quite a lot of time at university looking for the magic bullet that makes whisky taste the way it does.”
Over such a long time-scale, even tiny differences like the location of the cask in the distillery can yield dramatic effects, requiring constant monitoring. Because — in a perfect world, anyway — the consumer will only ever taste successful batches, it’s hard to know without being explicitly told what Macleod is on guard against, which is sherry. Dewar’s is committed to age statements, taking pride in its 18- and 25-year products, but Macleod won’t bottle something only because it’s old. While aging Royal Brackla in sherry casks gives it an “extra touch of luxury,” there can be a particular type of sweetness that eventually dominates a whisky instead of complementing it. But a formula remains elusive — wonderfully so.
“In some ways, I don’t ever want to find this out,” Macleod says. “That little mystery and magic really makes it exciting when you look at a cask for the first time. I want to understand it so that we have more consistency, but it’s nice that whisky’s got its own little secrets that only whisky knows.”