She goes where her nose leads her

Rachel Barrie
From The Wall Street Journal

No one has ever said that women are overrepresented in the beaker-and-Bunsen-burner world of science, though at least they have had more chances there than in the tweed-and-testosterone world of Scotch whisky.

This makes Rachel Barrie a double anomaly -- a chemist whose work crafting celebrated Scotch malt whiskies has earned her the rare rank of Master Blender. Science is crucial to the distiller's art.

One has to know how to measure the "physical parameters" of the whisky -- hydrometers to determine the percentage of alcohol, pH meters to test acidity. And then there are the more elaborate modern technologies of analytical chemistry, such as "gas chromatography" and "high-performance liquid chromatography," which Ms. Barrie said can map the chemical makeup of malts thoroughly enough "to provide a 'fingerprint' of our whiskies for quality and authenticity purposes."

Yet trying to understand Scotch whisky with a gas chromatograph is like trying to plumb the mysteries of consciousness with an fMRI brain scan: interesting -- even helpful -- but woefully insufficient. Whiskies from the island of Islay are known for being briny -- the distilleries are all but in the sea -- but lab instruments can't nail down that oceanic quality.

When it comes to assessing the interaction of hundreds of "aroma compounds" that shape how we taste, said Ms. Barrie, "the most sophisticated measurement tool remains the human nose."

Taste buds are a clumsy substitute and would never survive the gauntlet of casks that must be gotten through every week. It was Ms. Barrie's nose that sniffed out a new career. With a degree in chemistry from the University of Edinburgh, she landed a gig testing the chemical makeup of Newcastle Brown Ale. In 1991, she won an internship at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute on the strength of her ability to identify scents.

"Part of the interview was nosing 20 little bottles," Ms. Barrie recalled. "I had to detect, recognize and describe" the various aromas, which included classic scotch overtones ranging from phenol, birch tar and camphor to eucalyptus, lavender and juniper. Before acing that test, she had never realized that she had an extraordinary sense of smell.

[Go here for the full story.]

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