Julieann Fernandes, Master Blender, Distell Group has had an unusual career path to becoming one of the youngest master blenders in the world. In this interview, she deconstructs her journey, talks about the changes in whisky production and consumption in the last few years and why Glasgow is the world’s best whisky city. Excerpts from an interview:
- Please give us a little background into your career, going from forensic science to distilling whisky
Since I was in school, I’ve been really interested in science, which is now a major part of my job. I’d always liked doing experiments and creating different concoctions – adding different ingredients and seeing what the results were. So, I went on to university to study forensic science, which is based on analysis and problem-solving. Almost a scientific treasure hunt.
Not many people who study forensic science go into the whisky industry – most go into police or medical research. I did a work placement for a whisky research organisation and instantly fell in love with not only the liquid but also the category. It opened my eyes to what was possible. After leaving university, I really wanted to work in whisky and eventually got my job with Distell – overseeing the blending of the full portfolio of single malt and blended Scotch whiskies.
It’s a bit of an unusual pathway and was risky but I took the gamble and it paid off.
- What does it mean to be one of the youngest master blenders in the world?
As one of the youngest master blenders in the world, my own journey shows just what can be possible for women in the sector. I am extremely proud of what I have achieved – I do sometimes feel a bit of pressure, it’s a huge role and comes with a lot of responsibility, but I have a fantastic team which makes it that little bit easier.
- Did you face any hurdles or challenges because of your gender? Have things changed since then?
Absolutely not. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some amazing men and women who have been mentors to me and have given me lots of encouragement and advice. The whisky industry is a wonderful industry to be a part of and my experience is that I have not been treated differently due to my gender.
- Tell us about your association with Distell International and working for Bunnahabhain, Deanston, and Tobermory distilleries
Distell has such a diverse and amazing range of distilleries and people; there’s a real passion for innovation and progression and that’s reflected in our products. Each distillery is different so it’s interesting working with all three and the different character each produces.
- How does Scottish Leader fit in your portfolio and who is the best audience for this whisky?
At Scottish Leader we’re collaborative and open-minded. We’re unpretentious and free from the constraints of what’s expected, which allows us to create a spirit that allows drinkers to step out of their comfort zone and discover new and richer experiences.
We blend each and every expression of Scottish Leader with our consumers in mind and consider how the flavour profiles work both neat and mixed. There are no rules for who or how people enjoy whisky, we just love making something that appeals to many different taste preferences.
- What is the best way to enjoy Scottish Leader, according to you?
I love that Scottish Leader can be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone. It’s a versatile liquid that works just as well as it does neat or on ice as it does in a cocktail or mixed drink. I really love how the smoky tail lingers when in a cocktail and we have a broad range of expressions that offer different taste experiences. A simple Highball with soda and lime is so refreshing and we have some bespoke cocktails developed specifically for Scottish Leader for consumers looking to elevate their home consumption.
- With new-age spirits like seltzers and revival of gin and rum, where do you foresee whisky in India in the near future?
Scotch whisky is beginning to find favour with millennial drinkers in India. These consumers are affluent, flavour curious, influenced by global trends and are open to experimentation looking for new experiences.
New and more contemporary expressions of whisky are broadening appeal to this audience by retaining the aspiration and premium appeal but removing the intimidation.
Also, more experiential activation aimed at millennial consumers is helping with driving traction amongst this younger consumer – pop up events, food and whisky pairing, bar takeovers, tastings, DIY cocktail sessions
Gin and rum are fantastic spirits, but there’s always going to be a place for whisky and I think we’ll continue to see growth here as consumers become more experimental.
- What are some global trends around whisky that you’re currently seeing?
We’re seeing consumers trying whisky in new and exciting ways. It’s important to respect tradition, but the whisky doesn’t have to be confined to a set of rules, it can be creative and experimental – try a Scottish Leader cocktail or Highball and you might just be surprised at how refreshing it is!
Premiumization, especially around imported whisky, is set to continue with consumers moving to more quality over quantity.
At home consumption of course, has also dominated trends over the last year and half, but what’s interesting is how this is continuing in markets as lockdown restrictions ease. Consumers have definitely adapted and elevated this occasion to become more of an ‘event’.
- How has your role evolved over the years, in terms of not just blending but also seeing other markets like Japanese whiskies come up?
There was so much to learn when I joined the industry, but I was up for the challenge. I learned from some really inspirational teachers and mentors, including lots of amazing women.
We look at whiskies from around the world for inspiration and are excited to see new flavour profiles and my role is to continue to be inspired to evolve and grow our portfolio to excite and interest consumers.
A large part of my job is nosing whiskies, using smell to analyse its overall flavour profile, but now we’re tearing up the rule book with Scottish Leader, bringing new perspectives to the process.
- Sustainability has become a big word in distillation across Scotland in recent times. Have you also had to tweak or change a few processes to ensure sustainability at your distilleries?
Absolutely – we’ve got a number of initiatives live currently all aimed at improving processes and we’ll be revealing details of these in the next few weeks.
- What is the best whisky city in the world according to you? Why?
There are so many amazing whisky cities in the world, from Tokyo to Chicago, but for me I have to go with a city much closer to home – Glasgow. There are so many fantastic whisky bars in Glasgow with a huge range on offer, allowing you to taste whiskies you didn’t even know existed! I find the people who work in these bars are so knowledgeable and friendly and have a true passion for whisky. And of course, there are a few beautiful distilleries just outside Glasgow which makes it the perfect whisky city for me!
- Name five whiskies every whisky lover must have in their home bar.
No whisky collection is complete without a bottle of Scottish Leader Original, it’s just so versatile and can be enjoyed in so many ways.
Of course, working with our other brands, I have to include Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory.
For me it has to be a Bunnahabhain Stiuireadair, it’s a great whisky and I love the complexity of it. Deanston 18 year old really showcases the true character of Deanston and Tobermory 12 year old has a special place for me as it was one of the first whiskies I worked on. My fifth choice has to be a nice smoky Ledaig, because even if you aren’t a fan of peaty whisky, Ledaig has a beautiful soft character and can be enjoyed by everyone.
- What message would you like to give to our readers?
I took an unexpected route into the whisky industry, inspired to look at things differently, a new take on how to combine my love of science, analysis, and something I could really feel passionate about. In opening my mind to the possible opportunities, I felt confident to take the risk, and it has paid off.
It was a big leap, with challenges of course, but I took a fresh perspective on things. I broadened my horizons and reimagined what was possible.
I’d encourage anyone to take the leap. Stepping out of your comfort zone isn’t always easy but the rewards and possibilities are endless.
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Priyanko Sarkar is the Founder Editor of Gurgl.in. He has been a writer for over 15 years and this site is his attempt to document India's growing beverage sector with impactful and interesting stories. His favourite drink is Vietnamese Coffee and his favourite spirit is Turkish Raki.