IBD's 138th anniversary

Sally MacGarry, PhD student with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) and Edinburgh Napier University

Could you please introduce yourself briefly and share how you started working in the drinks industry?

My name is Sally, I’m currently a PhD student with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) and Edinburgh Napier University. My project is investigating new methods of sensory analysis for Scotch whisky. My first drinks industry job was when I was 18, I started working in a local bar and became fascinated with different spirits and mixology. My career was front of house in hospitality for quite a few years before I decided to go back to school to learn about the science of alcohol production. I’ve now been a winemaker, a brewer and many other things in between becoming a perpetual student of the alcohol sciences. Flavour is my key area of interest, given that it’s impacted by almost every area of production, there’s a lot still to learn!     

When did you become a member of the IBD, and what attracted you to become a member?

I first became aware of the IBD when I did an MSc in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt. I went on as many of the technical visits around Scotland I could and was really encouraged by how friendly and willing to share expertise people were. I particularly enjoy the cross over of brewers and distillers as they share and learn each others similar but also very different production techniques, it really opens up an opportunity for discourse in a mixed crowd.    

Can you share a highlight or memorable experience from your time as a member of the IBD so far?

I went on an IBD trip to Ireland a couple of years ago and it was one of the best things I’ve done. It was such a great group of people and we saw (and tasted!) some really interesting things. The Irish whisky industry is allowed a lot of freedom around production techniques and they are maximising on that and really pushing the boundaries of how this can be harnessed to effect resultant spirit.     

How do you see the industry evolving in the coming years, and what opportunities or challenges do you anticipate?

I think it’s a really interesting time for everyone. As environmental impacts and social changes are changing the landscape of all alcohol production industries globally, how we meet this with rapidly evolving technical advances is key to survival for brands and businesses. From what I’ve seen, maintaining and expanding flavour profiles, and building towards a more sustainable future whilst maintaining brand identity is of utmost importance. This is perhaps easier for larger companies, but there are also many examples of smaller independent companies that bring a variety of flavour flavour profiles and approaches to sustainable practices, which exemplify the possibility for small companies to make big impacts in hostile climates. It’s an exciting time to be alive and watch things unravel.     

How do you stay updated with industry trends and advancements?

It is hard to keep up! As a student I spend a lot of my time reading around the subject and just looking at published literature, things are moving much more rapidly now than they have for decades. I’m obviously most interested in the flavour impacts, so I try to taste as much as possible and continually challenge my palate with any new products I come across.  

Are there any mentors or role models who have had a significant influence on your career journey?

In my first cocktail bar job I was allowed a lot of freedom to create and explore flavour profiles, I read as much as I could and got really into classics and tiki cocktails. My manager Barry was like a grumpy English version of Donn Beach and he taught me a lot about drinks and life, which spurred me onto a career in drink creation. My undergrad lecturers when I studied wine production at Plumpton College were fantastic role models, who really created a space to encourage development. It had been a long time since I’d studied anything in a structured way when I enrolled, and I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the breadth of the knowledge out there. I had a wobble one day and nearly dropped out, the director of studies at the time Chris Foss encouraged me and told me I’d never regret continuing education if presented with the opportunity, I’m now many years of studying later and I regret nothing I’ve learned. In my current position I get to spend a lot of time picking the brains of some extremely knowledgable people at the SWRI, I couldn’t pick one person who’s most influential to me in such a supportive environment. As a whole, being around so many whisky research scientists has a significantly positive influence on me daily.