When it comes to creating, curating and blending alcohol, few mixologists stand as distinguished as the master blender Caroline Martin. Hailing from Menstrie in Scotland, Martin was recently in Delhi along with Chef Ranveer Brar to create a symphony of food and alcohol as a part of Signature Tastings masterclass initiative. As Guardian 20 catches up with her, the master blender for Signature Whisky, J&B and Bell’s Blended Scotch Whiskies opens up about the various facets of her career, her journey till now, and her plans for
Martin, who holds a degree in food science says, “I am really passionate about blending from the heart and about blending to get the right flavours…”
Speaking of the challenges that she faced in her mixology career, which spans more than three decades, she says, “I don’t think there have been any challenges. But if we spin around a little bit and put it in a more positive frame, I think it’s about taking opportunities when they come, or creating opportunities and making things happen. My career has taken twists and turns but that’s because I wanted to do that. And it’s because I’ve taken decisions at certain points along my career to say to myself that ‘Okay, now is the time I want to do something a wee bit different’.”
So she transitioned from one department of food science to another. “I started off in liquid development, which was basically adding flavours, colours and thickeners to some products, like vodka-based products. I really enjoyed my time there, crafted some new products and then went on to focus on the world of sensory analysis—understanding different aromas and tastes. Then I ventured into the whisky world before the millennium and started applying my old experience there,” she says.
Martin’s passion for whisky was now being cultivated for professional ends. She says, “My career actually started a long time before I focused on whisky. The food background I had was all about blending different food ingredients together, and I worked in liquid development which was again about blending different ingredients in the whisky world. It’s about crafting and blending different whiskies. So, whether they are malt or grain whiskies, it’s to create different flavours. When I was working in sensory, I realised I was intrigued by the world of whisky, how to craft different flavours there as well. It was a long time ago and I’ve had a long time to perfect it.”
Have there been any stereotypes and gender discrimination she has encountered as a woman in this business? She says, “I am very fortunate and being very truthful with this that there have been no issues with me being a female. I think it’s true to say that when I started over three decades ago it was a different time, and now we have more women working in our team. But what’s important is you’ve got to stick with it to fine tune your capabilities. It doesn’t come overnight; you’ve got to keep at it. It might be that you don’t succeed the first time and then you’ve got to sit back and see okay, how can I do that differently maybe? But you’ll find a way if you’re passionate about it. You’ll definitely find a way to get there. And it might not be the direction you set off in, but you’ll get there.”
As to why she chose whisky as her signature drink, she says, “I was invited to craft a whisky which was going to be called Signature. I was part of the whisky team, so it was always going to be a whisky. But it’s a really different whisky because it has got a combination of Scotch whiskies and Indian whiskies. So, for me it was something a bit different and it’s been a huge learning curve for me just to understand the flavors of Indian malt and grain spirits and I’ve really enjoyed that as well.”
Martin describes working with Indian whiskies as a “different” experience. She says, “With Signature, because the flavours are so complex, I personally enjoy it just with ice, a simple serve. But also with Premier, we do an old-fashioned to cater to Indian consumers. They have a different cuisine and it’s interesting to see how it plays out with whisky.”
Talking about the difference between making new, mature and blended whiskies as opposed to curating cocktail drinks, she says, “I think more and more whisky blenders are thinking that if I am going to create a new blend, how the consumers are going to consume it. So it’s all very clear for us to craft flavours in the whisky, but if they don’t mix well or they don’t stand up to cocktail serves, then we have not fulfilled the objective of the whole thing.”
Martin believes that “culture and region” play a very significant role when you are preparing a new kind of whisky.
She is also a whisky educator. On the importance of tutoring and mentoring, she fervently says, “I think teaching becomes more important the further you go in your career, because I am one of the more experienced people in the whisky team now and what you want to do is leave a legacy, capability and a team that can continue when I’m gone. So that’s the wheel that moves in the circle of life and you’ve got to prepare for that.”
Martin, who also holds the coveted title of “Keeper of the Quaich” (for her contribution to Scotch whisky), reflects on her future goals. She says, “I think it’s more about getting other whisky blenders to be recognised in that way as well because it’s a huge honor to be recognised for your contribution to the world of Scotch. So, telling other people to get that kind of exposure is what I want to do and where I want to be.”
As for what she’s planning to do next, she signs off by saying, “I am seeing India and really enjoying it, but after these events get over, I am just looking forward to going back home to Scotland. So that’s the immediate future. But just more whisky work is coming up, with custodians of the Scotch whiskies that are already there in the market so that we can partake of the quality of these. That’s hugely important. And then another part of our work is to craft new whiskies. So we’ll be working on that when I go back.”