Julieann Fernandez never imagined she’d become a global advocate for women working in whisky, but an unexpected internship led her from a career as a crime solver to master blender.
Born in Glasgow to a mother who worked in funeral services and had an affinity for shows like CSI, Fernandez set out to study forensic science at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland. “Between my third and fourth year, they encouraged us to do internships,” she says. “I got a placement with Chivas Brothers’ laboratory on new product development. They were working on crafting a whisky for younger audiences and females, to try and break traditional whisky stereotypes. So, I really started to develop a passion.”
She finished her degree in forensic science, but honored that happenstance passion, taking a role with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, followed by another role with Chivas, this time in the grain distillery.
“I worked in some of their malt distilleries to take on a combination of analytic chemistry and organoleptic work,” she says. “While building my knowledge on how whisky is actually made, I recognized that I really enjoyed it.”
She’s not alone: Scotch, so long a man’s game, is continuing to experience a massive cultural shift. No longer relegated to men’s clubs, fine dining, or firesides in winter, it’s become a category fiercely championed and changed by women—now in the roles of writers and educators, farmers, blenders, distillers, and brand representatives.
Some of the pretense around Scotch whisky—that a single malt must be served neat, for instance—has faded in the past 40 years. Gone is the side-eye around whisky-based craft cocktails; there’s even been a long-term revival of Scotch-based classics like the Blood & Sand (Scotch, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth, and orange juice). Meanwhile, whisky clubs are thriving—aimed at a younger audience, equally marketed to all genders. Formerly stuffy affairs are now lively, casual, and conversation-driven, bringing the curious a bit of Scottish adventure.
“A truly great Scotch should take you on a journey. The liquid’s aromas and flavors should be front and center with every sip, transporting the drinker somewhere as soon as it touches their lips,” says Julieann Fernandez.
Last year, Fernandez was named master blender for Distill Group Ltd., which owns Deanston Distillery near the historic town of Stirling (about an hour north of Glasgow), as well as Bunnahabhain Distillery on the Isle of Islay and Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull. Today, Fernandez oversees all the malts, blends, and inventory for the group.
“Here at Distell, we don’t think there is any right or wrong way to make Scotch,” she says. “There truly is a Scotch out there for everyone, whether that be single malt or blended; both have their own unique characteristics.”
Fernandez has been a key player as Deanston Distillery honors modern demands. Within buildings dating to 1785, it has converted from oil to gas, boosting sustainability. Deanston is also certified organic, and the beloved River Teith—the second-fastest flowing in Scotland—provides the distillery’s electric power.
In 2020, Fernandez and her team also launched Deanston Kentucky—a Highland single malt, aged in bourbon and new oak barrels from Kentucky, then soft-filtered, meeting that desire for an easy-sipping, every-day-style Scotch. Fernandez has also been instrumental in their foray into new categories, including gin. “The new gin expression is distillery exclusive, inspired by the picturesque and wild coastlines of the Isle of Mull. Botanicals including Scotch lovage, sugar kelp, lavender, and samphire create a beautiful sweet, yet subtly salty flavor.”
Right now, the one thing you won’t find Fernandez doing, ironically, is drinking that gin. Or whisky. Or anything.
“We’ve just launched four new limited editions across our malt’s portfolio, which were some of my last projects before I finished up. I’m currently on maternity leave for my second son. It’s safe to say I’m enjoying my own personal adventure,” she says, happily, “but, I must admit, I’m excited to get back into the swing of things in the new year.”
Fernandez will return with “a lot of fresh ideas,” mostly surrounding some experimental casks, injecting new energy into a centuries-old tradition.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a trailblazer, but I admit my background is quite different than most,” she says. “I was promoted at the tail end of last year . . . so it’s been quite an amazing journey. I love that there are talented women on my team and across the entire organization, and through mentoring and speaking to support recruitment of women into the whisky sector, we continue to open doors.”
>>Next: Trailblazing Women Distillers
Jenny Adams Jenny Adams is a full-time freelance writer and photographer, whose byline has appeared in more than 75 publications. She splits her time between New Orleans and Southeast Asia, reporting most often on epic meals and off-the-beaten-track discoveries.