“It’s like magic”: Q&A with student distiller Rosie du Toit

Rosie du Toit

For Distillery Month, WWD chats with Rosie du Toit, Brewing and Distilling Master’s student at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, about her studies, novel yeast strains and pursuing her passions

WWD: What drew you to brewing and distilling in the first place?

Isn’t it just the coolest degree? When I first heard about it I thought, “Why isn’t everyone studying this?!”. I had completed my undergrad in Chemical Engineering, and many of my friends were getting jobs in sewage plants or mines when I realised I needed a career in something in which I was passionate about the end product and not just the process required to get there. I started seeing jobs in breweries or distilleries and that hit the nail on the head! It is the perfect culmination of my skills and interests, and not only my science and engineering background but also my creative side. And then a friend of mine mentioned that Heriot-Watt has a Master’s degree in that very thing! So with the onset of COVID, and many places closing down or not looking for new people, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to expand my skill set in the industry that I want to get into.

“I love the alcohol production industry because it is as much of a science as it is an art.”

I love the alcohol production industry because it is as much of a science as it is an art. There are so many things you can tweak to create an entirely unique product with exciting flavours – the possibilities are endless! I’m part of my university’s wine tasting, beer appreciation, and whisky societies, all of which have taught me how and why these drinks are so flavoursome and fascinating. I knew I was in the right industry when the societies I joined as a guilty pleasure could now feature in my CV!

How are you finding the course so far?

I’m loving the course! It gives you a remarkably comprehensive overview of the whole industry, with courses covering topics like microbiology, malting, sustainable packaging, business management, fermentation, distillation and more. My favourite part has definitely been when we get to go on to campus and participate in practicals. Although this year has been mainly online due to COVID, our lecturers really went the extra mile to get us into the labs, with our course being one of only two courses at the whole university in which in-person practicals have gone ahead.  It really is the best way to put into practice all the theory we are learning; to see all these amazing phenomena occurring in front of you is just so cool. It feels like magic…we’ve done beer brewing practicals, malt analysis, microbiological tests, gin distillations, sensory analysis tastings and whisky distillations. It’s been epic!

A small laboratory still

What is the topic of your Master’s project?

My project is looking into using novel yeast strains to provide new, interesting flavours in Scotch whisky. For a long time, most Scotch whisky distilleries used a distillers yeast called the ‘M’ strain which is very efficient at producing ethanol. Brewers however use a huge variety of different yeasts to create new flavours. So taking a leaf from their book, I am looking at yeast strains that are used in other fermented beverage industries (beer, wine, brandy, sake cachaça etc) and then proposing their use in whisky production.

“I truly believe there is a whisky out there for everyone, they just have to find which flavours suit them.”



How do you see your career in the brewing and distilling industry developing?

Because I just love the flavours in whisky, I would love to end up in a sensory analysis, new product development or blending role where I can experiment with different flavours and produce interesting whiskies that keep fascinating people. For now though, a role in a distillery laboratory sounds great to me! That would allow me to use my science background while working with samples of whisky-to-be which is just so cool. The laboratory is also a great place to learn about the whole whisky making process because you analyse samples from every step of the process, starting from malted barley all the way to new make and mature spirit.

What do you love most about whisky?

The flavours! There are so many interesting flavours out there, I truly believe there is a whisky out there for everyone, they just have to find which flavours suit them.

Whisky is wonderfully complex and beautifully simple at the same time. This golden liquid is complex because it is packed with flavour and never boring, always changing and evolving; yet it is simple because it is made from literally 3 ingredients: barley, water and yeast.

What is your favourite whisky?

Oooh a hard one! There are so many interesting whiskies out there, but definitely one of my favourites is the Glen Moray Madeira Cask Project that we tasted in our university whisky society’s cask type tasting last year. Delicious spicy, toffee notes balanced with the creamy fruitiness of poached pears, blackberries and figs. I love whiskies that experiment with flavours through the use of interesting casks. Whiskies finished in sherry casks are my go-to! Those delicious Christmas cake, toffee, dates and cherry notes are just incredible.

I definitely have the Heriot-Watt Whisky Society to thank for introducing me to fascinating whiskies I may never have otherwise tasted! They put in a lot of effort to make sure tastings could go ahead despite COVID restrictions – online tastings for the win! They even won Society of the Year 2020/21 for their brilliance, so huge thanks to them.