Sonya Ferguson

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My Career Path

I didn’t have a linear path to this role. I studied chemical engineering at uni immediately after leaving school, but it wasn’t right for me, and I left after 2 years. I then spent several years working in hospitality in Glasgow, generally in front of house roles and eventually as a manager in a highly regarded restaurant. I started my Chemistry degree at the age of 28, after undertaking a WSET course in wine-making and realising that I wanted to study again. After graduation, worked for 5 years in the quality department of a company that makes rheological additives, eventually becoming the team leader. Given its importance to our economy and history, I was always keen to work in the whisky industry so when the opportunity to apply for an analytical scientist role at SWRI came up, I did not hesitate – it was pretty much my dream job!

Requirements for this role: A solid grounding in analytical chemistry as well as a good understanding of the whisky making process.

Job Description

A large part of my role is in the analysis and interpretation of whisky and new make spirit as well as raw materials involved in the whisky production process. Most of the analysis I perform involves separation chemistry – that can be routine analysis such as GC-FID to assess the fermentation related congeners in a whisky, or less routine analysis, for example,  LC-MS to identify markers of adulteration in counterfeit spirit. I also use various wet chemistry techniques such as distillation to determine the alcohol strength of a product, or to assess the phenolic potential of a peated barley. It’s varied work – my team is responsible for ensuring that our quality system is robust, so that we can have absolute confidence in the data we generate.

My role also involves the development of new analytical methods so that we can better understand whisky at the various stages of the production process. I need to keep up to date with needs of the industry and how emerging analytical technology might be employed to help us do that. Statistics are not my strong point but they are so important in my work – they help me to understand if differences/similarities in the analytical data are meaningful. My understanding of stats is improving over time and luckily I can call on the assistance of colleagues to help me when required.

We work closely with the Scotch Whisky Association to identify counterfeit whisky. A considerable proportion of my time is spent analysing suspect products and interpreting the data generated in order to determine if a product that claims to be whisky is genuine or not. Usually, the samples we are analysing are generic – we won’t be comparing the suspect sample to a specific brand of whisky, but rather to the category of Scotch Whisky as a whole. This requires a really sound understanding of how Scotch Whisky is made, as well as the legislation that defines and protects Scotch Whisky. Aside from stating that Scotch Whisky must have a minimum alcohol content of 40% v/v, the legislation does not provide any analytical parameters within the definition. The raw materials and traditional processes by which Scotch Whisky is made does however, provide natural analytical parameters – and we hold a large database of genuine products, which we are constantly updating, in order to understand what these parameters are.


I work really closely within a small team of Analytical Scientists, and as Deputy Manager, I have line management responsibilities, so I help the team manage their workloads effectively and support them in trouble-shooting instruments as well as ensure that they are getting all of the training they need to help them develop their skills. I’m also a first port of call for client requests for analysis and information so I need to have really good communication skills.

No two days are the same in this role, and because it is so varied, I need to be really good at time management. Knowing which tasks to prioritise and being adaptable is key. For success in my field, I need to be a good scientist as well as understand the whisky making process. A willingness to keep learning and developing in both of these areas is really important – and it’s what makes my job so interesting and enjoyable!

Quick Facts

Name: Sonya Ferguson
Company Name: Scotch Whisky Research Institute
Role: Deputy Analytical Services Manager & Analytical Research Scientist
"I work really closely within a small team of Analytical Scientists, and as Deputy Manager, I have line management responsibilities, so I help the team manage their workloads effectively."

The Scotch Whisky Association

Edinburgh HQ:
Quartermile Two, 2 Lister Square, Edinburgh EH3 9GL
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