Drams in Dufftown
Andrew Wilkin traveled to Scotland and talked with Master Blender David Stewart about his career at William Grant & Sons, finding out about fifty years at the forefront of the Scotch Whiskey industry.
Many will claim that whiskey is in their lifeblood. But for few it will run quite as deep as David Stewart. As the Master Blender at Glenfiddich for 35 years followed by his current role as Balvenie Malt Master in the Scottish ‘burgh’ of Dufftown, Stewart has had the dream career of the whisky aficionado. Now it’s ripe time to find out about it!
And as far as scenarios go for an interview, it’s 100% perfection. Pouring me a dram, in the rustic comfort of Balvenie’s onsite quarters, Torrin House, Stewart guides me through his career. Balvenie’s potion-master is about to tell me his tale.
Stewart’s trajectory proves that strategising your career from the outset isn’t always the best method. In fact, he has some inspiring words for those left in a post-education career malaise. Having left school in June 1962, he began applying for largely clerical jobs – to banks, insurance companies.
“I thought whiskey sounded more interesting”, he finishes. He began in a clerical position at William Grant & Sons, working as a Whiskey Stock Clerk, until he was eventually trained in nosing by his boss Hamish Robertson.
This responsibility gradually increased until he occasionally took on the reins, when Robertson was on holiday. There’s a reminder here, that knowing whiskey is not a quick process – learning how to nose the malted stuff is a lengthy, gradual process. Time flew by, and 1973 came along, when Robertson decided to leave the company.
Imbedded in the company, and the only person with the sufficient knowledge in nosing around, Stewart took on the role and was given the official Master Blender role in 1974. Stewart moved on in 2009, but not entirely. Going cold turkey after so long wasn’t quite possible for the longest-serving Master Blender in the industry and he went to Balvenie part-time, giving him the chance to spend more time with his family and more specifically, grandchildren.
The Malt Master Role
So, what makes a Malt Master? Stewart describes a particularly complicated process, right after distilling, all focused on creating consistency.
A particularly long list ensues: “It’s all about distilling the whiskey to the right quality, getting the right nosing characteristics, making sure everything goes into the right casks, creating different expressions for the future, spot-checking the whiskeys in the warehouse and sampling all whiskeys/bottlings that come through every week.”
What’s in your Whiskey – in short, the Malt Master is policing it! Stewart’s most proud moment as Malt Master? It’s the Doublewood that launched in 1993, and seeing its development over the last twenty years.
The conversation turns to changes. And there’s a lot of them to muse over: the growth of William Grant & Sons, the Scottish independence question, emerging markets. We start with the parent company: is he worried about its growth, given their diversification from scotch to other drinks, notably Hendricks Gin and Tullamore Dew, an Irish Whiskey?
He has nothing but praise for their diversification and speaks of no negative effect on Glenfiddich or Balvenie. Instead, he describes how this diversification away from Scotch is a result of their company structure. “You can do this when you’re a family company – there’s no shareholders, just family. We’re much more in control”, he explains.
He lists the benefits from being family-run — stockpiling more whiskey than others in the industry, the ability to make quick decisions.
And the Scottish independence question? Stewart follows the Scotch Whiskey Association line, whose CEO David Frost claims it would be “damaging and difficult to manage” for the industry if Scotland was not in the EU, with potentially detrimental long-term effects. “It’s a big industry, and I’m just 1 person, I should stay unbias,” Stewart finishes.
The final change we discuss is the emerging markets in Scotch Whiskey. Stewart talks of a flat UK market, and the need to expand further. We hone in on Russia, and their upper-class, who are diversifying away from traditional vodka into drinks that match hardness with taste.
It’s a market on the up, but one fraught with challenges. “It’s hard to even get the Whiskey into Russia!” Tales are told of his travails there, having to take samples in his suitcase as couriers aren’t possible, and he bemoans the blue and red tape of Russian bureaucracy.
Away from Russia, there’s growth in Asia in Singapore, China, Taiwan and Korea (“they drink whiskey by the bottle there!”) and a rise in sales in South Africa and Australia. It’s not all happy tales however – whilst in Europe, Germany has stayed strong, Stewart notes Spain, a country in thrall to the whisky and coke mix, once one of their biggest markets, experiencing a big fall.
Away from the distillery
It’s apt time to change topic – from the business to the drinks. More specifically, Stewart’s choice of tipple. He admits he’s more comfortable in the pub, than the cocktail bar, although notes Albannach, a whiskey bar in London’s Trafalgar Square that he’s visited in the past.
He enjoys rum, appreciates gin but is certifiably not a vodka drinker. It’s no surprise though, that whilst Stewart enjoys a glass of wine at dinner, it’s bookmarked by a Dram. Of a Balvenie, no less!
Foto: Dave Stewart