Stewart: Balvenie ‘will not go down’ NAS route

4th December, 2015 by Becky Paskin
Balvenie

The Balvenie Doublewood is one of the core offerings in the distillery’s range

Solera system

Typically used by rum and Sherry producers, the solera process, which involves routinely topping up – and never fully emptying – a vat of maturing spirit, was altered to suit Glenfiddich’s requirement to have an age statement on the label. Instead of new make, Stewart vats 15-year-old malt whisky from three different types of cask in a wooden tun, which has never been more than half-emptied since 1998. “It’s done very well for Glenfiddich; it’s a big volume of the million cases we do,” Stewart adds. “It’s my favourite Glenfiddich, one I always like to have a bottle of at home.”

Stewart has also been credited with creating the most acclaimed range of no-age-statement single malt Scotches in the now discontinued Balvenie Tun 1401 series, which was initially devised as a way to “use up” some of the distillery’s vast mature stock. So popular was the series that each of the nine limited edition batches sold out in their respective markets within days, with some now going for up to 10 times their retail value on whisky auction sites. Even Stewart, despite his prestige, found difficulty getting hold of the bottlings he created. “I only have two; that may be a mistake on my part but I don’t get given any bottles. I’m just another employee. Now, if you have got the whole nine you’re sitting on a fortune.”

Passing the torch

Stewart credits the freedom given to him by the William Grant family to experiment with new distillation and maturation techniques as one of the main reasons he is still working for the same company 52 years down the line. But inevitably there comes a time when a craftsman’s trade must be passed down to the next generation. Chemist Brian Kinsman joined Stewart as his apprentice in the sample room in 2001 – nine years later William Grant & Sons’ malt master was asked to step down from his role. “Brian came in knowing that I’d be gone soon, and that’s how we do it at Grants – master blenders train the next one,” Stewart says. “He came in and worked with me, shadowed me, we nosed together, did some trips together and sat side by side. He’s a great guy, but it was a little bit difficult in the end when Brian was doing more and more and I was doing less and less of the work, and people who used to come and see me came to see Brian.”

Of course Stewart has retained responsibility for Balvenie, and despite having turned the ripe age of 70 in February, still has no plans to completely retire just yet. “I’ve got a few things happening at Balvenie I’m working on right now,” he says reticently.

It seems remarkable that for a man who started his career in whisky as an apprentice at the age of 17 to not only have remained with the same company and achieved so much, but to still feel like his work is incomplete. But it’s that ambition and drive to succeed, coupled with his creativity and modesty, that makes Stewart one of the great whisky legends of our time.

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