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Stewart: Balvenie ‘will not go down’ NAS route

The Balvenie’s unassuming malt master, David Stewart, is anything but unrestrained when it comes to making his mark on the Scotch industry. Here, he discusses his legacy and future plans.

The Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart has worked at the renowned distillery for 52 years

Unlike the theatrical Richard Paterson or entertaining Jim McEwan, Balvenie malt master David Stewart is often described as a quiet, thoughtful man, but equally one of the greatest blenders and distillers of a generation.

Despite possessing the ability to boast a string of innovations to his name – which have now become standards within the industry – Stewart is modest in acknowledging his achievements, the most recent of which is reaching the milestone of longest-serving malt master.

In 2012 Stewart commemorated 50 years working with William Grant & Sons, a company he joined as an apprentice at the tender age of 17. Throughout the year-long celebrations – which were capped with the release of two Balvenie 50 Year Old single casks – he found himself at the centre of a media frenzy, which for a man who feels more at home in a sample room than centre stage was understandably overwhelming.

Even speaking to Stewart over the phone from the comfort of his home in Glasgow, he admits right at the outset of our conversation that he doesn’t like giving interviews. “It’s not my favourite part of the job, but I must admit I’ve got more used to it over the past few years,” he confesses honestly, adding that he’s only recently returned from a promotional trip to Shanghai to launch the Balvenie Single Barrel range where, like most distillers and blenders these days, he was required to give umpteen interviews to Chinese journalists keen to learn about the Speyside malt.

Groundbreaking methods

Stewart may not be first in line to vaunt his accomplishments – particularly to the media – but his groundbreaking work on brands like Glenfiddich and The Balvenie have nevertheless had a profound impact on Scotch whisky production methods today.

Stewart was one of the first blenders to experiment with single malt cask finishes in the creation of the Balvenie Classic range in the 1980s. “I was asked to create a 12- and 18-year-old called Classic,” Stewart recalls. “And I wondered how to make the 12 different from the existing Balvenie 10-year-old. Those days we just used American oak and Sherry casks, so I thought, ‘what would happen if we just recasked some of this American oak-matured whisky in Sherry casks?’ Gradually over the months we could see changes happening, where spices and richness and dried fruits you get from European oak were coming into the whisky.”

In 1986 the Auchroisk distillery had also begun to produce a whisky matured for a second time in Sherry casks for its first single malt release under The Singleton brand, but unfortunately failed to market the fact. Come 1993 William Grant & Sons rebranded the Classic as Balvenie Doublewood, and became the first Scotch company to actively promote wood finishing to consumers.

Under the guidance of Stewart, The Balvenie Distillery has pioneered extensive innovation in the Scotch whisky over the years

Trendsetting innovation

Cue a spate of “finished” releases from various distillers in a trend that has so far lasted over 20 years and has become the major course of innovation within the category. Nearly every type of cask imaginable has been used to add an additional level of flavour in whisky – rum, Bourbon, French oak, various expressions of Sherry like PX, oloroso and fino, and even wine. As consumer interest in Scotch grows, so too does the need for diversification and choice within brand portfolios, and the simple fact of the matter is that finishing a whisky for 6-12 months is a much faster way to innovate than any experiment performed at the distillation stage. Stewart explains: “These sorts of things take time and it could take up to 15 years before we’d maybe see a result, so it’s simpler and quicker to do things with wood, and finishes have done very well over the years.”

For Stewart, who has been “finishing” single malt since the 1980s with experiments ranging between the successful – rum, madeira, Port – and the not so great – brandy, Armagnac, some wine barrels – the scope for new cask types is coming to an end. “We’ve been finishing for 20 years now so it’s been pretty well explored, and successfully I think because it’s giving consumers something different; we’re not just working on age all the time,” he says.

Secondary maturation has allowed Balvenie to offer more horizontal choice for consumers without piling on the pennies that typically come with greater age. Currently three 12-year-old expressions are in production – Single Barrel, Double Wood and Triple Cask, all of which sit in the £35-65 price bracket. For the majority of Scotch brands, accomplishing greater variety at entry level typically entails the introduction of a no-age-statement product – a route that Stewart is adamant not to travel down.

‘Not going along’ NAS route

“Age statements make it clearer to consumers exactly what they are buying and remain important, but on occasions like with the Tun 1401 and 1509, where the whisky in those bottlings ranged from anywhere between 21- and 40-years-old, there was a compelling proposition where we really didn’t want to put an age on and for good reason,” he argues. “Balvenie is not going along that route because we’ve got stocks. For me, age makes it clear and certainly for Balvenie remains important.”

Funnily enough, during Stewart’s tenure as malt master for the group, Glenfiddich was sold without an age on the label for 20 years. “That’s really when it grew in sales from being not that well known to what it is today,” he explains. In 1999, realising its flagship single malt, which was the biggest-selling in the world, didn’t quite stand up against its blended rivals without an age statement, the William Grant family rechristened it as a 12-year-old and added three new expressions to the core range: 15-, 18- and 21-year-olds.

It was around this time that Stewart set another milestone in Scotch whisky innovation history by creating the first expression matured using a solera system for the introduction of Glenfiddich 15 Year Old. “The idea came from the family who wanted a Glenfiddich called ‘Solera’ so I had to come up with a process to match the name,” Stewart recalls. “To be fair there was a team of four of us who all helped organise the vats and troughs and bring in barrels. It took us two years to put the system together.”

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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