William Grant’s Kinsman: ‘We need blended Scotch to be relevant’

7th December, 2018 by Melita Kiely

William Grant & Sons master blender Brian Kinsman on Grant’s overhaul, the growth of single malt and the “slow-burn” success of Monkey Shoulder.

*This feature was originally published in the September 2018 issue of The Spirits Business

Off the coast of Girvan, across the waters of the Firth of Clyde, sits the famous island of Ailsa Craig. The Scottish sun is making a welcome appearance as I sit with William Grant & Sons’ Brian Kinsman, drinking in the view. It’s been almost nine years since the master blender took over from his acclaimed predecessor David Stewart – but that was far from the start of his whisky journey.

After graduating with a degree in chemistry from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Kinsman envisioned a career working in a more ‘traditional’ scientific field. But after spending a few years in the dental industry, he diverted to spirits, joining Girvan as a chemist in 1997. Taking to the whisky world like a duck to water, Kinsman first worked on the chemical analysis of the liquid and also formed part of the company’s sensory panel.

Kinsman completed several projects with master blender Stewart before officially becoming his apprentice in 2001. After eight years of shadowing Stewart it was time for Kinsman to come into his own – and he took over as master blender for William Grant in 2009.

“When you have what’s essentially an eight­-year handover period, it becomes a very natural progression,” Kinsman recalls. “And that was the thinking really, that it should be something that’s a completely natural progression; not one person stops and one person starts. Nearly nine years later I still see David on a regular basis; we still catch up and chat about the products.”

AN INDEPENDENT COMPANY

For an independent company, there is no shortage of high­flying whisky brands to keep Kinsman busy: Glenfiddich, The Balvenie, Monkey Shoulder, Girvan and Ailsa Bay, to name just a selection. He attributes much of the firm’s success to its family-­owned status. “It doesn’t actually make sense that a company of our scale could have all those products. Being family-­owned sits as the fundamental reason why it works because you have this central decision making, reinvestment of profits, and desire from the family to grow the business that then permeates everything we do,” says Kinsman. “We’re significantly smaller than Diageo or Pernod or Bacardi, and yet we’re the number­-one single malt brand in the world,” he adds, making a reference to Glenfiddich.

Sales of the single malt rose by 4% in 2017 to reach 1.3 million nine-litre cases, according to Brand Champions 2018 data. Over the past few years, the brand has emphasised its innovative streak with the launch of the Glenfiddich Experimental Series, which Kinsman says has bolstered its success and opened up the brand to the modern drinker. Starting with Glenfiddich IPA and Project XX, the range has been joined by the likes of Glenfiddich Winter Storm and the smoky Glenfiddich Fire & Cane, finished in rum casks. “Getting new consumers in, things like the Experimental Series have become really important to us because it’s a good, if you want to use the term, ‘old fashioned whisky’ – as in it tastes great but it’s got a modern take,” Kinsman explains. “We’re trying new things. We’re trying to get different flavours, different stories, different angles to talk about.”

The new Grant’s range

With “total and utter freedom” to experiment with liquids, play with flavours and “create something with a story to tell”, lately there have been many new releases and revamps. One of the team’s most recent endeavours, and the reason for our meeting at Girvan, is the extensive overhaul of the group’s flagship blend: Grant’s. Despite being the world’s third-­biggest­-selling Scotch whisky brand by volume, Grant’s is a product that rarely makes headlines.

“Grant’s doesn’t get a fair bit of air time,” admits Kinsman. “It almost doesn’t command the attention of other blended whiskies but actually, in a glass, side by side other whiskies, it deserves it.”

As of July, Grant’s boasts a streamlined core range of four blends – the rebranded Grant’s Triple Wood (previously Grant’s Family Reserve), and three new expressions: Grant’s Rum Cask Finish, Grant’s 8 Year Old Sherry Cask Finish and Grant’s Triple Wood Smoky. This new angle for Grant’s is indicative of William Grant’s desire to boost the brand’s perception among consumers and give it a more “approachable” edge. “For all ranges, especially whisky, you’re always looking at what’s the core and how you can grow flavour from there,” Kinsman explains. “The rum cask blend gives us a chance to go into pretty new territory, possibly a bit more accessible, bit more of a drink that bartenders can play with and do interesting things with. The eight-­year-old is definitely in the more traditional end of the spectrum, but hopefully delivering a real depth of flavour.”

However, the new editions sounded the end of the line for several existing expressions in the range – though not as a like­-for-­like swap – including Grant’s Signature, Grant’s Cask Ale Finish and Grant’s Sherry Cask Finish. Removing whiskies from the series was far from an easy task, Kinsman explains.

Monkey Shoulder broke the rules

Monkey Shoulder broke the rules

“Taking stuff out is hard, and probably as a company we’ve not necessarily been good at that over the years,” he says. “But you can’t just keep adding new variants. Eventually you’ve got to tidy up and say, well, Signature was only in a few markets anyway, that’s maybe the obvious one to get rid of. You need someone apart from me – as I’m close to the liquid – who can just be a bit ruthless.”

BLENDS ARE THE BEDROCK

Despite the current fervour surrounding single malts – “they’re very in fashion” says Kinsman – blends remain the bedrock of the whisky world. Exports of single malt Scotch grew by 14.2% in 2017 to £1.17 billion, according to HMRC export data cited by the Scotch Whisky Association. But consider that the overall value of Scotch, including blends and single malts, totalled £4.36bn, and it’s clear which style still rules the roost. Though single malts are generating excitement, Kinsman says: “It’s really important for the industry that blends don’t lose their place. We need blended Scotch to be relevant. Grant’s is really important, it’s a big volume play that can also be a value play.”

However, one brand in the William Grant stable intent on not just breaking, but smashing the mould of traditional Scotch whisky to pieces is one of the group’s more recent creations – Monkey Shoulder. Bulldozing its way into the whisky sphere, blended malt Monkey Shoulder has caught consumers’ and bartenders’ attention with its playful, disruptive energy. “We wanted to achieve a way into malt whisky that was accessible, relevant, fun, didn’t have any of the baggage of some of the history and heritage of single malts, but had all the flavour potential,” Kinsman recalls. “And a big thing for us was it had to be mixable.”

With Monkey Shoulder’s arrival, gone were the constraints and contentions about water or no water, ice or no ice; here was a brand rocking up to events with giant cocktail cement mixers, actively encouraging bartenders to shake and stir Scotch into cocktails. “It’s been a slow burner, not an overnight success – it took 15 years for us to get to where we are now,” explains Kinsman. “It’s definitely catching on, because of all those things. It’s got great flavour so a traditional whisky drinker can appreciate it, but it’s got the freedom to not worry about its heritage. It’s just a fun whisky.”

As demand for its products grows, William Grant has been investing heavily in expanding storage space. Warehouses are being built at a rate of two a year, according to Kinsman, but the group “won’t do that forever”. “Eventually you have to start bottling some of the whisky, but, clearly, the market is growing generally. We’ve got a lot of confidence in brands we think are going to grow.”

Kinsman also has a lot of confidence in another “hugely overlooked” whisky style: grain. With its lighter, sweeter character, the master blender is certain grain whisky will one day take off in a big way. But for now, the style is another area where greater education is needed – and perhaps an industry­wide rethink about brand positioning and price points.

“It’s going to be a slow burn, but I believe by the time I retire grain will be significantly bigger than it is today,” he predicts. “It’s almost a no­-brainer; the flavour absolutely works. Brand positioning, where it appears in a bar, where it appears in a liquor store, how you put it on shelf, how you get the messaging out there, that’s probably the bit that needs to be cracked more. If you get it into people’s hands, it will sell.”

Whisky is becoming increasingly popular in cocktails

Whisky is becoming increasingly popular in cocktails

‘WE’LL DO OUR OWN THING’

Kinsman is clearly not afraid to take risks when it comes to creating new liquid and relishes the chance to experiment and turn whisky making on its head. Two years ago, William Grant marked its play in peated whisky with the launch of Ailsa Bay. The building of the distillery itself in 2007 aimed to create something “fantastically controllable”, says Kinsman. “In other words, we could do a lot of really precise work and play around with different flavour profiles,” he explains. “One of the things we were looking to do was to own a peated malt brand, and over the years the company’s looked at different possibilities of owning brands. But actually, in a typical William Grant way, we said: ‘We’ll do our own thing.’ So from the day it was built we set out to create a peated malt with as high a smokiness and character as possible, but retaining sweetness.”

Last month, the group brought out a new sweeter recipe for Ailsa Bay, allowing Kinsman to “evolve the flavour notes and push the balance in taste, without compromising on the quality of the liquid”. A master’s work is never done.

So when you’re the master blender of the world’s biggest­-selling single malt Scotch, third­-biggest blended Scotch, a trailblazing, tradition­-shattering blended malt, and all that’s in between, where is there left to go?

“In terms of my own legacy, that’s probably two-fold,” he answers. The first part is maintaining the standards of the master blenders before him. “Most of the whisky we’re bottling today, certainly on the single malts, is before my time,” he says. “We don’t have a nine-­year­-old age statement on any of our single malts, so clearly they’re all before me.”

The second part is “filling the warehouse full of interesting things for the future. There are already things we’re trialling and doing that I won’t be here to see because that’s just the nature of the business. So you want to make sure you leave a legacy, a proper tangible legacy of interesting stuff for the future,” he explains, while stressing that he’s “here for the long term”.

There are “definitely no plans right now” to build or acquire any new distilleries, Kinsman insists – though who knows, given the group’s first in­-house foray into American whiskey with the launch of Fistful of Bourbon last month. “We are a very dynamic company and the thing that always amazes me is decisions are made very quickly”, he says.

What, then, does the future hold for Kinsman as master blender at William Grant & Sons? “I genuinely have no idea where we’ll go next, but that’s exciting,” he says. “We’ve got various innovation groups and there are times you think to yourself ‘I think we’ve just about done everything we can do’, then suddenly an idea just appears. So I’m sure there are hundreds of more ideas to come.”

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