- There’s no greater name in Scotch whisky than The Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart.
- Now 73, Stewart has chosen a 26-year-old science graduate Kelsey McKechnie as his apprentice malt master.
- Her appointment comes 48 years after Stewart became the Dufftown distillery’s master blender, aged just 25.
The Balvenie’s malt master, David Stewart, is a single malt whisky legend.
His career at the Speyside distillery began in 1962 as a whisky stocks clerk.
Just eight years later, aged 25, he became The Balvenie’s master blender – it was an era of blends, a decade before single malts began to make an impression. He is now the whisky industry’s longest serving malt master. Along the way, Stewart invented the cask finish expression and mentored another great talent along the way, Glenfiddich malt master Brian Kinsman, a fellow member of the family-owned William Grant & Sons tribe.
In recent years Stewart, now 73, and awarded an MBE for his contribution to the whisky industry, has turned his thoughts to succession, putting down five decade of his wisdom in a series known as Balvenie’s DCS Compendium, with the five chapters representing the five pillars of his thinking.
Stewart’s also given his clearest signal about where he thinks the future of Scotch is heading by appointing 26-year-old Glaswegian Kelsey McKechnie as his apprentice malt master, four years after she joined William Grant & Sons as a whisky technologist. She brings scientific rigour to the process having studying biological sciences before going to study for a Master of Science in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, graduating this year.
A man who knows a thing or two about maturation, Stewart is acutely aware that this is an historic moment for the Dufftown distillery and a once-in-a-lifetime moment for his protege. Perhaps he also sees a little of himself in McKechnie.
“She is a precocious talent; with a real flair for distillation, a dedication to her craft and a self-assurance and poise that completely belies her young age,” he said.
“She has also shown that she has an expert palate and skill for nosing and assessing whisky, which combined with her natural abilities and academic background made her the ideal candidate to be my apprentice.”
In her few years there, McKechnie’s worked with Stewart on bottlings such as The Balvenie Peat Week aged 14 years, DoubleWood aged 25 years and The Balvenie Fifty, as well as assisting Kinsman on Glenfiddich, Monkey Shoulder, Tullamore DEW and Milagro Tequila.
She remembers her first dram of The Balvenie because it felt like home.
“It was up at the distillery and just the smell alone took me straight back to spending time with my family, in particular with my Grandfather,” she said.
“Every bottle makes me think of something different and although I’m a scientist by trade, I really enjoy the emotional response that whisky can bring.”
To mark the historic occasion, Business Insider had the chance to talk to both Stewart and McKechnie about how it all came about.
Here’s what they said:
Business Insider: Kelsey, what led you down the whisky path out of all the options you had and what made you decide this was it?
McKechnie: I have always loved the smell of whisky. Growing up my family enjoyed a dram, so I have always had an interest in how whisky is made and how the flavours change from region to region and distillery to distillery. We all know that smell and taste have the power to evoke happy memories, and for me whisky has that in abundance.
BI: What does science bring to the art of whisky?
McKechnie: Science is very important in making sure we have optimal fermentation conditions and the separation of flavour compounds during distillation – which allows us to mature the highest quality spirit. Personally, having a science background has enabled me to delve deeper into the process behind distillation, ultimately allowing me to marry the science and art of whisky making together to craft the best possible Balvenie liquid.
BI: Can you explain the appeal of single malts to fellow millennials who perhaps haven’t gone there?
McKechnie: As with all single malts, Balvenie truly captures the distinctive taste of our distillery in Dufftown. We are one of the few distilleries still practicing the five rare crafts of whisky making; growing then malting our own barley on our malting floor, coopering the barrels, having on-site coppersmiths and of course our malt master, David Stewart. Our liquid showcases this DNA in each and every dram and I think that is what makes single malts so appealing.
BI: What would you say to someone to encourage them to try whisky?
McKechnie: Whisky is a complex spirit, it takes time to allow our sensory palates to pick up distinct flavours from each product. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t experienced a single malt whisky to give it a try – there is such a wide variety of expressions out there that I truly believe there’s a dram for everyone. The best advice I can give is to sample a few different malts from different regions and see what appeals to your taste buds.
BI: How did you learn to nose and what tips would you offer a novice?
McKechnie: I began nosing at William Grant & Sons distillery in the lowlands. I carried out the routine analysis on the spirit and wanted to use my sensory palate to measure the flavours I was analysing for.
I think any novice will most likely be better at nosing than they think they are, and it’s definitely a skill that can be picked up over time. I would suggest reducing the strength of the spirit with water to release the aromas and take small sips to savour the flavour.
BI: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt from your time with David Stewart so far?
McKechnie: I think the most impressive thing is how truly vast David’s knowledge of whisky making is. He has amassed a wealth of knowledge over the 56 years working in the industry and I look forward to extracting some of that from him over the coming years.
The best tip I have received so far is to be patient in what we do, and allow the spirit and the cask enough time to develop those unique Balvenie flavours.
BI: And the best part of the job?
McKechnie: The best part is being able to contribute to the consistency and longevity of such a well-loved product. Seeing a bottle of Balvenie on the shelf and being a part of the blending process is always a very proud moment for me.
It’s also pleasing to see the work of our many distillery craftsmen and women come to life and be enjoyed around the world.
Business Insider: David, could you explain the working relationship you have with Kelsey – how do you work together on a day-to-day basis?
Stewart : Most of the time working together will be in our sample room, nosing and tasting samples that arrive from our distillery on a daily basis.
This could be new make spirit direct from the stills, samples taken monthly throughout the finishing period for the DoubleWood 12, samples of our single barrel expression or bottling samples from the other expressions in the range.
Kelsey and I will also be spending time together in the warehouses at the distillery, directly drawing samples from the cask to check for consistency and levels of maturation.
BI: How did you know Kelsey was the right person to be your apprentice?
Stewart : Kelsey has the rare ability to describe what she is nosing and can confidently pick out any off-notes in the liquid, while also detecting consistency in our expressions. All of which are key attributes for any malt master.
On a more practical level, Kelsey also had four years’ experience working for William Grant & Sons, at both our grain and malt distilleries, and had gained first-hand experience nosing in the sample room with our company Master Blender Brian Kinsman. When you marry her natural nosing and tasting ability with her experience, she is really the perfect candidate.
BI: What made her stand out?
Stewart : Kelsey shows a level of confidence well above and beyond her age, which coupled with a natural flair for nosing liquid and her background in clinical science, made her stand out to me. There are few people I’ve met during my 56 years in the business who possess all the characteristics that Kelsey does.
BI: Given your history and longevity, were you looking for someone with similar skills to you?
Stewart : To a certain extent. I’ve obviously gained much more experience over the last 56 years in the industry and not much happens now that hasn’t happened in the past.
Kelsey’s enthusiasm and passion, coupled with her scientific background and nosing ability shows that she has all the right skills to take on the role of apprentice malt master. I look forward over time to passing much of my knowledge on to her and assisting her in the journey ahead.
BI: And finally, could you give us your thoughts or predictions on the future of the whisky industry?
Stewart : The Scotch whisky industry is doing well at the moment with a number of distilleries expanding production. Growth is expected to come from China over the next number of years in addition to other markets around the world.
Growth in single malts is expected to continue as well as in the blended sector – so the outlook is really very promising.
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