Unlike other whisky distilleries which are coping with shortages in stocks by releasing non-age statement whiskies, fans of Balvenie’s whiskies will not be seeing such bottles anytime soon.
Its malt master David Stewart says the whisky, produced by independent family-owned distiller William Grant & Sons, whose brands include Glenfiddich, Grant’s and Monkey Shoulder, would prefer to stick with tradition and continue with aged statements for its Balvenie range.
“A number of companies have gone down that route, mainly to sell in travel retail, but we’re happy keeping the age on our whiskies” the 71-year-old says, speaking to The Sunday Times from Glasgow, Scotland, where he is based.
“I’ve nothing against non-age statement whiskies and I’ve tried a few myself. But nothing like that will come out from us unless the quality is good. Being a family company, we can hold on to our whiskies and we’re never really forced into bottling them.”
That said, with increased demand, he is well aware that they will need more whisky in future to keep up. “The distillery is working flat out at the moment, but we’re confident we’ll be able to satisfy any growing demand for Balvenie in the longer term,” he adds.
Stewart is a Scotch whisky industry figurehead, known as one of the longest-serving malt masters in Scotland, having been with the company for 54 years.
He has been the master blender for Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Grant’s whiskies since 1974, eventually handing over the roles of Glenfiddich malt master and Grant’s master blender to Brian Kinsman in 2009. However, he continues to serve as malt master, maintaining the consistency of the Balvenie expressions and blending new creations.
He started fresh out of school in 1962 as a store clerk, looking after the stock ledgers and invoices, and was eventually brought in to the sampling room by the then malt master Hamish Robertson, who started teaching him the craft.
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When Robertson left the distillery, Stewart, who was 29 at the time, was the only qualified person who could nose and blend whisky. So he took on the portfolio of all the whiskies under William Grant & Sons.
“Being a malt master or master blender is all about nosing the whisky,” he says. “That is how you assess the quality of the whisky since you can’t possibly be drinking it all.”
He also pioneered the technique of two-cask maturation or “finishing” in the 1980s, where whiskies matured in oak casks for years are moved to a different barrel for a few months at the end to give a different flavour profile to the spirit. The second barrel that the whisky is moved to could have held anything from sherry to port to rum.
One such bestseller is The Balvenie DoubleWood, which is aged 12 years and then transferred to European oak sherry casks for the last nine months.
“We were delighted with the way it changed the whisky in complexity and added spicy notes to it,” he says.
First released in 1993, it is also one of the expressions that he is proudest of since it “put Balvenie on the map”. The “finishing” technique is now commonplace and used by almost all whisky distillers around the world today.
For his services to the Scotch whisky industry, he was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II on July 5.
As an industry stalwart who has seen the landscape evolve over the past 50 years, Stewart feels that Scotch whiskies are well placed to compete with Japanese and even Taiwanese whiskies, which have gained popularity in recent years.
He concedes that these are probably already giving Scotch whiskies a run for their money. “But Scotch whiskies have a long, long tradition behind them, so I think we’ll be able to hold our own,” he says.
Adapted from The Sunday Times.