Ian Wisniewski meets the nextgeneration of Scottish blenders who,like their American counterparts already\rfeatured in this issue,are taking the industry into the future.
Ultimately, everything depends on the master blender.After all,however rigorous the production process and wood management, it’s up to the master blender to maintain a consistent flavour profile for established brands.And as distilleries keep extending their portfolios, a master blender’s creativity and ability to innovate is another vital skill.Consequently, this role requires extensive experience, and entails significant responsibility.Meanwhile,every master blender also needs to discover and nurture the next generation, who will continue their legacy.“The first test is someone’s general knowledge of Scotch whisky, and level of interest, followed by a nosing test:we’re looking for someone who has the ability to not only detect odour sensations, but accurately describe them.This requires daily practise, and thinking with your nose,having a quick sniff of everything you come across to build up a mental reference,and to be expressive with the words you use,”says Stephanie Macleod, Dewar’s master blender.Joining Dewar’s in 1998, Stephanie had a Food Science degree from the University of Strathclyde,where she was also a sensory analyst studying the maturation of Scotch whisky.After running the Spirit Quality Laboratories at Dewar’s head office in Glasgow, Stephanie was appointed blender designate in 2003, and began a three year training period with master blender Tom Aitken, who retired in 2006.A science degree is now a standard qualification for potential master blenders, with new arrivals typically chemistry graduates.“The benefit in having a science degree is to understand what’s going on with the flavour, and to make sense of the chemical data we receive.“But the science and the art have equal importance, so a scientific background is not the be all and end all,”says Stephanie.In fact, academic qualifications, and having a nose that stands out from the crowd, are part of a broader package that contendors need to offer.“It’s probably a lot to do with attitude, it’s not a quick process in terms of learning,”says Brian Kinsman. Joining Wm Grant’s Girvan distillery in 1997 as a 25 year old chemist,Brian was part of the nosing panel analysing new make and mature spirit.Three years later he was appointed support blender, and began working on specific projects with master blender David Stewart.“You also look for commitment as it’s a job that you need to stick with, so we needed to know that he would persevere and commit himself to the company for the next 30 years, in the way that I did,” says David Stewart.As there’s no official programme, training manual, or help line to call for advice when training as a master blender, it’s very much a case of learning from a mentor on a one to one basis.“In terms of time you can’t condense the experience, and over the years it’s been a gradual watch and learn, you take on one job at a time, and the more you do it the better you get.We work on everything together, malts and blends, with up to three to four hours nosing a day,”says Brian.Inevitably, master blenders spend an enormous amount of time with a protege.“Our desks are side by side,and we spend each working day together, which is 8am until 5pm.We also have lunch together, so it’s crucial that we get on so well,” adds Brian Kinsman.And in the absence of the master blender,having experienced back-up means that it’s business as usual.“We’ve got to a point where I’ve been doing it for a number of years, and I’m comfortable if David is away for a couple of weeks.We send numerous emails daily to keep discussing what’s happening,”says Brian.In fact, master blenders are away so much more than they used to be, with increased demand to conduct tastings and to meet whisky lovers, which means a longer ‘to do’ list and a far more demanding schedule.“I love the ambassadorial side of it but I’m an operational blender, and I need to be here to make decisions.So, I have to be very careful about how I divide the time,between the very important blending work, and the very important role of meeting the public and explaining the role,” says Stephanie.As malt whisky has such a devoted and knowledgeable following, while also being such an innovative category, there are always questions about each aspect of production. It’s significantly different to how things used to be.“My predecessors would have dismissed out of hand discussing what goes into a blend, or the wood type.Things began to change in the late 1980s, as people began to be more knowledgeable and trade up, so it was necessary to give them firm,understandable reasons why they should be doing this. In the past the blender was a mysterious guy who worked in almost a darkened room.Now it’s a case of being out there and speaking to the public, which has been a huge change,”says John Ramsay,The Edrington Group’s master blender.John’s career began with Long John at the Strathclyde distillery.After working as a blender for William Lawson he joined Edrington in 1990, and a year later replaced Paul Rickards who had originally trained him at William Lawson.John has worked with Gordon Motion for more than nine years.Originally studying computer science at Heriot Watt University, Gordon returned for the post graduate course in brewing and distilling. Joining The Edrington Group as a whisky quality technologist,Gordon was appointed master blender designate in March 2007, aged 37.“I’m now looking at different aspects of the company.There’s a lot of day to day work that you need to get used to. It’s a management role so you’ve got your team to look after, as well as budgets and a lot of paperwork to get through, and I’m now working much more closely with the marketing department,” says Gordon.As well as being the guardians of established brands, continual innovation also provides master blenders with the opportunity to create their own individual expressions, whether this is a limited-edition, or an on-going release. It’s also an opportunity for the next generation to be involved in pioneering work.“New product development has become a more time consuming part of the job,”says Brian.Creating new products naturally highlights the importance of wood management, which means it’s a vital skill for the next generation.“Wood management is now totally key, and as this is part of trying to forecast future volume, it’s a far more important part of the role than it used to be,”says Stuart Harvey, master blender at Inver House Distillers.The master blender’s role has also been shaped by the amazing growth of interest in malts since the 1980s.“The effort you have to put into single malts is now huge, and it’s a different skill set from blends.“I’ve developed a number of new expressions of Old Pulteney, Balblair,An Cnoc and Speyburn during the past four years,” adds Stuart.A biochemistry degree from the University of Strathclyde initially led Stuart to a seven year career in brewing, which culminated in him becoming a master brewer.His first job in the Scotch whisky industry was production controller at Highland Distillers, and one aspect of this role was nosing new make spirit. Joining Inver House Distillers four years ago aged 38, Stuart worked with, and then took over from Eddie Drummond,who’d been the master blender for 15 years.As the role of a master blender is now far more understood and appreciated by whisky lovers, this elite group is an inspiration for the next generation.“I thought it would be amazing to be a master blender,and decided that if anything came up I would go for it,”says John Glass.At that time John was learning more about Scotch whisky by working at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh,having studied biochemistry at St Andrew’s,where his interest in Scotch whisky first developed.Joining Ian Macleod Distillers in January, 2007, aged 24, John is working closely with Gordon Doctor,who’s been the chief blender for 12 years.“John passed the nosing test with flying colours, and is learning every aspect of the production process by working at Glengoyne distillery, as well as working closely with me in the sample room, which includes developing new products,”says Gordon.So,how’s it going?“It’s going fantastically well. I’m living the dream,”says John.
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