Whisky and water are the main attractions to Scotland’s Speyside region. The area houses more than half of the country’s malt whisky distilleries—some of which open their doors to the public. Among the more welcoming of distilleries is the family-owned Glenfiddich, which has been producing one of the world’s best-selling single-malt whiskies for well over a century. And it’s here that we met with Brian Kinsman, Glenfiddich’s Malt Master since 2009, who revealed the secrets to his profession and what it takes to produce what is popularly known as the "best dram in the valley.”
1. THE MALT MASTER GIG IS HARD TO COME BY.
In the company’s more than 125-year history, Kinsman is only the sixth individual to hold the Malt Master title. He joined the company as a chemist in the grain distillery in 1997, and four years later became the apprentice to David Stewart, Scotland’s longest-serving Malt Master (Stewart held the position for 35 years), whom he worked under for eight years.
2. A GREAT NOSE IS A JOB REQUIREMENT.
While there are no formal qualifications to become a Malt Master, “the most important skill is nosing,” Kinsman says. “Everything I do is based on sensory assessment and in a typical week I will nose hundreds of samples from new make spirit through to finished bottles ready to go to market.” Kinsman credits Stewart with helping him “fine-tune this sense of smell and fully understand the profiles of all the William Grant & Sons products and the history of how they have evolved over the years.”
3. MATURITY IS PART OF THE PROCESS.
Kinsman’s chemistry background is of particular benefit to the company when it comes to his understanding of the science of maturation. “I spend a lot of time working with our chemists and coopers analyzing samples of oak and whisky to investigate what is happening during maturation,” Kinsman says. “This allows me to get a better understanding of how each cask is performing and also what we need to do to get the final flavor I am looking for.”
4. TESTING 300 SAMPLES A DAY IS THE NORM.
If you think Kinsman spends his days tasting Scotch, you’re half-right. On any given day, he spends about two to three hours in the sample room. “Some days I might only have 20 or 30 samples to nose from the daily production and on other days I could have 200 or 300 samples to nose,” he says.
5. MORE THAN HALF OF A PRODUCT’S FLAVOR COMES FROM THE CASK.
A cask is more than just a vessel to hold Scotch while it matures; choosing the right one is essential to the production process. “The cask contributes over half the flavor of the final bottled whisky as all the oaky, sweet flavor comes from maturation,” Kinsman says. At Glenfiddich, the majority of the casks are once-used bourbon casks from the U.S. and brand-new, sherry-seasoned ones from Spain. “The American oak casks bring sweet, vanilla, fruity character and the Spanish oak casks deliver a deeper, rich, oily, fruity character,” Kinsman says.
6. ONE COOPERAGE IS IMPRESSIVE; TWO IS BETTER.
The casks are so important to the process that the company maintains two cooperages: one in Speyside, and the other at the grain distillery in the south of Scotland. “It is a huge benefit to have direct control of the cooperage and to be able to speak directly with the coopers themselves about the quality of our casks,” Kinsman says. Becoming a cooper is no easy task, either. “Glenfiddich coopers apprentice for approximately five years (as long as a doctor) and work with incredible speed and agility to assemble, repair, or reconstruct around 25 casks every day.”
7. THE GOVERNMENT DICTATES WHAT RAW MATERIALS CAN BE USED IN THE SCOTCH-MAKING PROCESS.
“Because of the way Scotch whisky is enshrined in law, we can only use three raw materials: water, yeast, and whole grain cereal,” Kinsman says. “For single malt, the cereal is 100 percent malted barley.” But that doesn’t mean that Kinsman doesn’t get to experiment with more exotic ingredients: “I am in a lucky position of managing all spirits for the company and therefore get involved with innovation in non-Scotch whisky, too, where we have experimented with a massive range of fruits (from grapefruit through to strawberries and raspberries) as well as the rose and cucumber infusions for Hendrick’s Gin. Those experiments are always fun.”
8. SCOTLAND'S RAINY CLIMATE IS PARTLY WHAT MAKES THE PRODUCT "SCOTCH."
The reason why Scottish whisky has its own designation and a separate location in the liquor aisle is largely a result of the country’s climate. “One of the key factors is having a plentiful supply of clean, pure water, and with all the rain we get, this is not a problem,” Kinsman says. “The environment also plays a crucial role in maturation and the cool, damp atmosphere in our warehouses means we get slow, steady maturation, which is perfect for aging of the single malt.”
9. SMALL STILLS MAKE BETTER SCOTCH.
Glenfiddich's distillery houses 28 handmade, 11-foot copper stills that are uniquely shaped and much smaller than those of their competitors. (They’ve been the same size and shape since the very beginning.) Another distinction of the brand is that “we have a very high cut point,” Kinsman says. “This means we only collect spirit that is light and fruity and doesn’t have any heavy, oily character at all. We then mature everything at the distillery in casks maintained by our own coopers.”
10. TRADITION RULES, BUT EFFICIENCY IS IMPORTANT.
With the exception of a few efficiency tweaks, very little has changed about the way the Glenfiddich team makes its product. “We use a single source of water from the Robbie Dhu spring for the entire production and we then maintain the same process as started by William Grant over 125 years ago,” says Kinsman, who notes that the specific location of a distillery also has an effect on the final product. “The key to maintaining product quality is introducing new technology while respecting the traditional practice and ensuring the spirit quality and character doesn’t change. So, for example, we have introduced new engineering solutions to reduce energy usage and to manage the temperature of our condensers, but each time anything is introduced we spend a huge amount of time testing the spirit to make sure it stays consistent throughout.”
11. THE DISTILLERY CAN PRODUCE UP TO 10 MILLION LITERS OF SCOTCH PER YEAR.
That’s roughly the equivalent of five Olympic-sized swimming pools.
12. AMERICANS DRINK THE MOST SCOTCH.
Though Glenfiddich is consumed around the world, the good ol’ USA is the company’s top market in terms of both sales and consumption.
13. YOU COULD SPEND $94,000 ON A SINGLE BOTTLE OF GLENFIDDICH.
Following the 2012 death of Janet Sheed Roberts—the oldest woman in Scotland at the age of 110, and company founder William Grant’s granddaughter—Glenfiddich paid tribute to her life with a vintage 55-year-old Scotch. They produced just 11 bottles (one for every decade she lived), one of which sold for $94,000.
14. BUILDING THE GLENFIDDICH DISTILLERY WAS A FAMILY AFFAIR.
It took William Grant and his nine children (seven sons and two daughters) one year and 750,000 stones to build the Glenfiddich distillery.
15. FIFTY MILLION LITERS OF SCOTCH EVAPORATE EACH YEAR.
As a cask ages and breathes, approximately two percent of the alcohol evaporates through the wood and is lost forever. It’s what is known as “The Angels' Share.”
All photos courtesy William Grant & Sons