When I started this series of features I had a few people in my mind that I had to try and approach, Brian was one of those people and when he agreed to contribute I was absolutely thrilled.. As the master distiller at what is probably the most famous distillery in the world it is a privilege and honour to introduce..
Q1, Could you tell us a little about your background,
I have been at William Grant and Sons for 20 years. I started as a chemist based in the Girvan Distillery and worked on spirit quality and maturation studies. That was my first job in the whisky industry as prior to that I had briefly worked in a dental company as a product development chemist. After a few years in the lab I got the opportunity to move into blending under the guidance of David Stewart and I worked as apprentice to David for about 9 years. In 2009 I was appointed Master Blender.
Q2, Your background is very different to the old school master blenders, what benefits do you think your chemistry background brings to the job.
Chemistry is a big help. It allows me to work directly with the laboratory teams across the company and to tie together their analytical results and my sensory results. So when we look at new make spirit, maturing inventory or finished products we can do it in a unified way and use the analytical data to better understand the sensory profile.
Q3, You came through the ranks and learned a lot from David Stewart, is there anything in particular that sticks in your mind about him..
David is one of the nicest people you could meet. He is incredibly humble and unassuming despite his many achievements throughout his career. The thing I am most grateful for was the way he worked with me, from day one he was completely open and shared his experience and knowledge. He has been very supportive and continues to be to this day.
Q4, What first intrigued you about becoming the master blender for such a prestigious company. And now 6 years into the job what changes have you seen/made.
I was delighted to be given the opportunity to be the Master Blender, it is a fantastic job and one I am very proud to do. The biggest change in the last few years is the diversity and complexity of our portfolio. With Tullamore D.E.W. and Drambuie we have 2 completely new categories to manage and understand and the single malt and blend ranges have expanded quite substantially. Having said that I really enjoy dealing with such a diverse range of flavours and production processes, it makes the day to day routine very interesting indeed!
Q5, Could you tell us a little about what it is you do when choosing casks, your routine, what it is your looking for, is there any type of cask that challenges your senses more than others..
Every cask is unique and one of the best things about my job is finding hidden gems in the warehouse. I get most of the samples drawn at the distillery sent to the sample room in Glasgow but occasionally I will do some sampling in the warehouse as that lets me see the actual cask, look at the condition of the oak and get a better understanding of why one cask filled on the same day with the same spirit might be so different to the one next to it. We have well over a hundred different cask types in our stocks from traditional bourbon barrels, sherry casks and refill casks through to some quite exotic wine casks, rare old sherry casks and unusual species of oak. To maintain the flavour profile of all of our expressions it helps to have a very diverse range of casks to work with as that allows me to select exactly what is required for each vatting and to have some options to tweak a recipe if a particular batch of casks has matured in an unexpected way.
Q6, How many casks might you nose/taste in a typical day for selecting casks..
That can be very varied. On a day of routine QC I might nose 50 to 100 samples ranging from new make spirit through to finished bottles. If I am working on a specific project or nosing a full batch of single malt that can jump to 200 to 300.
Q7, Other than nosing and tasting casks what might a day for a master blender /malt master involve..
I manage quite a diverse team who look after blend planning, QC, laboratory analysis and new liquid development so there is a lot of time for meetings, projects and one to one catch ups with the team. We have a great team of people across all of our operations and I try to get to the distilling sites as often as possible so that means a bit of travel.
Q8, Which gives you more satisfaction, creating a new expression or constantly producing a consistent expressions.
Maintaining consistency is at the heart of everything I do. It is so important and starts at the new distillate. I spend a lot of time nosing new spirit and working with the distillery sensory panels to make sure everything we are filling is of the correct quality to ensure the flavour profile will be maintained for years to come. When I am travelling I find it very rewarding to see our products on the back bar, order a drink and get the flavour that takes me all the way back to the distillery!
For new expressions it is great fun going through the experimentation stage and exploring what is possible and that naturally then leads to the question of how can we reproduce that and keep it consistent so I guess everything is centred on consistency.
Q9, what has been the strangest thing you have come across in your job.
I think the diversity of flavours within Scotch whisky and in particular the huge range of flavour developed during maturation means I see (or smell!) strange things on a regular basis when I am sampling in the warehouses. But it is that diversity that keeps it interesting, I love the fact that I still find new aromas and tastes despite having nosed hundreds of thousands of samples during my career. I also enjoy trying spirits from around the World but have to admit I find the flavour of Chinese Baijui quite difficult to cope with and possibly one of the strangest drinks I have tried (yet!!)
Q10, what has been the highlight for you since taking over from David and do you still get to work with David on occasions..
There have been so many highlights, I am very lucky to be doing a job I love and working with fantastic brands and people. One of the most unexpected highlights has come about because of the acquisition of Drambuie. I am now one of only 3 people in the company who know the famous secret recipe and we keep it in a safe in the office. We get together every couple of months to mix a batch of flavour and have built a special room in our main office to do it with restricted access, padlocked containers and a safe – it feels very James Bond!
I still work with David on a regular basis as he continues to be The Balvenie Malt Master so he comes into the office from time to time and we can catch up on what is going on and nose some samples together.
strangest drinks I have tried (yet!!)