Meet the Malt Master: David Stewart, Balvenie

Sean Murphy was lucky enough to speak a Scotch whisky industry legend, David Stewart, Malt Master at Balvenie.

Published 16th Feb 2016
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

Only a few names in the whisky industry can truly hold the title of legend; Charles McLean, Dave Broom, Dr. Bill Lumsden and of course Richard Patterson are all icons of the whisky world.

One man who also slots quietly onto that esteemed list is David Stewart.  The longest serving Malt Master in the industry has not only won numerous awards within the world of whisky but has also recently been recognised in the New Year’s Honours list with a MBE for services to the Scotch whisky industry.

After nearly 54 years in the business, David’s pioneering techniques have had a profound impact on many of the Scottish whisky production techniques used today.

He is renowned for his ground breaking work particularly around ‘cask finishes’ for The Balvenie and has developed a number of award winning whiskies enjoyed and loved by whisky drinkers all over the world.

We were lucky enough to catch up with him for a quick chat about the industry, all things Balvenie and the contentious issue of Non-Age Statement whiskies.

First off, congratulations on receiving your MBE, how does it feel to receive such an honour?

It came as a big surprise, I really wasn't expecting to receive this award. Obviously someone in the company nominated me, which I didn't know, so really when I got the letter at the end of November I felt it was a huge honour.

It will be quite an exciting day, I was never expecting anything like this and I'm delighted to have been chosen.

As Scotland's longest serving Malt Master, does it do you proud to see, not only how successful Balvenie has become, but the Scotch industry as a whole? 

I joined in 1962 and there was no single malt really, and of course we launched the Glenfiddich outside of the UK in '63/'64 and we had the market pretty much to ourselves for a quite a number of years. Then the industry saw how well the Glenfiddich was doing and how profitable it could be with single malts.

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Of course the rest of the industry followed suit [by releasing single malts] in the 1970's and that's when we launched Balvenie too.

So, yes it is still 10 per cent or less for malt whiskies - the industry still relies heavily on blended whisky - but single malts are becoming more popular because there's such a wide variety of flavours from all over Scotland.

Being there from the start, was it interesting to see the growth of malts in the market? 

As a young chap I didn't have much to do with the launch of Glenfiddich outside of the UK - I mean that was down to the family [Grants] - I was still learning the business, I don't think we knew at that stage just how well malts would be received, but I think we all knew blended whisky would still be king.

It is good to have been in there, though, from the beginning with Balvenie and the mid 70s when we started to bottle the 8-year-old Balvenie Founders Reserve, which we then moved to the 10-year-old.

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From there we had the classic range, a non-age bottling which was unusual for then, and then a 12 and an 18.

How did you finish whisky in different casks come about and are you surprised by how popular the practice has become?

The main woods back in the 80s were American oak barrels and European oak sherry casks, and at that time I thought 'what would happen if we recasked some of this whisky that's in American oak barrels into sherry casks'?

I knew at the time that it wouldn't have worked the other way around because you get so much dominance of flavour from Sherry casks.

From there I just left it and checked it every month, seeing how the whisky developed, and remarkably it added this complexity and spiciness to the whisky, and a richness and we were quite delighted to see the change it had made.

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So we launched this Balvenie classic range, which now differed from the Founder's Reserve, in that it was finished in a sherry cask where the FR was a marriage of different wood types.

So you didn't even release it with any kind of fanfare about this new practice? 

We didn't tell people what we did, we just wanted a new expression for the Balvenie, we wanted to make it slightly different from the 10-year-old.

But it was only really when I was asked to develop a range in 1993 to celebrate the centenary year of the Balvenie, when I was asked to develop a new range of Balvenie and I thought 'why don't we use what we did with the 12-year-old classic and some one else came up with the term 'Doublewood' and we wanted to explain exactly what we did'.

So that was the start of our finishing process and at that stage we had the 10-year-old FR which was a marriage of three different cask types - the American oak first-fill-Bourbon, refill Bourbon and sherry cask - then we had the 15-year-old single barrel and then a couple of years later we launched the 21-year-old finished in Port wood.

And we've done a number of limited edition finishes over the years.

How do you go about choosing these woods for each finish? For example the Caribbean rum finish, is it just whatever you peaks your interest? 

Yes it is, we've tried a number of experiments, we tried some with brandy and cognac and Armagnac and we've tried some wines and they didn't work for us.

So we didn't know whether rum would work or not and we were quite surprised when it did. It adds sweetness and tropical notes to the whisky, we've got the Caribbean cask now, but what we do is actually bring rum into the distillery and put it into our wood. It's not easy to get casks from the Caribbean and the casks usually aren't usually that great. We chose the rum and then we keep it for about four years, then sometimes we actually sell back to the supplier.

What does the supplier do with it? Can we have some? 

[Laughs] We think the supplier probably bottles it. [We really wish we'd got the supplier's name now.]

We leave the rum in our casks for about 6 months and then we put the 14-year-old Balvenie into them for another 6 months after that and we move the rum onto other casks. It just gives it that delicate spiceyness and it's been well received.

It is quite an easy whisky to drink and even some beginners who haven't tried whisky it is a great one to start them on, it's nice and sweet.

With certain whisky writers (Jim Murray in particular) giving more and more acclaim to whiskies from around the world, do you think that the Scotch industry is still as strong as ever, or is it facing real challenges at the moment for its crown? 

I've been to one or two of the distilleries, like Suntory's and Nikka's in Japan, I've been to Kavalan in Taiwan and Mackmyra in Sweden and they are all making great whisky to be fair.

I know Jim quite well and he’s a really nice person and he’s done a great job in securing headlines for his book but it’s just one man’s opinion.

Personally, I think the quality of Scotch is a good as it’s ever been, the industry as a whole is in incredibly strong shape and the future is looking extremely positive.

Japanese whisky is enjoying a purple patch and Scotch whisky is still revered around the world but I’m not sure you can ever name one drink as the best in the world over another.

Do you really think the industry is better than its ever been? 

I really do.

For example, we monitor casks now so that we know how often we can use them, we can keep track with bar coding and such, whereas if you go 20-30 years ago, we probably didn't know how often a cask had been filled.

I've seen it in the past with some older whiskies being put into a cask that's really not done anything for them but now that doesn't really happen because we can keep on top of it.

Obviously there is a difference between a first, second and third fill Bourbon [cask] but they all contribute to our vatting, offering slightly different flavours and we have recipes and formulas to use all of these cask and they all come together to create an expression or a product.

How do you keep it fresh? After being in the industry for all this time? 

Well I only work for Balvenie now, so I'm only working part time.

It was 35 years in the company, from 1974 to 2009 when I was in charge of Glenfiddich, Grants and Balvenie and everything else we did and then I trained up Brian Kinsman, who took over in 2010. So, now I just carry on my role with Balvenie, selecting the casks, selecting all the single barrels, preparing the vattings, doing all the PR work and doing tastings. Travelling to markets where Balvenie does well.

So enjoying the best job in the world? 

Well that's it, having done years of hard work, I now get to do all the nice things, such as meeting people, tastings and travelling to nice places.

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What do you think will be the next big trend for the industry? 

It's a difficult one. Well, we've done whisky by age and finishing, we've got these Non Age expressions coming out and some younger whiskies too, I'm not sure where we can go now by the laws of the Scottish Whisky Association, we still have to be quite traditional, which I like.

Of course, the Non-Age Statement whiskies have become more prevalent, but at Balvenie we haven't done that, other than with the Tun 1401 and 1509. For both The Balvenie and Glenfiddich we are lucky, we have aged stocks so that we can keep the age on our bottles.

As the malt master or master blender it does give you more scope to experiment with different ages of whisky, which I think can be a good thing when done right.

NAS whiskies are a huge talking point in the industry right now, and it does seem to be a double edge sword. On one side there is the argument that it frees up things for better expressions, it gives people the chance to experiment a wee bit in terms of flavour between ages, and then there's the other side; that argues that a lot of people might be taking advantage of this by producing what some people believe inferior whisky.  

One of the major things about the Balvenie is the strength in it's consistency, but how do you see NAS for the rest of the industry? Why do you think so many people are annoyed by it?

You know that although there is no age statement, I still think that quality is paramount, that is the key thing. It does give the Master Blender freedom to use not only younger whisky but older whisky too to balance it. You probably know these Tuns that we did, the 1401 and the 1509?

Yes, we are familiar with them and we did enjoy them...

Part of the reason we didn't place an age statement on them was because there is such a wide range of ages in there, nothing younger than 21-years-old but some are over 40 in these Tuns, so that's why we didn't put an age statement on these particular expressions I think it can be confusing for consumers, as age does make it clearer and it helps them navigate through a range of whisky and knowing why they have to pay more for 18-year-old than a 12-year-old.

So you think it's mainly an issue of clarity?

Yeah, I think so, there are other factors such as taste and quality obviously, but I do think it makes it easier for consumers to see an age on a bottle. With Balvenie I don't really see us going along that route.

What's next for Balvenie? 

We have the DCS releases - DCS being my intials David Charles Stewart - where I've selected 25 different casks and we are going to release five of them each year for the next five years. The first lot were released last October which were all about the distillery character of Balvenie which means they are all in american oak.

So we've taken a cask from five different decades from the 1960s right through until the 2000s in American oak barrels and they are bottled at cask strength. The next chapter will be all about wood, with first fill Bourbon against a sherry cask. There's five different chapters and one of them is the Malt Master's indulgence were I've been allowed to indulge myself a lot.

In amongst the chapters, there will be a 1962 in there which is the year I started, there's a 1974 which is year I became Master Blender, there's a 1993 which is the year I launched Doublewood.

We like that you are speaking with quite a bit of pride about this range...

It took me quite a while to select the casks and I'm quite proud of them. They will be sold right through until 2019, I think there will only be 50 sets of the full range that you can buy and the rest will be sold individually.

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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