Masters of Distilling: David Stewart

If you enjoy Scotch, the odds are good that at some point in your life, you’ve had a whisky that David Stewart produced.

He’s worked at William Grant & Sons for more than 51 years and is the longest-serving malt master in the industry. He “looked after Glenfiddich for 35 years” and is responsible for every bottle of The Balvenie currently on shelves, not to mention managing the blend for top-selling Grant’s.

Despite Stewart’s legacy and talent, it was by chance that he got a job at the distillery in 1962. And he was lucky to apprentice for 12 years under then-malt master Hamish Robertson. “I got the invaluable training that nobody else in the company was getting,” he remembers. “It was very fortunate.” When Robertson left in 1974 and the brand couldn’t find anybody to hire, Stewart—at the ripe old age of 29—became the malt master himself.

It was an amazing time to be at William Grant, since the firm had started exporting a revolutionary new product in 1963: single malt Scotch. It was first sold in England and then in America. (Prior to 1963, a small amount of single malt was available in Scotland, but all exported whiskies were blends.)

Stewart is quick to point out that the company’s biggest seller in the 1960s—and to this day—was blended Scotch, a combination of a number of single malts and some grain whisky. “Everybody talks about single malts,” he says. But “the industry depends on blends, and there are very lovely blends out there.” 

But that’s not the only Scotch innovation that Stewart helped pioneer. Starting back in the 1980s, he began to play with aging whisky in different types of barrels. His first attempt was transferring a batch of the classic Balvenie from the American bourbon barrels it had been maturing in for years to a barrel that previously contained sherry. “What would happen? We were quite delighted,” he says. These experiment led to the brand’s very successful DoubleWood line that was first sold in 1993.

But Stewart admits not all his trials have worked out. In fact, casks that previously held white wine, armagnac and red wine didn’t add much to the whisky, he recalls. Fortunately, “if it doesn’t work, we don’t bottle it,” he says. “You have to be patient in this business.”

His curiosity about other types of liquor isn’t limited to his lab. Stewart enjoys wine, beer, single-cask bourbons “and a nice golden rum.” He’s particularly a fan of Appleton and Mount Gay. But, no surprise, he still drinks more Scotch than anything else. And for younger whiskies, he admits to pouring in a little soft, room-temperature water. “Blenders are used to adding water,” he says. “Water opens up the whisky, and it allows you to see more of the flavors there.” How about other mixers? “I’m not here to tell people how to drink,” he says.

And his work on new Balvenie variations and limited editions, like the Tun 1401, Batch 9 that was just released, are keeping him on the job. This edition of Tun 1401 is a mix of rare malts—nothing younger than 21 years old. It was “quite a bit of fun deciding how to blend them,” Stewart says. His only regret? Not keeping a few bottles of every Tun 1401 bottling, since they’re now highly sought-after by collectors. “I’m kicking myself now,” he admits.

While he’s cut back his workload and handed off the running of Glenfiddich to Brian Kinsaman a few years ago, Stewart has no plans to retire. “I have a few projects to keep me busy,” he says. We’ll drink to that!

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Discussion

  • Ortster posted 4 years ago

    I for one believe that The Balvenie produces the finest scotch available. Period. Of course, I have my own preferences and particularly like the 15-year, … even better than the 21-year. That being said, they are all extraordinary and in a different class than other brands. I hope David Stewart sees my comments as I'd simply like to thank him for continuing to produce such wonderful products.
    Wayne Ortner


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