DAVID STEWART SHARES A HALF-CENTURY OF DISTILLATION EXPERIENCE IN EVERY SIP.
MEET THE MASTER David Stewart shares a half-century of distillation experience in every sip.
It’s hard to imagine anyone with a broader knowledge of Scotch whisky than David Stewart, MBE. The malt master for The Balvenie Distillery has been in the trade for more than a half-century, and in January 2016 was honored by the Queen for his services to the industry.
Stewart, born in 1945, began his career at 17 as a stock clerk for the Speyside distillers William Grant & Sons. (Speyside, a coastal valley in northeastern Scotland, is geographically quite small, but boasts the greatest number of distilleries of any whisky-producing region; the River Spey serves as a water source for many of them). He assumed the role of malt master and master blender after a 12-year apprenticeship, and has overseen production of The Balvenie for 47 years — the longest tenure of any malt master. For 35 of those years, he was malt master for Glenfiddich, as well, but handed over that position in 2009.
Stewart’s long service gives him a unique perspective on the continuity and craftsmanship that characterize the making of fine Scotch. “We’ve stayed true to the same handcrafted and quality methods used at the distillery for five generations,” he says. “We still grow our own barley and keep faith with a traditional malting floor — the last of its kind in the Scottish Highlands.” This attention to detail extends to all the accouterments of the trade: “Our resident coppersmith maintains the stills, and our team of coopers ensures each barrel is in perfect condition.”
In a craft steeped in tradition, Stewart has found room for some new wrinkles — most famously, two-cask maturation. In the early 1980s, Stewart experimented with transferring whisky from the traditional oak casks into used sherry barrels for the final months of aging. The result was a richer, more complex beverage — but Stewart admits he got some pushback. “Change and innovation, for some in our industry, can be difficult,” he says. “When we pioneered double-cask maturation, it was met with a watchful eye from skeptics.” Still, he observes, “Today the ‘finishing’ method has been adopted by a host of brands.”
Stewart downplays the legendary character of the drink, focusing squarely on simply creating a quality product: “Over the years, as single-malt Scotch whisky has grown in popularity, so too has people’s knowledge and appreciation.”
As the public face of the industry, Stewart has gone to some lengths to demystify his craft. The Balvenie Distillery has reinvented itself as a popular tourist destination, and its operations have even been chronicled in a TV documentary series. “The more information and behind-the-scenes views of our process we can give, the better,” Stewart says.
But in opening up the process, don’t you risk losing the magic? “The magic,” he says, “is exactly what we want people to see.”