Seabourn Club Herald - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Jack Feerick

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.”

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