There was never a doubt in Brian Kinsman’s mind that he’d pursue a career in science: he just expected to be in dentistry, not whisky. The Glenfiddich malt master and William Grant & Sons master blender tells Becky Paskin how his chemistry background makes his job easier – and what on earth SPPM means.
It’s been six years since Brian Kinsman inherited the roles of malt master at Glenfiddich and master blender at William Grant & Sons, yet the comparisons between himself and his predecessor, David Stewart, persist.
Perhaps it’s down to the remarkable legacy left by Stewart, or that the fate of one of the world’s best-selling single malt whiskies has passed into Kinsman’s hands. For some, Stewart represents one of the last of a dying breed of master distillers – craftsmen who started at the bottom of the ladder as wee youngsters, learning their trade as apprentice coopers or mashmen over decades as they worked their way up the ladder.
Stewart’s dedication to a life in Scotch whisky with William Grant – he joined the group as a 17-year-old whisky stocks clerk in 1962 and, at the age of 72, is still malt master of Balvenie – earned him an MBE earlier this year.
Kinsman, however, represents a new generation of distillers with scientific backgrounds who, armed with degrees and PhDs, are challenging the industry’s approach to Scotch whisky innovation.
‘Almost all the companies’ blenders of my generation have got chemistry backgrounds, while most of David’s didn’t,’ he says. ‘Our routes of working through the company are almost the same, as I started as a chemist doing very routine work too, but there’s a much closer link between the labs and blending side now.’
The advantage of having lab experience, he claims, is the knowledge of almost every part of the business – day-to-day analysis from the distillery, complaints from the marketplace, new product development and so on. ‘It would be hard to come into this area now and not have any experience with the chemistry side,’ he adds. ‘Even the industry knowledge has moved on so much.’
It’s the quiet season in Dufftown, but a beautiful spring morning when we meet at Glenfiddich’s Malt Barn. Kinsman, normally based in Glasgow, is in town for an annual workshop with the group’s global brand ambassadors. The idea is that he fills them in on new developments within the portfolio and they, in turn, repeat them to their respective markets so he doesn’t have to.
‘I don’t want to travel the world; I want to be here making the product,’ he says. Considering his remit, it’s not difficult to understand why Kinsman is happy hunkering down in his lab. As well as overseeing quality control for Glenfiddich and Grant’s, he is responsible for the blending operation of the entire group, including Tullamore DEW, Kininvie, Monkey Shoulder and its most recent portfolio addition, Ailsa Bay.
Busy man: As a blender, Kinsman can sometimes nose up to 200 whisky samples every day
In essence, Ailsa Bay is Kinsman’s own experimental distillery, where he plays around with peating levels – the phenol content of which is always measured in the spirit, not necessarily the barley – cut points, stainless steel condensers and micro-maturation, using 50-litre Baby Bourbon casks sourced from Tuthilltown Spirits in New York.
Might we see some of these casks used to mature Glenfiddich and Balvenie in the future? ‘Yeah, you’ve got to try stuff,’ Kinsman confirms. ‘We have a huge number of things we try that don’t go anywhere, and once or twice they end up being a product.’
He may support experimentation, but Kinsman is strict about what ends up in the public domain. ‘Innovation just to throw out another product with another flavour is not a good thing,’ he says. ‘There has to be a good story to tell and rationale. The acid test for me is if I’m happy to stand up and speak about it at a press launch. If not, we wouldn’t do it.’
One ‘innovation’ he is willing to speak about is the quantification of SPPM (sweet parts per million), a measurement of flavour compounds typically perceived as being sweet, such as vanillin. It’s a tool William Grant’s lab team have used to quantify sweetness for some time, but Ailsa Bay is the first example of it being printed on a bottle as a flavour signifier.
Kinsman admits he didn’t initially consider the team’s use of SPPM particularly significant as ‘it’s just something we do’. Does he think consumers are going to be as interested in a whisky’s SPPM as they would in its PPM (phenol parts per million)?
‘I have no idea,’ he shrugs. ‘For the massive enthusiasts who are interested in those numbers it will resonate a bit, but to be honest if they don’t like it or aren’t interested it almost doesn’t matter – it’s just a number.’
Tools of the trade: Aside from his nose, Kinsman claims his most important aid is logic, particularly when so many samples are involved
From a young age, Kinsman knew science would be his life. ‘I always liked science, and it turned out I was able to get good results without trying too hard, and that was quite important to me,’ he smiles. He studied chemistry at the University of St Andrews, and began a PhD while working as a development chemist with a dentistry company.
‘I looked at new materials for tooth fillings, impression materials, and crown and bridge work, which was actually quite interesting from a chemist perspective,’ he says earnestly. But, disillusioned with dentistry, he dropped out of his PhD and found a job as a chemist with William Grant, despite having ‘no deep burning desire to get into whisky’, as he admits. ‘I could see it was a good industry to be in with size, scale and opportunities. Though I realised I had made a good move within about three hours of starting.’
It may not have been his first choice of career, but as a Scotsman Kinsman was no stranger to whisky. ‘It was piping, you see, that’s the problem. It leads you astray.’
Turns out that this dark horse was a junior World Pipeband Champion with the Craigmount High School bagpipe band in 1990, and later played for the legendary Drambuie band. ‘It’s come full circle now because we now do Drambuie here,’ he says fondly.
Although he’s stopped playing now, Kinsman still prizes his first set of bagpipes, bought with the proceeds from busking on the streets of Edinburgh when he was just 17. ‘I was a bit of wimp and only busked in the summer with a borrowed set of pipes. It was great; I was getting paid to practise basically. You could do all right from it – though I better not say for tax purposes,’ he grins.
The role of a whisky chemist is never something brand teams communicate to consumers, so what does one do? ‘My original job involved taking samples of new-make spirit every day from all the stills, doing the chemical analysis on it, finding out what congeners are in there, and also doing sensory analysis.’
It turned out Kinsman was pretty good at nosing samples, and he was soon invited to join the William Grant & Sons sensory panel. From there, he was approached to become Stewart’s apprentice.
On tour: The Drambuie Kirkliston Pipe Band in California, 1997. While touring, Kinsman (front, far right), discovered a taste for whisky
The ability to understand the chemistry behind the whisky is something Kinsman appreciates when he spots something he’s created on the shelf. ‘You know all the little chinks of what we’ve done to make it taste the way it tastes,’ he explains. However, he admits that once a new creation leaves the lab, he feels a sense of detachment.
‘I think of whisky in the lab as quite analytical and almost quite deep – you’re into all those little nuances and details so much that you don’t enjoy it as a product. It’s actually quite nice to drink whisky as a consumer and just enjoy it, and that’s when you see it in a slightly different light.’
Kinsman has been part of the whisky fabric for 20 years now and, along with the rest of his colleagues, has seen interest in Scotch increase rapidly. With that increase, though, he says the industry must do a better job of ensuring consumers, particularly connoisseurs, are educated properly.
‘We get to know the connoisseurs, which is great, but underneath that there’s a massive void of knowledge about the product,’ he says. ‘It never fails to amaze me that you can do some tastings with people who should know a lot about whisky, and actually find some pretty glaring mistruths or misunderstandings. The idea is those connoisseurs act as ambassadors themselves, but there’s a lot of work to be done on the story-telling.’
It’s this miscommunication that concerns Kinsman about any move to legalise transparency in Scotch – allowing the publication of which casks go into a vatting. ‘I like the idea, but I worry about the lack of knowledge. Some people would absolutely get it, but if you make it available to a wide consumer base that doesn’t, then suddenly it doesn’t make sense. I also slightly worry that we will over-communicate whisky and make it too transparent, whereby you lose some of the richness of whisky itself.’
Rather poignantly, at this point one of the visitor centre supervisors lights a fire in the hearth next to where we’re sat. The distillery is about to welcome its first visitors of the day, but before Kinsman departs I want to know – will he still be working at Glenifiddich when he’s 72?
He laughs. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever catch up with David, and I don’t think I want to. I hope I’ll retire long before I get to that point, though you never know. It’s a great job and very interesting, but I’d like to do something else eventually, whatever that may be.’
I have a feeling those bagpipes may come in handy again one day.
Brian Kinsman on...
His most vibrant whisky memory:
'A party we held for David Stewart’s 50th year in the industry in the Balvenie maltings. All sorts of people from across the industry, his past and his family were there, as were the Grant-Gordon family. It was such a nice night, but it was over in a flash. It reminded me of the friendly part of the industry, which is most of it, because all the blenders from all the companies were there.'
The most difficult aspect of being a blender:
'Getting caught up in thinking about the pressure too much. Ultimately you’re making the final call on if a liquid is right or wrong, and these brands are worth an awful lot of money, so I can’t think about it. You concentrate on doing your bit of the job. If you step back and think of the enormity of the value of the brand, then that could become a little bit overwhelming.'
'I’m a supporter of NAS so long as they’re done properly and so long as you lead with flavour and you have a rationale. I do like the fact you can experiment in a way you can’t with age statements. You can get a genuine vibrancy from a young whisky that you can overlay on top of something that has a depth you wouldn’t otherwise get from a young whisky. You can come up with genuinely new flavours and, as long as it’s done for that reason, I’m quite supportive of it.'
Coping with nosing overload:
'As long as you do it in flights, and rarely more than 20-30 at a time, and as long as you take a break and do something else, it’s fine. Some people say the morning is better for nosing, but needs must and I have to do it in the afternoon too because I can’t fit everything into the morning. So long as you have a sensible approach to it, you can still be nosing by 6pm at night and it’s not a problem.'