Conversations on whisky

The Kirstie McCallum episode. Patrick Leclezio interviews one of Scotch whisky’s pioneering women.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

Dr Kirstie McCallum is one of a growing number of women occupying prominent positions in Scotch whisky. An analytical chemist by training, she’s worked for some of the leading companies in the industry and was an accomplished master blender before moving into her current role. We were fortunate enough to share some time with her during a recent visit to South Africa.

PM: You’re the Global Brand Ambassador for Burn Stewart – which, incidentally, is now part of South Africa’s Distell Group. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your work and your time away from the work.

KM: My work involves travelling to various markets to educate consumers, the press, and our internal customers about our brands. In terms of leisure I’m a passionate World Rally fan, and I also enjoy watching ice hockey.

PM: What do you most like and dislike about your job?

KM: I like meeting people, seeing new places, and experiencing different cultures. I dislike airports, especially when there are flight delays.

PM: What in your opinion are the most important whisky developments and trends impacting the market at this point in time?

KM: Whisky cocktails, the emergence of women – both as consumers and whisky professionals, and the shift in the average age of the whisky consumer – more people are bringing whisky into their repertoire at a younger age.

PM: This issue of NAS whiskies has been getting a bit of blowback in the whisky press and in social media, particularly in the last year or so, with the increased proliferation of these products, key touch points being a lack of honesty from the industry about the motivation for this trend, the inherent deception (and lack of courage) in these products, and the perception that they’re a smokescreen for excessive profit-taking. What’s your view? Is this trend that will continue to grow – or will it retreat to a niche at some point? Do you think the industry will continue to phase out traditional aged whiskies even when stocks recover?

KM: I disagree. Whisky behaves differently at different ages, and offers different flavours at these various stages. A blender has two key elements with which to play – cask and age. NAS whiskies, by extending the blending palette, allow greater experimentation with flavour, which better serves the increasingly adventurous and knowledgeable modern consumer. This trend will definitely continue.

PM: The Scotch whisky industry is very traditional, with relatively little room for change and innovation. A guy like John Glaser has tried, and been somewhat successful at doing new and different things, but with much resistance. Do you think there’s scope for real innovation in whisky?

KM: We are closely regulated to ensure Scotch whisky stays true to its traditions and history, and remains a 100% natural hand crafted product. But although we are restricted there is still lots of scope for innovation, with cask finishing, different age and NAS expressions, and also things like different peating levels in the malt used to make the spirit, being prime examples.

PM: Glenfiddich cracked the million case mark in 2013 – the first single malt to do so. Whilst this signals the rapid growth of malt whisky, the market remains very much dominated by blends, with malts only making up some seven to eight percent. What’s your view of the future – where will things settle?

KM: I think we’ll continue to see malts increasing in volume, but blends will always dominate.

PM: Whisky has in fact proliferated to the point where it’s being made in a variety of new countries – case in point being Three Ships and Bain’s, now part of your group. How do you and how does the Scotch whisky industry view these new producers? Are they good for stimulating continued interest and growth, or do you see them as a potential future threat? Do they have a place in whisky, do they stand on their own two feet – or are they largely just derivative copycats?

KM: These whiskies give people new options to try. They complement Scotch whisky and the other traditional styles of whisky. I think that the industry as a whole doesn’t view them as either a threat or as being derivative. They most certainly stand on their own two feet.

PM: Is this your first visit to SA? What is it about the country that you’ve most enjoyed?

KM: Yes, it’s my first visit. I haven’t seen much since getting here but I can say that I’ve been very impressed by Table Mountain. My grandfather was an engineer on an oil tanker and he’d always referred to Cape Town as one of the most beautiful places that he’s ever seen, so I’m looking forward to seeing as much of it as I can.

PM: Islay seems to have established itself as a whisky Mecca. Its peated whiskies have developed a cult following. Why do you think this is the case? Do you personally enjoy heavily peated whiskies?

KM: I need to interject and mention that Islay is not just about peat. The island’s whiskies offer different levels of peating, and lots of differences in character independent of the peat. Our Islay malt Bunnahabhain offers a complex unpeated taste of Islay. Yes, peat plays a part in the appeal, but it’s also about the romance and the remoteness of Islay. The island inspires a very personal experience of whisky. Yes, I do enjoy peated whisky. Within our stable I can highly recommend Ledaig, its sweet peat being particularly accessible for the novice, and Bunnahabhain Ceobanach, a limited edition bottling that comes from the six weeks of the year during which we make a heavily peated (40ppm) spirit at the distillery.

PM: The industry’s suffered a setback in one of its biggest growth markets, China, with the recent anti-extravagance policies. This have emphasised the doubts about whether the growth of whisky in China stemmed from true appreciation. Where to from here? How can this be addressed? Where is the next China?

KM: I think South America , and South Africa have tremendous potential for growth. China isn’t our biggest market but it is a growth market for us and for me the answers lie in a continued focus on consumer education, and in products which suit Chinese tastes. An example would be Scottish Leader Supreme in Taiwan where the liquid has been especially blended to cater to the Taiwanese palate.

PM: Wood is generally acknowledged as the principal influence on the flavour of a whisky. Peat smoke is probably the most obvious. What are the other influences that might be isolated by the casual drinker?

KM: Undoubtedly still shape – which is different in every Scotch distillery. Bunnahabhain has the tallest stills on Islay, promoting a lighter spirit. Ledaig and Deanston have lye arm configurations that generate more reflux, resulting in a sweeter spirit.

PM: Whisky has seen a phenomenon uptake over the past 20 years. Why do you think that this has been the case? There is increasing competition as others up their game, and there will always be a natural fluctuation in trends and drinking habits. Can whisky continue to grow? What sets it apart from other fine spirits? What makes it persistently relevant?

KM: Whisky is distinct because of its tradition and heritage. These are enduring qualities so I believe it will always be relevant in the long term. PM: What makes Bunnahabhain such a special whisky?

KM: It’s a unique style of whisky for Islay. And its accessible flavour – with lots of fruits and nuts – makes it particularly special.

PM: What do you drink when you’re not drinking a Burn Stewart whisky?

KM: I was previously a gin blender so I like to try different types of gins. I’m also an international rum judge so I also favour the occasional rum, but my main drink is whisky.

PM: Are you a purist? How do you respond if someone asks you to mix a dram of Bunna 12YO with Coke? KM: There are no rules. I encourage people do what they like and to drink whisky as they’d best enjoy it.

PM: Lastly, how do you prefer to drink your whisky when you’re just having a casual dram with friends?

KM: It all depends on my mood. I drink Black Bottle with ginger ale and a splash of lime, I drink blended whisky with Coke, I’ve enjoyed single malt cocktails, and of course I also enjoy whisky on its own.

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