The phrase “Don’t drink and drive” appears on booze adverts around the world. While some liquor companies actively sponsor motor racing and other adrenalin inducing activities, I’d never before met a rally-driving distiller with a background in chemical engineering. But you see, if you hang around a whisky bar in the early afternoon you’re bound to meet interesting people.
Dr Kirstie McCallum is an interesting person. She has one of those “jobs” (and I use the term loosely) as a global brand ambassador, sharing her passion for excellent whiskies. I’m sure it can be tiring, all that travel, but you wouldn’t notice it. Kirstie abounds with enthusiasm for the whiskies she represents. Black Bottle, Scottish Leader & Bunnahabhain, different drams, different styles, all under the umbrella of Burn Stewart Distillers, now part of Distell, the South African company fast becoming a global liquor powerhouse.
I confess to more than a passing interest in the Distell range of whiskies, having presented them a few times and they make up part of my whisky selection. So what was new about that afternoon? Firstly, we had a frank discussion about topical and controversial subjects. Secondly, we tasted something very special. We caught up at the Waterfront, her stop in Cape Town before heading to Canada.
We started with the future – what after the Ambassadorial role? Kirstie said she wants to eventually move back into blending, but first she is enjoying the opportunity to engage with the consumer, to get a view of what the consumer wants to drink, what flavours they are looking for. Take for example, the new Black Bottle. The new expression includes Highlands and Speyside Malts, giving it a richer, rounder flavour, while maintaining the phenols of the original blend. Kirstie said smoke can be very polarizing, and this Black Bottle is more accessible. True. Smoke & the more medicinal peaty whiskies take some time to get into, but the journey is worthwhile. Over time, people seem to go towards, not away from, the smoke, which seems to envelop whisky lovers like a comforting early morning mist on a chilly morning.
Kirstie said that with Scottish Leader, people enter the range through Original and can stay within the brand and expand their horizons with the Signature. The latter contains more west coast malts, but still has the Deanston giving it a honeyed sweetness.
With the move towards NAS whiskies, do you think that what you are able to bring from the lab and your academic background will change how whisky is produced and aged?
“No. It will never change aging, we need the casks, we need the angels share and we need the time. I know there has been talk about controlling the angel’s share. For me, if you try control the angel’s share, you affect how the whisky matures. It’s not very pleasant for us losing up to 2% a year to the angels, but it’s part of the maturation process. If you don’t have that interaction you wont have the whisky you want, you wont get the flavours from the wood and the surroundings. Aging takes away immature flavours. Having said that, our focus is always on the quality of the spirit, not the number on the bottle. We bottle our whiskies when they are at the optimum age.“
There is a lot of discussion about the SWA regulation prohibiting detailed information as to the composition of a blend, forbidding distilleries from specifying exactly what is in the bottle. What’s your view?
“I’m ok with the way things are. You see, for me, that is the art of the blender. Our job is to able to know different whiskies, our job is to make sure that the blend is consistent. The blend may change slightly over time. You have to keep the mystery and romance and allow the blenders to use what they know is perfect for the blend.”
Time for a whisky…and Kirstie poured a Bunnahabhain Rubha A M’hail, an 11 year old powerhouse of a whisky, bottled at 57.4 ABV and matured in Manzanilla Sherry Butts. Bottled for the 2015 Islay Festival it is no longer available for sale. And that is a good thing, because sometimes when a whisky can no longer be bought, it is shared. My thoughts: massive sherry, citrus, slight oiliness (pleasant) on the palate, this is a whisky that needs lots of time in the glass, an afternoon to appreciate. I think it is superb!
The Burn Stewart range includes Black Bottle, Scottish Leader Original & Signature and Bunnahabhain 12, 18 & 25. They are all different, all great drams, there is something there for all occasions.
Spending an afternoon with Kirstie talking whisky – good work if you can get it;)
Here is the official CV: DR KIRSTIE MCCALLUM: ONE OF ONLY A FEW WOMEN IN WHISKY MAKING
Dr Kirstie McCallum (41), born in Glasgow, was one of the first women to become a whisky maker, a career she embarked on by accident. An analytical chemist by training, she is now the roving global brand ambassador for several award-winning Scotch whiskies, from the very select single malts such as Bunnahabhain, Tobermory and Ledaig, to blended whisky brands, Black Bottle and Scottish Leader.
When she earned her doctorate from Glasgow Caledonian University at the end of 1999, she initially planned to become involved in the pharmaceutical industry. However, when she was offered a short-term contract at a grain whisky distillery, she had unexpectedly found her ideal job. Falling in love with Scotch whisky and all its traditions and history she began her apprenticeship at Port Dundas Distillery in Glasgow, where she worked in the laboratory as a member of the technical team.
It was here that she was exposed to the sensory evaluation of spirits. It wasn’t long before she expanded her knowledge with a move to Chivas Brothers, where she was tasked with looking after whisky and rum, from blending to quality control at the company’s blending plant in Dalmuir (Glasgow). Within a year she was promoted to development chemist and laboratory manage. This took her to the heart of Scotland’s Speyside region. It was an ideal position from which to develop her conversancy with malt whiskies.
Then it was back to working across the entire spirits spectrum for a two-year spell, but this time as a scientist for Allied Distillers.
She joined Burn Stewart Distillers, now part of the Distell Group, as blender in 2007. One of only a handful of female blenders in the industry, she was fortunate to work alongside master blender Ian MacMillan. Under his mentorship, she learned about hand-selecting casks for single malts; became involved in looking after existing blended brands; and working on new blends, brand extensions and limited additions for the single malt ranges.
Armed with her impressive whisky-making skills, McCallum recently moved into an ambassadorial role. She now travels to leading markets across the world, educating trade and whisky enthusiasts in the nuances of Scotch whiskies, using the rich Scotch whisky portfolio of Distell as her examples. Whisky pairing with food is a highlight for her.
One of her favourite combinations is whisky and chocolate, especially Bunnahabhain 18-year-old with orange and clove-infused truffles. Another favourite is Bunnahabhain 25-year-old with toffee apple cheesecake, bramble compote, caramel salted ice cream and toffee sauce. The recipe comes from Scottish Michelin Star chef Geoffrey Smeddle. She has recently collaborated with him in developing a signature menu to complement the full range of Bunnahabhain range of single malts.
Her visit to South Africa in February this year was her first. Other recent destinations include Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the US.
An avid racing enthusiast, McCallum loves motor rallies. She lives in Glasgow.