The longest serving Scotch malt master, David Stewart, has marked an incredible half century with the release of an extremely rare fifty year old single malt. The Balvenie Fifty is an extremely limited edition release with just 88 bottles available from at a RRP of £20,000
It`s rare to find someone in any field who has devoted 50 years to mastering their craft, but David Stewart, known throughout the Scotch industry as the `modest man of whisky`, has dedicated his entire working life to the art of single malt making, becoming one of the most respected craftsmen in his field.
He began working at The Balvenie Distillery in 1962 – a year before single malt whisky was officially exported outside Scotland and served a lengthy 12 year apprenticeship before taking on the title of malt master.
We managed to catch up with David for an exclusive interview, which you can read in full below –
David, your experience and knowledge is vast (an understatement!), can you tell Lussorian what you think makes the difference between a good and a great whisky?
There are many reasons to be taken into account when producing a great whisky such as The Balvenie. Firstly, the character of the neat spirit that we produce at the distillery is essential and secondly, if the spirit is filled into good quality casks, it will mature well and you will end up with a great whisky.
The quality of our whisky is influenced by the traditional methods we use up at The Balvenie distillery in Speyside. We have one of the last remaining traditional floor maltings in the industry and are only one of a handful of distillers to malt our own barley on site. We also have our own cooperage, which allows us to look after and maintain the quality of our casks to ensure the neat spirit matures well.
It`s these traditional methods, which we continue to practice to the same levels as our predecessors that really help to differentiate a good whisky from a great whisky, made by hand.
In your long career, what has been the most rewarding moment?
In retrospect, I think the most rewarding moment has to be the launch of The Balvenie range in 1993, the centenary year of the distillery.
I spent a few years leading up to this occasion experimenting and discussing with the team what I thought was possible and what would enhance The Balvenie range.
At this point The Balvenie Founders Reserve 10 Year Old was already in existence so I, together with the Balvenie`s core team of craftsmen, decided to introduce The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old, The Balvenie Single Barrel 15 Year Old and very soon after, The Balvenie PortWood 21 Year Old.
I have since seen how successful The Balvenie range has been and I feel very proud that I can say I was part of its success.
Your apprenticeship lasted 12 years, what exactly did you learn during this time?
The main skill of the Malt Master and what sets us apart from all others is our ability to assess the quality of whisky just by using our noses.
Most of my training was centred on nosing Scotch whisky. I worked very closely with The Balvenie`s then Malt Master to learn the key characteristics of our single malt neat spirit, how to identify the differing characters of a whisky as it matures, the difference between a whisky that`s maturing in an American Oak cask to one that is filled into a Spanish Oak cask.
Then, of course, the different characteristics of The Balvenie`s bottled expressions – this took the best part of ten years! During this time I was taking notes and storing all of this information in my head.
It is a great feeling of responsibility to know that all decisions on the quality of any whisky rests on the Malt Master`s nose.
You have nosed more than 400,000 whisky casks, were there any that made you realise it was a special whisky?
During my time as Malt Master, there have been many casks that have been special and there have been some that I have nosed and been incredibly surprised by what I was presented with – in many cases the characteristics are something very different from what I had expected. If we do see something great or surprising, we take note of these casks, let them mature further and bottle them in the future.
What creation are you most proud of?
I am particularly proud of The Balvenie PortWood 21 Year Old, which continues to win so many awards around the world.
It is also my favourite single malt to sip and savour on very special occasions.
What makes The Balvenie so special?
The Balvenie is the most handcrafted single malt Scotch whisky – we, to this day, continue to grow and malt our own barley. Our team of skilled coppersmiths, led by Head Coppersmith Dennis McBain, continue to use traditional methods to maintain our stills. The Balvenie also employs a team of coopers, who help to maintain and control the quality of the casks that hold our new spirit.
We have a number of great craftsmen at our distillery, many of whom have have been with us for many years, and it is their experience and knowledge that is fundamental to maintaining the great quality of The Balvenie.
For novice whisky drinkers, what advice can you give for maximum enjoyment?
Personally, I like to add a small amount of still water, at room temperature, to my dram. This allows the whisky to open up and reveal some of its flavours on the palette.
Food pairing with whisky is becoming more popular. What`s your ideal food / whisky combination?
There are no rules about what food should be eaten with whisky!
Our Balvenie DoubleWood could be enjoyed with smoked salmon or a mild cheese. The Balvenie Single Barrel would go well with shortbread and The Balvenie PortWood would pair nicely with a dessert such as créme brÇ¶¯lée or dark chocolate.
Personal preference – neat, on the rocks or (dare I ask) a mixer?!
I would always add a small amount of pure water to my whisky, which opens up the flavours. Some aged whisky is better enjoyed neat, for example, whisky over 21 years old does not stand too much water addition.
The Far East is a growing market for whisky consumption, why do you think this is?
The Far East is an exciting place and a growing market for many products right now. We have seen significant growth in Scotch whisky consumption in countries like Taiwan, China, Japan and South Korea. Consumers in these countries seem to appreciate the care and craftsmanship we employ in the making of our single malt and it seems to be the aged whiskies in these markets that are most in demand.
Whisky as an investment is also becoming a popular choice. Have you any `hot tips`?
I know that there are many whisky collectors around the world who will snap up the rare and expensive Scotch whiskies, maybe in the hope that their value will increase over time and others who just want something that is very rare and collectable.
Apart from whisky, do you enjoy any other spirits / beers / ales?
As far as other spirits are concerned, I like a good cognac and also some of the well matured rums. I enjoy wine mainly with a meal and if I`m out in a pub, I will try some of the local ales.
The incredible devotion of David Stewart is being recognized, exactly 50 years to the day that David joined the highland distillery as a seventeen year old apprentice, with the release of a rare cask of The Balvenie single malt distilled in 1962. Just 88 bottles of The Balvenie Fifty will be available, with an RRP of £20,000 per bottle.
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