The maverick malt master and his extraordinary nose

Glenfiddich’s Brian Kinsman talks us through the brand’s new Experimental Series, as it launches in the Middle East.

Neil Churchill September 28, 2016

Lloyds of London is a unique insurance market in the heart of the UK’s financial hub that, amongst its normal day-to-day trade, is known for insuring famous body parts.

Some of the most noteable include Tina Turner’s legs, Keith Richards’ fingers, a food critic’s tastebuds and the vocal cords for Celine Dion, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

If he wanted to, Brian Kinsman could probably add his name to that exclusive mix, or more specifically, his nose.

Kinsman is the malt master at Glenfiddich whisky, meaning that not only is he responsible for every bottled liquid that leaves the single malt distillery, but his nose decides whether it meets the required quality. 

“Typically I would do two hundred nosings in a busy day, but I have done up to four or five hundred in a day before,” Kinsman told EDGAR when we visited the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Scotland.

“I’ve got myself and two guys working ahead of me getting the samples out, getting the water in. You have to keep taking a little break, take a walk outside and clear your head, and you work your way aroud them all. I don’t have my nose insured no, but I probably could.” 

In taking on the prestigious malt master role at Glenfiddich six years ago  he is also master blender at its owner brand William Grant & Sons – Kinsman stepped into the shoes of David Stewart MBE, a distinguished name in the whisky world. The change signalled the era of a new breed of Scotch makers, those with chemistry degrees and scientific backgrounds; Kinsman has a First in Chemistry from University of St. Andrews and an MBA from University of Strathclyde.

The result is that Glenfiddich is now under the eye of a man who upholds 130 years of heritage, but who isn’t afraid to be experimental and a bit of a maverick.

“I see my role as being split between maintenance of the current range, keeping it consistent and making sure it doesn’t change, while also exploring and being innovative,” says Kinsman. “It’s about asking what can we do that would excite new people into the category or excite connoisseurs who already know a lot about whisky.” 

All of which perfectly explains the reasoning for Glenfiddich’s new range, the Experimental Series, and the first two expressions from it: IPA Experiment and Project XX.

The IPA whisky is the world’s first single malt to be finished in India Pale Ale craft beer casks. After previously holding Glenfiddich liquid for twelve years, the American oak barrels were filled with an IPA from the local Speyside Craft Brewery and allowed to season for four weeks. The casks were then emptied and filled again with an aged Glenfiddich, and the result is now being stocked behind bars around the world. (It also means that somewhere in Speyside there are barrels of IPA infused with Scotch, unless someone's drunk it all.)

“We had some experience using beer barrels anyway and my own feeling was that Glenfiddich’s natural pear fruity note would work,” says Kinsman. “If I had to pick a beer, IPA felt like a beer that would have a good relationship with Glenfiddich whisky, with its citrusy hoppy notes.

“Seb [Seb Jones, below, founder of Speyside Craft Brewery and very much a maverick himself] then called us to talk about another project he had. I said I’ve got this idea for a product and that’s where the IPA came from.” 

Project XX (pronounced ‘twenty’) was an equally experimental and maverick move by Kinsman, and another first in single malt history. However, where the IPA was meticulous in its planning, Project XX came about partly by accident.

“Project XX started out as a way of trying to engage with our brand ambassadors,” Kinsman explained. “We always try to give them an immersive experience and for Project XX the thought process was to let them see what it’s like to develop a project from scratch.

“We didn’t have in mind at the very beginning that this could be a finished product. It started out as how do we teach them about the process and involve them in it, and as we started to talk about the execution of it we said this actually feels like a really great opportunity.”

With all 20 of Glenfiddich’s brand ambassadors assembled at the distillery, including global brand ambassador Struan Ralph, they were sent off like bloodhounds into one of the warehouses with instructions to pick five barrels of their choosing; a field day for any whisky enthusiast, of which brand ambassadors are the epitome. Each shortlist of five was then whittled down to just one barrel each, leaving 20 casks from which Project XX was developed. 

The ambassadors were each sent away with samples from their personally chosen barrels plus major bragging rights whenever they see a bottle of Project XX behind a bar; a blend of all their 20 thumbprints became the design for the bottle’s packaging. Kinsman says his responsibility now is to keep making that standard on an on-going basis, always keeping to the same flavour profile but inevitably with new casks.

Even for Glenfiddich, a whisky maker that has always been a maverick in the realm of single malt production, the Experimental Series goes against the grain of what one expects from a heritage Scotch brand. But financially at least it appears to be working, with William Grant & Sons reporting a 6.7 per cent rise in pre-tax profits this week, thanks largely to Glenfiddich sales.

According to Kinsman, the future of the Scotch industry will depend as much on these innovative moves as it will on tradition. “I think there’s still a lot of things we can do, a lot we can experiment with, a lot of things we can try. I think whisky is still in a growth phase, especially single malts at the more deluxe end of the market.

“The key thing for the industry, and I know I can speak for us and say we’ll do this, is that the flavour always comes first. If you’re going to try something, just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s good.

“So as long as you hand on heart can say "this is a great tasting whisky" then that’s fine. I don’t think anybody is producing poor quality whisky and as long as that’s the case then I think we’re in good shape.” 

Glenfiddich’s Experimental Series launches in the Middle East this evening at the final of the Experimental Bartender Competition at Industrial Avenue, The Westin, Dubai. 

EDGARdaily was a guest of William Grant & Sons at the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Scotland.