The Man Behind the Cask: Brian Kinsman

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Sample room BK.jpg
He is one of the youngest master blenders in the industry and looks after a portfolio so large that you will be hard pressed to make it through the next year without indulging in something presided over by his palate. That goes for rum, gin, blended Scotch whisky, and everything to do with the world's most awarded single malt, Glenfiddich.

In 2009, Brian took over the William Grant & Sons portfolio. But how does a chemistry graduate from St. Andrew's University end up taking over for the David Stewart?  Well, apparently the path to inevitable renown begins by taking a job in product development at a manufacturing firm in the dental industry. 

"It was interesting but I came to realize that it wasn't really for me" begins Brian, "so the two obvious places were oil or whisky."  After a couple interviews in the oil industry, he applied to an ad for an analyst position with William Grant & Sons Ltd. and succeeded in landing the job in 1997. Beginning in "New Spirit and Maturation", sensory analysis and a spot on the nosing panel were simply part of the job, but parts at which he excelled. So much so that he would eventually run the nosing panel.

Then came the ever elusive moment of true opportunity, the type that some grasp and others shy away from.  During a yearly review in 2001 he was presented with the chance to work on a project with David Stewart examining wood qualities. From there things evolved to the point where the question that arose according to Brian was "Was I interested and could we make it work?" The answer to that led down the road of 8 years of apprenticeship.

Working side by side with David, Brian gradually gained the full understanding of and feel for all that it is to be the final say for everything Grant's and Glenfiddich. Over the years Brian began gaining ever greater responsibility. "David made it all very, very easy" he mused, and "to be fair, it was probably harder for him as he could see the gradual handover occurring." 

"There was a nice moment on a totally personal level" during the celebration when Brian officially became the Master Blender, but "once that single day had
 passed, nothing really changed" as the transition was so gradual. Although the transition is complete, Mr. Stewart has not yet disappeared. He now simply focuses solely on Balvenie, while Glenfiddich and Grant's are Brian's show. David still drops by every once in a while though as next year is his 50th year with the company, something which naturally affords him the luxury to come and go as he pleases.

Of course there were many mentors along the way aside from David, in fact more than our subject can mention. Overall Brian feels the entire company was a mentor, and he chalks it up to the culture. He never misses an opportunity to point out that from top to bottom, it is the company's attitude towards his work that makes his job easier. "There's never a question of 'why are you doing that?'" and it's this freedom to experiment that drives him, invariably to the benefit of the whisky world.

Given the sheer size of the portfolio of spirits under his watch, it is the unpredictability that he loves. After all, when it is your palate that signs off on every expression of Grant's, Glenfiddich, Hendrick's Gin, Gibson's Finest Canadian Whiskey, Tullamore Dew Irish Whisky, Sailor Jerry Rum, and many more, how on Earth could any day end up being formulaic? 

Naturally, all of this begged the question: How does he manage to divide his time amongst all of the different brands and expressions? "Well, the core brands tend to look after themselves somewhat" he states, with the single malts and smaller starter brands taking more time and requiring more attention to detail. So rest assured Glenfiddich fans, your favourite dram is not being neglected. 

Now, let's have a look at the role itself. Being the Master Blender carries a few restrictions and requires a detailed and scientific approach. Something to which Brian's background is perfectly suited. His lab, and its 13,000 samples, is scent-free and temperature controlled. He uses no aftershave or scented hand soap, coffee at the office is not an option, and our man would simply love it if he could buy unscented deodorant for men. (So could someone get on that last one already?)

Brian's Lab.jpg
But what about the actual nosing, you ask? When it comes to the real guts of the job, Brian feels "you can pick up more in the morning" when you are just generally a bit fresher. Of course he's developed his senses beyond that of most whisky drinkers, and as such there is constant practice involved to get ever sharper. He enjoys exploring aromas, particularly wines and perfumes "because they almost come with an index of what they're supposed to smell like." His goal is to explore the olfactory. After all, it's nosing, not sampling. 

What does he drink when he actually picks up a dram to enjoy, stepping away from the family of products under his watch? "I generally choose a Speyside malt to try" he responds. But "I really try everything when it comes to whisky, especially when something new comes out to see how the flavour matches up." While socially, he is "just as likely to have a glass of wine as a glass of whisky." 

Needless to say, that led me to inquire about his favourite Glenfiddich expression Thankfully, one of Brian's virtues is his candour and he did not shy away from the question.  "I absolutely love the 12 year old ... that's what Glenfiddich is all about. All the variants come from it and it is remarkably good whisky. But if I could choose only one, it would be the 18." He goes on to state in no uncertain terms "It's got balance, depth, oak, fruitiness, and is very, very drinkable. I think it sums up Speyside ... it's a perfect example of it." And now he is in charge of it. 

So who does Brian want to thank for landing this dream job? Well, after again mentioning that there are too many to list them all, he was kind enough to narrow it down to three: David Stewart, John Ross, and his wife Lisa. In my opinion, we Scotch whisky fans should take the opportunity, if ever meeting one of them, to thank these people for ensuring that the world's most awarded single malt, and one of the truly great houses of whisky, has ended up in such clearly capable hands. 

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