Master at Work: In the Lab with Brian Kinsman

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LTOC2.jpgI have never seen anything like it. Wall-to-wall whiskies in sample bottles of all shapes and sizes. In the middle, a lab table set up with eight capped nosing copitas waiting. The scene played out as though there was an invisible metronome clacking out a rhythm to pace his movements, and then it ended before I could fully comprehend what I was watching. Eight whiskies nosed in 30 seconds.


Whiskies judged. Decisions made. 

This was Brian Kinsman at work. To him, he was merely wrapping up a small piece of his day: determining via samples how these casks would best be used. But while he did this, we could do no more than exchange looks of amazement and chuckle to ourselves. Clearly, we were going to learn more than we bargained for, as we were about to spend the next few hours in the lab with a Master Blender.

Housed at William Grant & Sons headquarters on the edge of Glasgow, the lab sees more than 10,000 samples per year pass through for sensory analysis. All of them judged by Brian as he is ultimately responsible for all lines and brands released by the company, including gin, Canadian whisky, and even tequila. Upon learning just how many samples he dealt with, while difficult to comprehend the scope, I was beginning to at least understand how he moved so quickly and with such precision.


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Beginning our session with a brief discussion of his methodology, Brian revealed that he operates based on memorized scents, nosing everything at 28% ABV after it has sat covered in a nosing copita for roughly 20 minutes. When asked why he keeps to 28% he explained that "water acts like a magnifying glass", revealing the nuances that while difficult to detect at bottle-strength, add up to comprise the final product. This was then demonstrated with some of the new make spirit from the Girvan grain distillery. Hitting the glass at a staggering 94%, it initially smelled like ridiculously strong vodka: simple; heavily alcoholic; not a whole lot going on. But with the addition of water and some light shaking to ensure complete mixing, everything changed. Suddenly there was explosive sweetness, redolent with clear cereal notes and a light citrus twist. Now it was obvious that this was the spirit that becomes the grain whisky used in every bottle of Grant's.

Moving onto what is arguably the company's crown jewel, he informed us that there really is no "written down in stone" recipe for the standard Glenfiddich expressions. "The recipe is (to ensure) that it tastes how it always tasted". This is accomplished through the careful marrying and vatting of casks of the requisite age for the bottling. He will check samples from a batch of casks by year prior to giving the go ahead, and then "most of the vattings are set up blind and you check to see if it worked". Once the sampling of these vattings is complete, those not hitting the mark are put back into casks, with the rest moving on to bottling. For instance, if a vatting fails to make the grade for Glenfiddich 12, then it goes back into wood for 6 more years to be checked at 18 years of age. 

That begs the question: how does cask type influence the end product since all the age-stated releases are vattings of casks that are at least as old as the age statement on the bottle? It turns out that refill wood delivers most of the distillery character. American oak casks, namely ex-bourbon, will see second and third fills, while European oak ones, i.e. sherry, can reach third and fourth fills before they are spent. When these casks are vatted, the bourbon casks deliver vanilla notes while the sherry casks provide depth and body, ultimately yielding the core Glenfiddich releases of 12, 18, and 21 years. 

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When it comes to the new products, unique releases, and single cask bottlings, Brian becomes even more involved and he is quick to credit the company's culture as a key element in his success. "We'll drive innovation from production" and given his role in production, he is encouraged to try things just for the fun of it; maybe this is why we noticed samples of Canadian maple syrup along one shelf. When we asked him how he approaches innovation, he calmly stated "it's about providing consistency while simultaneously trying to engage people with innovative products". Perhaps no recent product release demonstrates this more than Grant's 25 Year Old, the final blend a product of 9 months of work and goodness knows how many samples. 

Blending is an art. Its goal is to elevate some elements, play down others, ultimately creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. On this day we were fortunate to receive a first-hand demonstration of this artistry using a pair of mid-1980's samples of Balvenie: a 1985 sherry cask and a 1986 bourbon cask, both bottled in 2011. On their own they could not have been more opposite. The sherry cask sample was exceptionally dark, 
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overpoweringly woody and oily, and had more spice than a Moroccan restaurant. Meanwhile, the bourbon cask was light, loaded with vanilla, and smelled sweeter than some breakfast cereals my parents banned me from eating as a child. Before I could even guess at how the two would work together, Brian had sized them up and began adding bits of each to a graduated cylinder. Before 3 minutes of this had passed, with him pointing out the notes that he was looking to emphasize from each cask, he arrived at a roughly 80:20 ratio of the bourbon cask to the sherry cask. The final result was what could be called a 26 year old Balvenie with spice, oaky vanilla, and leather on the nose; a sweet sherry driven palate with citrus and light oily smoke elements; and long, rich, brown sugar and citrus finish. Needless to say the dram was stunning, but alas no, we weren't there for the birth of a new product. Brian merely smiled and called it a nice little experiment that demonstrated how the two types of cask can work together.

Throughout the afternoon similar scenes played out again and again. Us growing wide-eyed about something and Brian smiling knowingly while walking us through another lesson. Ultimately, we left the lab that day as awestruck by our host's sublime talent as his good nature. It felt as though we had experienced a year's worth of teaching in 3 hours, and for all that newly gained knowledge we clearly had many miles left to travel. Thankfully the whisky road is maintained by people like Brian whose combination of passion, precision, and artistry will ensure that all who undertake the adventure will always have something worth looking forward to.


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