Making a living on a wee dram

Being a whisky taster may sound like a dream job, but, as Claire Smith discovers, it requires scientific knowledge, patience, and a good nose
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jobs for life don't exist any more. This is the era of short-term contracts and expendable employees. Right? Not quite. Take a deep breath, swill it around, then step back in time to the distilleries of Scotland, where whisky production is booming, and the man - or woman - with the finest nose can earn a living experimenting with tradition.

Brian Kinsman, 33, is the apprentice malt master at Balvenie in Speyside. In a typical day, he will "nose" 100 to 150 whiskies, ensuring that the malts are on track to deliver what is expected in 12 to 20 years' time. "You need to be patient," he says. "Things don't happen quickly in whisky. This is a science that is still very much an art, and you're in it for the long term."

Kinsman's story is an enviable one. After studying chemistry at St Andrews University, and a brief stint in a dental laboratory, Kinsman applied for a job in the labs of William Grant & Sons as a chemical analyst. Here, on the front line of whisky production, his job was quality assurance, seeing to it that the amber nectar was firmly on the course set by its forefathers.

But it turned out that Kinsman wasn't just good at analysing test tubes. David Stewart, the current malt master, recognised a nose to rival his own. "It's a natural ability that I didn't know I had," says Kinsman.

Now, he is being trained up to succeed Stewart as the malt master of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininivie malts, only the sixth nose to ascend to this role since the William Grant distillery opened in 1887.

His training involves everything from honing his already fine "nosing" skills, to experimenting with malts, yeasts and casks. "We've been doing this for 500 years, but it's still a mystery what goes on in those years in the cask," he says.

Kinsman, however, isn't the only employee at William Grant whose opinions on the golden dew are noted. Everyone involved in the production and distillation process is valued for their sniffing skills, as are the secretaries and accountants, who are encouraged to join tasting panels and put their noses to work, rating the quality of the dram.

For someone who is contemplating a career shift, a stint at the Whisky Academy at the Bruichladdich distillery, on the island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, could be just the thing. Students spend four days learning the craft from the masters, and graduate with commemorative bottles and certificates as Single Malt Ambassadors. The course costs £795, including three nights accommodation at the distillery manager's house, and to date, students have included waitresses from Tokyo whisky bars and a brain surgeon from Los Angeles.

However, if you're serious about a career in whisky, then the BSc in Brewing & Distilling at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University is the place to go.

Polly MacDonald is one of Scotland's few women whisky pros. Growing up in the Highlands, with Glenmorangie, Clynelish and Balbair distilleries on her doorstep, MacDonald was no stranger to the dram and, at 16, had already decided on her career path after chatting to a representative from Heriot-Watt at a careers fair in Inverness.

MacDonald explains that the first two years of the four-year degree focus on chemistry and biological sciences; the third year on chemical engineering, and in the fourth year it's hands-on, with students brewing up concoctions at the campus brewery and distillery. "We experimented a lot with beers," says MacDonald, laughing. "You do have to have tasting sessions."

In July 2004, she was the only woman and one of three Scots out of the 11 students who graduated as a BSc - fellow-graduates were from England, Greece, Finland, Sweden and the US. Now 23, MacDonald's determination - she delivered her CV and herself to every distillery in the Highlands - saw her swiftly employed as the production manager at Tomatin Distillery on the edge of the Monadhliath Mountains, south of Inverness. Here she is responsible for every step of Tomatin's 12-year-old and 15-year-old malt-making process, as well as overseeing the blended whiskies.

MacDonald is aware that she has stepped into a man's world - she's just one of four women making whisky in Scotland, at least officially - but she says she has been welcomed. "You need to be outgoing and determined. It's a challenge gaining their respect, but it's probably like that with every career."