The quiet men

The quiet men

Dave Broom talks to Davied Stewart, the unassuming yet innovative force shaping the William Grant's portfolio, and long-term colleague, Whisky Records controller Eric Robertson

People | 16 Oct 2002 | Issue 26 | By Dave Broom

  • Share to:
Glasgow in the early ‘60s. An industrial city, its buildings soiled by the grime from the chimneys, a city with starlings blackening its skies every dusk, a place where ships still crowded the Clyde, unloading cargoes, taking on passengers, being built. A city of slums and genteel suburbs, of parks and poverty. Glasgow Cross was a no-go zone of warehouses and pubs with no windows and tables bolted to the floor. It was a whisky city. It flowed in the howffs, sailed down the river. Whisky firms took up great blocks throughout the city centre. DCL dominated the bonds on Clydeside, Teacher's still had its head office next to the grand sweep of Saint Enoch station. It’s where, in September 1962, David Stewart
started work for William Grant as a whisky stocks clerk.No computers, no calculators. “Everything was still being written into old ledgers lying on sloping desks,” he recalls. “I must have looked like Bob Cratchit. I didn’t have a quill right enough, but it wasn't far off.” He’d joined a small family firm with a good reputation and a few big ideas. There was one blend, Standfast, and a novelty item called Glenfiddich single malt. The man in charge of them – we’d call him a Master Blender these days – happened to share the same office as David. “We had no sample room, just a table and a cupboard with bottles in it. We had to go to the sink in the toilet to rinse out the glasses.” He looks round his airy room at the top of Grant’s purpose-built offices in Strathclyde Business Park. Some change. There’s no smog, Glasgow’s city centre is virtually free of whisky firms, the river is silent, the starlings have been culled, Glasgow Cross has been reborn as the ‘Merchant City’, the grim bonds transformed into ‘New York-style lofts’. It’s a city of cappuccino not the cratur. Glenfiddich is the world’s biggest single malt and David has a sample room containing at least two sinks.At the same time as David first sat down at his desk, Eric Robertson was clocking on for his first shift at Glenfiddich. One of them picked up his pen and began adding up figures, the other was told to go and start humping coal. In time, David started washing up the glasses and Eric was moved to Glenfiddich’s warehouses. He’s still there. One has his name on the bottles, the other quietly gets on with his job. You wonder whether David would be happier with Eric’s relative anonymity. He’s the quiet man of whisky, a man so self-effacing that he seems almost painfully embarrassed that you are asking him questions about his work. I recall when he won the trophy at the International Spirits Challenge and was full of embarrassment as his peers came up to congratulate him. Maybe that’s why he is so suited to Grant’s, which has always managed to appear conservative while in fact being innovative.I’ve got a superbly patronising 1960s video of Girvan where Grant’s built its grain distillery in 1963. It is intended to attract business and tries to make Girvan seem exciting, pregnant with potential, but ends up lingering on flower beds, the slow rhythms of the harbour, and tense moments on the municipal putting green. Girvan. A quiet kind of place, slightly out of the way, which just gets on with life. It’s somehow
very David Stewart.But scratch that surface and a different picture emerges. Girvan’s distillery is a technological marvel, pioneering advances n distillation and wood management, with experiments and trials being conducted every day. It’s just hidden from sight. The same goes on in Dufftown. Just before you reach the old Convalmore buildings there’s a line of trees. Behind them are 45 warehouses covering 35 acres and containing 70,000 casks. David decides what they are filled with, Eric is in charge of them all. The reality, once again, is hidden.Eric is standing outside Warehouse 29, looking down the long grey line. “I’ve teamed all those warehouses,” he says. “It was a hard life in those days. Just loading a cask onto one of the racks would take five men. The excise man was always behind our backs. You couldn’t open a warehouse on your own. Some of these younger boys now wouldn’t have lasted the pace. We never stopped.”It might be (slightly) easier nowadays, but some things never change. Whisky is a series of interrelated operations in which everyone relies on the previous person doing their job correctly. It’s like that old tune 'Dem Bones: the brewer’s connected to the mashman, the mashman’s connected to the stillman, the stillman’s connected to the warehouseman. Eric relies on the filling store putting the new make in the correct barrels and on the coopers to have done their job right. David meanwhile relies on all of them. He is the hub.For David, wood is key to whisky’s development. It’s hardly a new discovery for him. It was he, after all, who created the first finished malt: The Balvenie Double Wood (though Glenmorangie begs to disagree), but he is still excited by it, still investigating wood’s mysteries. “That’s the key to it all. Forty years ago you would keep using the same cask again and again. Actually, you’d have been doing the same 20 years ago! These days we need to get a better handle on casks, how they work, what the correct combination is for the products, when we should de-char and rechar them.”Eric’s noticed the effects. “We’re using tighter parameters in the wood. That’s probably been the biggest change,” he says. “In the old days you’d have filled anything as long as it was empty.” It is this deeper knowledge of wood’s qualities which David feels will continue to keep Grant’s range not just moving forward, but in an innovative way. “Double Wood appeared when we wanted to increase the Balvenie range. There was no point in bottling it as a 12, that would just have been the 10 with an extra two years on it, so we created a different flavour through the wood, then introduced single barrel and then port. It’s the principle behind all the new whiskies – trying to extend the range through a different flavour which in turn is driven by different use of wood.”Think of Glenfiddich’s Solera Reserve (a new departure in ageing) and Havana Reserve, the controversial Ale finish on Grant’s Family Reserve (the first finished blend) and The Balvenie’s Islay finish (another first). These aren’t the actions of a conservative firm. In fact it sets David Stewart apart as more radical than any of his peers. “We’ll just do things without telling the sales force and when anything shows promise we’ll tell marketing. We can really try anything. There are no boundaries.” Hang on. Run that past me again. There are no boundaries? This is David Stewart talking, not John Glaser. The canny, conservative heart of Scotch turns out to be a revolutionary. See? It’s always the quiet ones. Thing is, he’s just so nice I can’t bear to tell him that for me the Islay finish is a weird thing to do, Ale Cask is one step too far down the contrived route and that I’ve never quite got on with Solera. He’s just too nice. And it doesn’t matter. David is at least doing the sort of innovative thinking whisky badly needs.He also does it without ever losing sight of Grant’s signature style. All of David’s blends have a honeyed softness, a gentle charm. They are quiet, understated. He may steer Glenfiddich, but The Balvenie is where his heart belongs and The Balvenie is Speyside’s quiet genius. I wonder whether people become like their blends, or if their blends become extensions of their own personalities? Blenders talk of being
guardians of the brand style; I just wonder if David is different. Think about it. He joined a two-brand firm and has been in charge of creating everything else that has appeared since. He isn’t following in the footsteps of his predecessors, he is leading. Surely then his likes – and dislikes – will have an influence. “I’ve never really thought about it,” he says. “But we tend not to make anything dry and the Grant’s has that sweet honeyed style. I suppose it is partly my own preference – as well as the whiskies we use. It’s a bit of both.”Strange to think that many of the whiskies he is creating today for Eric to warehouse will be bottled long after they have retired. “Sometimes I think of what I’ve done in 40 years. Five times I’ll have filled this warehouse!” remarks Eric. I ask him if he knows every cask by name. He’s too modest to say that he does.It is this intimate, physical relationship with the job that makes this industry so special. Ultimately it is a contemplative way of life, suited to quiet, thoughtful, modest men. People like David and Eric.
Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One

Consent Preferences