The word ‘apprentice’ brings with it numerous connotations. There is, of course, the memory of that cringe-worthy TV show headed up by Lord Alan Sugar (or President Donald Trump, for US viewers) which saw contestants try and prove their worth in various business-focused tasks. Far more enjoyable is Walt Disney’s music-based segment in Fantasia (1940), namely ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. In both, its participants (be they aspiring entrepreneurs or Mickey Mouse) at one stage or another find themselves biting off more than they can chew, buckling under the pressure and, ultimately, disappointing their masters.
The Balvenie Distillery
I get the feeling, however, that this is far from the future fate of Kelsey McKechnie, apprentice malt master at William Grant & Sons’ Speyside distillery The Balvenie. In 2018, at the age of just 26, McKechnie was officially taken under the wing of Scotch whisky’s longest-serving malt master, David Stewart MBE, making her one of the youngest women in the world to hold such an important whisky-making position – and for a cult brand, no less.
It’s a heavy load on such young, albeit talented, shoulders. However, though she undoubtedly benefits from Stewart’s 60-odd years in the industry and, what’s more, receives the support of Glenfiddich malt master Brian Kinsman, it is the quiet, humble confidence she exudes that speaks volumes of McKechnie’s talent. Speaking with her offers an exciting glimpse into the future of the liquids coming out of the Speyside distillery.
Kelsey in the lab
“I started at William Grant & Sons in 2014, in the technical lab, and I loved the lab environment and carrying out analysis,” McKechnie says of the start of her career in the whisky world, after studying at Edinburgh’s famous Heriot-Watt University. She loved the analysis side of the work so much so that she applied for the graduate scheme, which led her to carry out an analysis on new-make spirits and learn about all the “weird and wonderful things” that come with its production.
“I started doing a lot of more nosing and tasting, and that’s when my path crossed with those of Brian and David.” She clearly made an impression: “When I met David we got on really well. People ask if David and I ever bicker, but it doesn’t happen – we have a similar school of thought.”
Her days at the lab, fixed to her work station, vary nicely from the reality of her job now, which sees her sampling new makes and maturing samples, carrying out inventory checks, looking for what she calls “the perfect sample”, and using the distillery’s spirit tracking system, constantly checking for consistency and quality as she does so.
Kelsey has also put her own stamp on some of the current range from The Balvenie. Since her tenure began, the brand has launched its burgeoning Stories range, one of the first of which, The Sweet Toast of American Oak, was created by McKechnie under the eye of Stewart. The whisky spent 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels before finishing its maturation in bespoke virgin American oak casks from Kentucky’s Kelvin Cooperage for three months. For McKechnie, the combination of her ability to analyse the new makes alongside discovering new and exciting casks is a part of the job that she really loves. “We see such a range of new-make flavours and mature flavours… for me, I love it when we have different casks. I love the unexpected ones.”
Come 2022 and she’s nose deep in the Balvenies of the future. “We’re working on a lot of innovations which really pique my interest,” she says of some upcoming releases, without giving any closely guarded secrets away. “I love being able to push and pull all these levers. I love being able to create different new-make flavours [and] seeing what goes into producing different flavours in the malt.”
David Stewart MBE
Looking back, Kelsey says she feels moving into her role was a very natural process. “But I don’t think at the time I realised that this was the path I was taking,” she admits. While she recognises that, of course, her nose has matured over the time she’s spent training it, day in and day out, she is also aware that her apprentice journey is still very much in its formative years. “David was an apprentice for 11 years, so we need to shave a few years off,” Kelsey explains.
The breadth and range of possible careers in whisky have been a surprise to McKechnie, and she believes the onus is on her, her peers, and the whisky industry at large to tell people about the opportunities that are open to them, or what she calls “Scotland’s best-kept secret”. For her, learning about whisky is like learning a new language and practising until she becomes fluent – describing nosing as an ability so many people have, but they just don’t know it yet. In the more immediate future, though, there is more pragmatic work to be done. “This week we’re looking at a few new releases for the Stories range, which for now is in the hush, and we’re filling in the pipeline.”
It isn’t, however, lost on her that some of the work she is doing now will be the beginnings of future liquids launched by those who will follow in her footsteps. “One of my most favourite parts is blending spirit and sample casks from generations before me… and the thought of me laying down quality for future malt masters to come.” Now that’ll be a Disney ending, if ever there was one.