Twitterview with Dr. Kirstie McCallum, Blender Extraordinaire
In the second of this series, I’ve interviewed, in Twitter format, Dr. Kirstie McCallum, Head of Whisky Creation and Stock at The Glen Turner Company. As the recent Glen Moray Madeira Project release was on her watch, a sample was received and my tasting note is at the end of the interview. Info on it was in my last column. News on Kirstie’s upcoming online events is also at the end of this piece.
First up, where do you come from and what’s it like there?
I come from Glasgow, and it’s a nice friendly city.
It is! I came as a student and have lived here a long time now. I’ve looked up your PhD subject, sonoluminescence, but what is it about? Can it be explained simply? [Kirstie’s PhD was entitled Analytical Developments in Single Bubble Luminescence]
My PhD was about using energy produced as a flash of light from a collapsing bubble to measure fluorescence of different compounds.
To see if it could be used for chemical measurement.
A bit above my science understanding. Why that topic and have you been able to use it in the whisky world?
A lecturer mentioned it, asked if I had any interest in doing the research. Sounded fascinating so said yes. Still in development stages so not used in the whisky world.
I will ask for more info another time. I’ve read you joined Scotch Whisky as a temporary job while looking for a pharmaceutical post. What made you stay?
Just fell in love with it – the industry, tradition, history, the people. Of course, the whisky itself too. It was so different to anywhere I had worked before. Loved it.
Well, it has been about 20 years now! You went from blender to brand ambassador and back to blending + ambassadorial. Did that middle step scratch an itch for you?
Really enjoyed being an ambassador. For a blender it’s good to get out and talk to people, find out their view of your whiskies, what type of whisky they would like to try.
Did you get anything else from that?
Finding out what the latest trends are. I also love travelling and meeting people so I had a great few years all round. Great whisky, great people, great locations.
I can relate – I loved the travel and insights as a marketer. 2019 – a move from Distell to Glen Moray/La Martiniquaise. Do you oversee only one whisky brand or them all?
I look after all of them but my main focus is Glen Moray and Cutty Sark.
Cutty did some interesting things with its previous owners so we’ll look forward to your stewardship. So what new opportunities did this move offer?
Offered the chance to work on bigger brands, taking on a single malt with a global positioning, also to look after one of the most iconic names in blended Scotch whisky.
That would be Cutty Sark?
Yes. I even remember Cutty Sark from when I was a wee girl – it was in my grandad’s drinks cabinet. There was also the Cutty Sark bridge in Glasgow. Such an iconic brand.
It’s so nice you can connect it with those memories. Anything else new?
Yes – as well as blending this role offered inventory management for the group’s Scotch portfolio which was a new and exciting challenge for me.
I always remember Glen Turner = Netherlands and Label 5 = France when I was a junior marketer. Is that still the case?
Glen Turner and Label 5 are massive brands on the continent, especially Label 5 in France.
How well does it do now?
It is one of the top selling blends in the market, but we are also selling both of those brands in lots of different markets around the world.
The Cutty Sark experience will be enjoyable. You’ll be singing the blend song loudly. What do you say to people who dismiss blends as inferior to malts? Makes me see red!
I agree. They are totally different whisky categories with different taste profiles so can’t be directly compared. To say one is inferior to the other is not correct.
And a blend can be much more than a sum of its parts. I’ve also heard some refer to “producing whiskies more appealing to women.” Your view is…?
No such thing! Whisky is for everyone and your palate will decide what’s for you. There are women who love Ardbeg and peaty whiskies as well as men who don’t like them.
Too true. During this pandemic are you one of the few who can go into work? You must be able to work alone in the lab or a cask warehouse?
I’ve been doing a combination – 2 days in office / 3 days at home. I’ve not been able to get to Glen Moray since lockdown began. Can’t wait to get back up into the warehouses.
Indeed – and to breathe in the warehouse air. How is the COVID-19 situation affecting you otherwise?
There’s nothing like warehouse air. Fortunately myself and my family have remained safe, and hopefully will remain so, but I am climbing the walls.
What would help and are there other up or downsides?
Can’t wait to be able to go out and share a dram or two with friends. I’m a bit of a technophobe so it’s been a steep learning curve having to do video chat.
Changing tack, I gather your outside interests are travel, cars, motorsport, painting. Motorsport first – spectate or compete? What’s the thrill there?
I’m a bit of a petrol head. Love cars. I absolutely love Rally, although as a spectator, I’ve tried driving a couple of times and I don’t think it’s a good idea to try again.
Won’t probe on the driving bit… Looks like you can combine this with your travel bug?
I try to go to as many rounds of the World Rally Championship as I can. I just love watching the cars and the sounds of the engines.
Did you ever meet any of the drivers?
I was lucky enough once to do a tasting for one of my Rally heroes Tommi Makinen. I was a total fan girl.
[Photo above taken from Wikipedia]
Even renowned blenders are allowed to be fan girls. What car do you have now and what would be your dream car?
At the moment I’m driving an Audi Q2. My dream car would be an Aston, I love Aston Martins.
We had a pre-owned V8 Vantage and sold it to part pay for some house works. Partner still hankers after another one. No funds!
You definitely need funds for one of those, just for the fuel.
He didn’t use it a lot. Painting much more contemplative. What do you like to paint and do you use watercolours or oils?
I tend to paint mostly landscapes and I prefer oil paints, I’ve tried painting people and animals but not very successfully.
What about painting hair? I’ve seen you with some fabulous hair colours! Experimentation? Stand out? What?
I do paint my hair quite frequently. I just like to change things about and it’s one thing you can change again and again without permanent impact.
Certainly has visual impact each time, but a positive one. No disasters…?
No, but my mother is always saying I’m going to wake up with my hair next to me on the pillow I dye it that much.
Sincerely hope not. Any unfulfilled ambitions for a) work and b) personally?
In work I want to be a part of letting people see what a fabulous spirit Glen Moray is and letting it shine to its full potential, as I think sometimes it can be underrated.
Personally we’re back at my travel bug. I would love to visit India, not made it there yet, but it’s definitely on my bucket list.
Mine too – and Japan. Favourite place for a) work and b) leisure?
Work’s a hard one, I’ve been to so many great places. I think New York would have to be up there. For leisure it’s got to be Disney World, I’m really just a big kid at heart.
Nothing wrong with that! Lastly, what would be your desert island dram? ONLY 1 ALLOWED! Doesn’t have to be one of your own.
It would have to be the Bunnahabhain 40y.o. released about 8 years ago, a stunningly complex and delicate whisky.
Thank you – and we’re done.
After the interview, Kirstie was kind enough to e-mail and thank me for talking to her. A well brought up lass. It’s most definitely for me to thank her.
The new Glen Moray expression was launched some weeks ago and I decided to fit my own tasting note in beside this interview. This expression was matured for its full 13 years and 10 months in madeira hogsheads – rather than having just a period of finishing in them – and comes in at 46.3% abv. and around £65 per bottle. It’s a UK market exclusive with only 1,468 bottles produced.
Appearance: Bright sunshine/barley gold with tawny and brass glints – a bit lion coloured! Tears slow to form and quite sticky. I’d expect some luscious/unctuous texture.
Nose: Sweet, damp oak woods and earthiness; fruit – plums and sultanas; oak and vanilla; glacé icing; some sweet spice – mace and ginger. Soft toffee notes, a bit of wax. With water, a bit more toffee and spice. Slightly more depth to the sultana note. Also a clean, airy note that’s hard to describe otherwise. Bit of white chocolate sweetness. A deep and layered nose. (Nosing the empty glass there’s more of the fig note – I’d say jam – of the official notes that I read afterwards, as well as blackberry crumble.)
Palate: Pears rather than plum. Slightly unctuous, medium mouthfeel. Mouth-warming spices – ginger again. Barley sweetness. Pepper dances on the tongue. At the back, some oak and vanilla. Fruit syrup/nectar with coffee grounds at the end too.
Finish: Rich barley maltiness; sweet and also some dryness then sweetness again with a swirl of oak. Quite a long finish; warming, mellow, rounded with spice notes and really quite delicious.
Some days after this interview was conducted I also received word of new “Whisky Surgeries” to be conducted by Kirstie on Zoom. These will be held monthly with the first one on Tuesday 7th July at 8p.m. (BST) and it will explore cask maturation with a virtual tasting and a look at some of the special treasures in Glen Moray’s Warehouse 1. There are 50 spaces available and the first 20 to register receive a Glen Moray tasting kit featuring the new expression reviewed above plus the Rhum Agricole Cask Finish Project. If it’s not already full, try reserving a slot on https://www.eventbrite.com/x/glen-morays-whisky-surgery-the-curiosity-special-tickets-106212582694 . Otherwise try registering for subsequent surgeries.
For some, lockdown is ending, albeit with some restrictions. For others it’s still in place.
Whatever, keep dramming (but not too much!) and keep smiling. Back with you again in July.