Whisky distiller: the best job in the world?

Alan Winchester is Master Distiller for The Glenlivet, the world’s number two single malt whisky. But what does it take to become a master of malt?

There are various ways to become a Master Distiller. Some come from an engineering background, some from a chemical engineering background; my route was from the ‘shop floor’ up.

A lot of my ancestors were farmers, and their farms generally had some connection to the distilleries; those buildings with big brick chimneys and funny rooftops that were dotted about the local area.

From a fairly young age on Speyside you become aware of whisky. One of my earliest memories was the lovely smell of the grains my grandfather and my uncle were taking from the nearby distillery to store.

I left school at 16 and my preferred career path at the time never materialised. In the summer months, folk would come into the area for a look around the distilleries. I landed a job showing visitors round one of them, and when other things didn’t work out, the manager offered me full-time hours. So I just fell into it, really.

I started by rolling casks and being a general dogsbody until I was old enough to do shiftwork. Then I started doing stints in various departments in the distillery.

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After a few years, I was lucky enough to get taken on as a trainee brewer.

After working my way up, and sampling life in a few different local distilleries, I landed my first distillery manager’s post at Glenfarclas.

Then, years later, when Jim Kyle, the Glenlivet’s previous Master Distiller retired, I was awarded the prestigious post.

Whisky_The Glenlivet distillery_620
The Glenlivet distillery in Speyside, Scotland

‘My nose is my most important tool’

You need a lot of knowledge and experience behind you, for sure. You’re working with something that can’t change, that can’t evolve. You’re given a brief to make a unique spirit, as consistently as possible, in the right style.

My nose is the most important tool. In fact, there are some within the spirits ‘scene’ who have their noses insured. Not me, though!

Once a week we’ll assemble various members of the team and we’ll look at the new ‘make’ from the distillery – that’s the clear spirit from the still – and we nose it against a standard profile.

We look to see that it’s fruity, floral, maybe with a touch of banana, a bit of toffee; that’s the Glenlivet style and we try to keep it within those confines.

Whisky is something with such an important heritage but there is some experimenting to be done with it, too. A lot of experimentation through the years has been through the types of maturation, the style of maturation, the oak selected and the casks used.

Recently, we created our first ‘crowd-sourced’ single malt, The Guardians’ Chapter. We held a kind of global tasting tour where enthusiasts could sample and vote for their favourite of three new expressions and I was thrilled with the enthusiastic response.

That international element is a relatively recent addition to the Master Distiller’s role. We speak about whisky’s heritage in far-flung corners of the world now. It’s great that there’s more diversity, now that other countries are developing their own drinks industries.

Whisky and Burns Night

It’s a big time of year for us because Burns Night is coming up. I love Burns Night, because there are so many fantastic connections to the whisky. And we’ve waited a month since Hogmanay, so we’re due a little celebration.

At the distillery, we have a bit of ceremony to try to introduce our  foreign guests to haggis, which should be piped in, addressed, skewered on cue and toasted. The poetry, though, is usually lost on them.

If you’re celebrating at home, douse your haggis with liberal amounts of whisky. And finish off the supper with a tipsy laird (a trifle with – you guessed it – whisky, instead of sherry) and a rendition of Auld Lang Syne. 

That I’ve played a small part in so many people’s Burns Night celebrations around the world is something that fills me with great pride at this time of year.

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