THE SUMMER OF 1886 changed everything for Scotch whisky. It saw William Grant, his nine children and a single stonemason build Glenfiddich Distillery.

A local man of Dufftown, Speyside, Mr Grant was born into a family of humble means, and as a child herded cattle in the summer months.

In adulthood, he worked as a bookkeeper, and then manager, for another distillery in the town. And after two decades of working in the Scotch trade, he wanted to go out alone.

He had limited funds to do so, hence the family effort in constructing Glenfiddich’s first buildings. And by the following summer, work was all but complete. Then, on Christmas Day 1887, the first spirit flowed from the stills.

Initial trade was steady, but under the stewardship of Mr Grant’s children and grandchildren, sales went stratospheric.

Exporting was everything; they travelled the world with sample bottles and order books in hand. The whisky sold itself and the orders funded expansion. Moreover, they led the charge on converting drinkers from blends to malts, irreversibly changing how whisky is drunk.

Today, the business remains family owned. Alongside Glenfiddich, the family also owns Balvenie, Monkey Shoulder and Ailsa Bay Distilleries, to name a few. They also retain scarce stocks from Ladyburn, a now closed distillery with a cult following.

And responsible for bottling all of them is Master Blender Brian Kinsman, with whom we shared a few drams and talked all things whisky.

Brian Kinsman, Master Blender, William Grant & Sons

You have a scientific background and never intended to end up in Scotch. How did you end up being responsible for some of the most prominent malts and blends in the market?

I joined William Grant & Sons as a chemist back in 1997. At the time, I was working in a dental factory, researching new materials.

I then spotted an advert in New Scientist for a chemist at Givan [William Grant & Sons’ grain whisky distillery] and ditched dentistry for distilling.

There, I worked in the spirit laboratory, analysing new and mature whisky samples as well as William Grant & Sons’ extended portfolio of cream liqueurs, white spirits and Taboo – an icon of the 1980s.

Presumably, the chemical science aspects of the job led to blending and working on new bottlings?

Exactly. Much of the role was to manage the sensory panel, set up the samples, gather the data and report the findings. That sparked my interest in sensory assessment and over the next few years, I got the opportunity to work more closely with Master Blender David Stewart.

In 2001, I became David’s apprentice and we worked together for the following eight years until I became William Grant & Sons’ sixth Master Blender.


For Glenfiddich in particular, experimental cask maturation and finishing has been a focus. Have there been any specific releases you enjoyed putting together?

There’s been a few. The best experimental maturation comes about from working with those outside of the Scotch trade. Most recently, we’ve been trialling casks which have been used in production of Somerset Pomona [a barrel-aged blend of cider brandy and unfermented apple juice].

The end result is a fascinating expression bottled as the Glenfiddich Orchard Experiment, a superb bottling that accentuates the distillery character of fresh apples and pears.

In the 1960s, William Grants & Sons built Ladyburn, a distillery which was short-lived but yet carries a legendary reputation. What’s behind that?

A few things. Firstly, Ladyburn was a brand-new distillery in an old industry. It was modern and efficient from day one.

To the horror of some of the ‘old guard’ in the trade, it even had a space-centre-esque control room from which distillers could monitor temperatures, pressures and valve positions.

That is all commonplace in most distilleries today, but it was fairly radical for the time.

The thing I find most fascinating about Ladyburn, though, is the character of its unaged, ‘new make’ spirit.

The equipment, stills and buildings are long gone and there are very few people around who can remember the operating conditions of the distillery. As such, it is almost impossible to know exactly what the new make was like as it first ran off Ladyburn’s stills.

Brian Kinsman and Ladyburn Edition 3

And as for maturing stocks of Ladyburn, there are still a few original casks remaining?

Mercifully, we do indeed still have a few casks of Ladyburn maturing in our warehouse.

Each one has a rather distinctive profile; oily in texture and fruit-skin notes on the palate. That must have originated in the original new make spirit, which can never be replicated.

Our most recent Ladyburn release, Edition Three, has a deep and indulgent nose with notes of dates, raisins, cloves and roasted coffee. The taste is beautifully rich with a velvety smooth mouthfeel.

You have also been involved in Glenfiddich’s ‘Archive Collection’, a series of extremely old, single cask releases. When blending other spirit into the release is not an option, is it difficult to work with old whisky?

It is, and every cask is different. For the Archive Collection, I am looking for casks with a unique aroma or flavour. Over the years, I have built up a knowledge of our stocks and this allows me to pinpoint some of the more unusual and rare casks in our warehouses and have them bottled as true ‘one-off’ expressions.

Sampling casks for those expressions is rather something. I often try a plethora of casks that were all filled on the same day into the same cask type and have been warehoused together for their entire life. Yet, they mature wildly differently.

That is down, in part, to the influence of the oak and the original tree it was cut from. How it was dried, coopered, toasted and charred all the way through to tiny things like the microclimate around the cask in the warehouse.

Finally, what’s the best way to enjoy a dram?

I am a big believer in enjoying whisky in whatever way works for you, whether that is neat, on the rocks, with water or in a cocktail. My own favourite is room temperature with just a drop of water. That said, I am also rather partial to an Old Fashioned from time to time!