Lifestyle

Head to Speyside for a great 
whisky tour: Master blender

Head to Speyside for a great 
whisky tour: Master blender
Master blender David Stewart says jaunts to Speyside and Islay are the best for whisky distillery tours. Photo: The Balvenie
Whisky legend David Stewart tells us where the best distillery tours are in Scotland
Published: 9:10 AM, April 20, 2017
Updated: 1:44 AM, April 22, 2017

SINGAPORE — He is an industry legend who has dedicated 54 years of his 
life to whisky, and he is also the world’s longest-serving malt master.

David Stewart, 72, started out as a clerk at William Grant & Sons in the 1960s. He rose to become an apprentice at the family-run business, eventually becoming a master blender and malt master at The Balvenie, owned by William Grant & Sons.

Stewart is perhaps the best person to ask about whisky tours to Scotland, where he was born and bred. “Scotland’s got lovely countryside, with open space, farmlands, greenery. And we’ve got 110 distilleries in Scotland which you can visit,” he told TODAY.

“But I have to say, come to Speyside,” he said, adding that there are many distilleries within close range of each other, making for a great whisky trail. “The Balvenie and Glenfiddich distilleries are on one site ... There are about 30 to 40 distilleries in Speyside, and there’s a number of them that are very close to one another. There’s about six (distilleries alone) in Dufftown,” he said.

The Glenrothes, Glen Grant, and Macallan distilleries are also located just 15 minutes away, he added. All this makes for a great whisky trail.

Speyside whiskies are among Scotland’s lightest, sweetest single malts.

“A Speyside style ... is all about vanilla, honey, citrus, butterscotch, notes. There are ... marzipan flavours (and) maybe a delicate spiciness — such as cinnamon, ginger — with rich flavours,” said Stewart, who was recently in Singapore to attend the DFS Masters of Wine and Spirits event. But he said that a whisky tour would not quite be complete without visiting Islay.

There, “you’ll get to see the contrast between the fruity, sweet Speysides, and the smoky, peaty Islay whiskys”. “There are about eight distilleries in Islay, such as Dalmore,” he said. “Each produces its own levels of smokiness and peatiness.”

The Dalmore distillery is one of Scotland’s older offerings, and is located north of Inverness overlooking the Black Isle.

“To get to Islay, you can either drive and take a ferry across the island,” said Stewart. “If you fly from Glasgow, it takes just half an hour.”

His last hot tip for travellers is this: If you are a whisky lover but do not have time for a further-flung experience, try the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh (354 Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NE, UK).

“They’ve got a huge range of whiskies ... They take you through the whole process of distilling, and you have 
a tasting at the end,” said Stewart, referring to the five-star experience located along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.

In Glasgow, there are two great whisky bars: The Pot Still, with “700 whiskies, cracking cask ales, proper pies”, according to its website; and the family-owned Bon Accord.

“If you want whisky, that’s where you go,” he said.

Stewart — known for pioneering techniques and for developing award-winning whiskies under the Balvenie, Glenfiddich and William Grant & Sons brands, as well as being awarded an MBE — does not mind mixing his whisky — as long as it is in the right spirit.

“I quite like to add water to whisky,” he said. “Not to single malts, but younger whiskys (from 12 to 18 years) are nice with water, which opens up the whisky — water reveals the flavours of the whisky.”

If you are visiting The Balvenie, Stewart will not judge you if you want to mix your whisky with, say, 
Coca-Cola.

“I’m not there to tell people how to drink whisky — it’s not something you can advise,” he said. “A young blended whisky — mix it happily if you want. I’d say add Coca-Cola, lemonade or soda to it.”

But, he cautioned, if you are drinking single malts, “you’re looking for a distillery style, (which is) quite particular. We really want you to taste that distillery’s character, and you don’t want to spoilt it with anything”. The only thing he will allow there, he said, is a little water.

The Balvenie Distillery in Speyside (Balvenie Maltings, Dufftown, Scotland, AB55 4BB) runs tours on weekdays 
(£40/S$72 per person, limited to eight people per tour), open to those 18 and up.