Kirstie McCallum on breaking gender norms of the whisky world and how the industry will evolve in the future
Mixing things up
Gender equality has been the talk of the table since time immemorial, and the fruits of a collective labour have borne in more places than one. But we don’t need the solemnity of politics and education to justify our voice; women are also trudging through the gender taxonomies which exist behind your drinking bars. Gone are the days where whisky is limited to the confines of an old boys’ club or but an emblem of masculinity. It is now an open territory for all, and Kirstie McCallum, senior blender at Burn Stewart Distillers, shows us how it’s done.
As one of the first females to venture into the whisky industry, McCallum’s journey offers a narrative slightly different from what you might have expected of a pioneer. Having graduated from Glasgow Caledonian University with a PhD in Analytical Chemistry, a career in the pharmaceutical industry was the only and obvious route in the horizon. However, the dearth of jobs in the sciences was what drove Kirstie to a short-term contract at a grain whisky distillery, where she discovered her love for scotch and never looked back since. With 19 years in the industry, Kirstie now looks after Burn Stewart’s flagship blends and leads the Distell blending team in hand selecting casks for use in their core single malt range. Below, find out what McCallum has to say about whisky misconceptions, the skills needed for the industry, and whether there really is a difference being a woman in the whisky world.
What does your job as senior blender for Burn Stewart Distillers entail?
My job basically entails looking after all of the single malt whiskies. This comes down to the whiskies that are maturing in the warehouse, putting together all our blends and our single malt products, or deciding what casks are going to be used or what the flavour of the product is going to be.
Sounds fun. What do you love most about what you do?
Variety. I love that you do all sorts of different things. My favourite part of the job is experimenting with casks and putting together limited editions. I absolutely love that side of the work and thinking of new things to do.
"If you can prove that you’re capable of doing your job, there is no difference whether you are a man or a woman as long as you can do what you're supposed to do."
Is there still a stigma when it comes to being a woman in the whisky industry?
No. We get a lot of questions about women in the industry, but I've always found that if you can prove that you’re capable of doing your job, there is no difference whether you are a man or a woman as long as you can do what you're supposed to do.
What is the biggest misconception people have about whisky?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions (and it's changing), is that people for a long time thought you can only drink whisky in certain ways. You can only do certain things with whisky. But, there are no rules with whisky. You can do whatever you want with your whisky. It makes fantastic cocktails and long drinks. You can drink it with ice or on its own.
What was it about Scotch that made you want to make it your career?
Initially, I wanted to join a totally different industry, but when I left the university after I finished my PhD and I was trying to get a job in pharmaceuticals, I couldn’t get a job. So, I got a temporary job working in the lab in a distillery. I'd always been a whisky drinker but when I actually started working in the distillery, I just fell in love with it and there's so much history. There's so much tradition. It's not like you're another number working for the company; you're actually a part of it. The feel, the whole being in the whisky industry is fantastic. I've got such a passion and a love for it that I will never ever leave the whisky industry. Until they kick me out.
I'm pretty sure they won't do that. What's the most important lesson you've learned about whisky from Ian MacMillan?
The most important thing I learned from Ian was consistency. It helped me to develop as a blender and to get to where I am today.
What skills are needed to do what you do?
A good palate and nose because I need to nose and taste the whisky. A lot of us experience though, that if you have a good palate and nose, you then have to spend a lot of time training it. It's all about recognising things and as over time, you develop. You don't just walk into the job as a Master Blender. You start as a Blender and you work your way through and you gain experience.You need to be able to sit down and actually think about things — while it helps some, chemistry knowledge is not essential; its just an add-on.
What are some exciting new blends you're working on?
We've just launched a new Bunnahabhain — the Bunnahabhain Toiteach a Dhà — and it's a peated Bunnahabhain, so that is just coming on to the market at the moment. We recently launched our non-age expression of Bunnahabhain — Bunnahabhain Stiùireadair — which has also just been released on to the market. At the moment, I'm working on a couple of limited editions that are going to appear next year.
What's a good first blend to start a whisky novice off with?
I would say Deanston, our Highland malt, is a good one to bring somebody into the category with, because it's a lovely, soft whisky. It has honey and fruit in there. It's got a touch of space at the back of it. But, I would also say it depends on people's palates. If people are used to eating smoky foods, hey may prefer a smoky whisky. It all depends on the individual.
"Scotch whisky is Scotch whisky and it should never change, but we can do things to innovate with what we've got at the moment. We don't need to change the rules or change things. We can develop what we've got."
Consumer tastes are changing continually and we have to keep up with that change — that's why we come up with a variety of casks and flavours, and experiment with different things. Scotch whisky is Scotch whisky and it should never change, but we can do things to innovate with what we've got at the moment. We don't need to change the rules or change things. We can develop what we've got.
For more information, visit Burn Stewart Distillers.