Whisky Focus - Interview With Kirsteen Campbell The Famous Grouse Master Blender

Kirsteen Campbell The Famous Grouse Master Blender Interview

16th March 2017

Interview with The Famous Grouse Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell.

Kirsteen Campbell The Famous Grouse Master Blender

Following the recent The Famous Grouse ‘Masters of the Famous Blend’ event which I attended in Glasgow I got the opportunity to sit down with The Famous Grouse Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell and put a few questions to her about what her job involves with Scotland's favourite and the UK's best selling Scotch blended whisky.

William Morrison: Can you tell me a little about your background/qualifications and how did you discover you had a nose to be a master blender and what was your career path to where you are now?

Kirsteen Campbell: Well my background is in Food Science, I left Thurso back in the 1990s to go to university in Glasgow and study Food Science. I think back then career wise I was looking to get into either the food or drinks industry and I was very fortunate that the first job I went for, which was a temporary job, I was successful and that was with Diageo and it all started off from that.

In terms of realising that I had a sense of smell, I don't think anyone does until they have there nose tested, people get there eyes and hearing testing but how many people get there sense of smell tested. That was one of the things at Diageo, as well as working in the lab doing chemical analysis I was on the sensory panel as I had passed that test and the sensory work evolved from there.

What are your day to day duties as The Famous Grouse Master Blender, what kind of numbers of samples would you nose in a day? Surely you are not alone assessing samples for a whisky as big as the Famous Grouse, have you a team to assist you with sampling?

At Edrington, the parent company for The Famous Grouse, I am the Master Blender who looks after blends, there is a Master Whisky Maker who looks after Highland Park Glenrothes and Glenturret and a sensory analyst who does a lot of the day to day nosing for us like today when I am off site as well as that Macallan up north have their own sensory sample room and a team looking after The Macallan range.

Basically there are 3 of us working on the Famous Grouse in Glasgow.

How many samples would you get through on average in a day, 500 , 1000, more?

On a busy day in the sample room we could get through 500 or 600 samples across all the products that we blend, also for The Famous Grouse we have guys at the distilleries who can assess casks, then it comes to us.

With the Famous Grouse being one of the world’s most popular Scotch blended whiskies it will obviously be bottled in large batches, can you give me some details about what would go into a single batch of The Famous Grouse such as the percentage mix of grain and single malt, number of barrels or litres that would go into each batch? And is it more difficult to keep consistency in a larger batch bottling or is a larger batch more forgiving?

In terms of volume and scale, we calculated last year that we blend the equivalent of an Olympic size swimming pool every month of Famous Grouse, its big volumes, lots of nosing of casks, with 80,000 casks checked every year for the Famous Grouse. Famous Grouse is a blend of different malt whiskies and different grain whiskies.

So the grain whisky isn't just North British?

It is the main grain whisky we use in the Famous Grouse but not the only one.

Obviously the different grain mix will make a difference, would you say the flavours differ between different grain whiskies you use?

Yes the grains do differ, you can get different flavours coming through from the different distillation columns. In terms of malts in the Famous Grouse the ones which I can tell you about is Highland Park, The Macallan and Glenturret.

Yes that is the single malts we always hear mentioned in regards to the Famous Grouse but in reality how many malts would go into a batch of The Famous Grouse, 30, 40, 50 or does it vary considerably?

It does vary, the malt/grain ration we don't reveal, I don't think any master blender for
a blend will tell you that, its one of the closely kept secrets in the sample room. In terms of numbers they do vary and that's because when we put our blends together they are awfully complex and we have core grains and core malts which we use in every blend as well as that we have third parties which are grouped according to flavour, so we might for example say we need 10 casks from that one flavour group we might pick 10 different distilleries or we might pick 10 casks from one distillery and that is why the numbers vary from batch to batch but the flavour is constant.

The grain whisky component in blended whisky rarely gets a mention, it was once considered by whisky drinkers to be a neutral spirit but with the surging popularity of all styles of whisky including grain whisky, whisky drinkers are now realising that it isn’t quite the neutral spirit it was once thought to be. Can you tell me a little about the grain component in The Famous Grouse blend?

You're right to raise that and for me grain whisky is absolutely not neutral in terms of flavour.

As far as the grain whisky component in the Famous Grouse is concerned, is it all matured in Bourbon casks?

We have some grain whisky from sherry casks as well. Every aspect of malt whisky in the Famous Grouse is replicated in the grain whisky, the quality of the casks, age, we put as much emphasise on all these factors for the grains as we do the malts.

I know you had Snow Grouse in the past but given the increasing popularity of all styles of whiskies have you any plans to add any grain whiskies to the Famous Grouse range once again?

I think grain whisky is massively underrated, everyone talks about malts and when they talk about blends its about what malts are in their but the grain is so important and I think it is a good thing that we are beginning to see such interest in grain whisky.

I know that it is the cask that makes the whisky and there is so much you can do with a grain whisky.

Exactly the quality of the cask and I have tasted some exceptional aged grains.

Was the Snow Grouse in your time at The Famous Grouse?

Yes , and it is still available in global travel retail.

I understand why E150a caramel colouring is used in the big selling blended whiskies which are not presented in a box or tube and I realise consumers would question why their favourite whisky was a different colour every time they made a purchase.

It is very much a consistency thing, it is so that when the consumer looks at the whisky on the shelve and doesn't wonder why the batches are different.

In your honest opinion does E150a caramel colouring add any flavour at all to a whisky as some whisky drinkers believe it is used as an additive to obtain flavour consistency as well as colour consistency in not only blended whiskies but single malt whiskies. What is your opinion on the use of E150a caramel colourings and do you think E150a caramel colourings adds even the slightest hint of flavour to a whisky?

It is very concentrated and if you were to taste it, it is very bitter not caramel flavouring, caramel colouring doesn't add caramel flavour

I have seen demonstrations where caramel colouring has been added to water and there is an odour, admittedly the demonstrator who was trying to promote their natural coloured single malt had been heavy handed with the colouring in the water but there was definitely an odour?

But the odour is not like caramel and it would have been concentrated were we are adding small amounts which would not impact the flavour at all. That is why it is permitted as it is not an additive.

I for one miss the more premium age statement bottlings that used to be available in the Famous Grouse range such as the excellent Famous Grouse Gold Reserve 12 year old blend and the 10, 15, 18, 21 and 30 year old blended malts and the limited releases such as the outstanding Famous Grouse Scottish Oak Finish as well as a few other older age statement whiskies. Do you work on new product development and are we likely to see any premium additions to The Famous Grouse range in the near future?

Famous Grouse Gold Reserve 12 year old is still available in travel retail (William: although not at Glasgow airport). In terms of blended malts we are not doing blended malts anymore. We are always looking at opportunities and new innovations but there is nothing that I can say right now, I cant give you a big reveal, I would love to but it was worth a try though.

How much time do you spend on development of new products, do you get much time for that? Are you asked to look into that?

I am looking at some things at the moment, I would love more time at the bench, it would be great to be constantly looking.

Are you handed down a request to develop a whisky to sell in a particular market?

You can be, perhaps for a particular market or a particular flavour style, that s the interesting part of the job

Out of all the whiskies you have created or had a hand in which one are you most proud of and can you explain what makes it such a special whisky?

I am going to have to go off brand at the moment as I have been involved but cant claim any of the Grouse range, there were a few with Cutty Sark such as the Cutty Sark 33 and Tam O'Shanter 25 year old, these were really special blends but I think probably Cutty Sark Prohibition because that was a tough one to create because it was high strength and the idea behind the Prohibition was high strength but smooth and that was a challenge and the one I am proud of from the general feedback I receive.

I have to admit that I have never actually had the Cutty Sark Prohibition but I have heard good things about it?

Its one to try and give me your feedback.

Do you have a personal favourite from The Famous Grouse range or is that like asking a parent to say which one of their children is their favourite?

You know I always go for the the Famous Grouse Finest if I am out, I like the Famous Grouse Gold Reserve 12 year old, that is a good one to have in the cabinet

Do you work on any of the Edrington single malts at all?

I would be there for cover but I am not responsible for them, as I have said there is a team of 3 of us here in Glasgow and we have all got to be able to blend and make all of the products and I am familiar with the entire Edrington portfolio.

When relaxing at home what is most likely to be the dram in your glass?

Right now I have got a Famous Grouse 16 year old special edition which is available at the Glenturret distillery at The Famous Grouse Experience but I haven't cracked it open yet, that is what I am hoping to crack open if we beat England at the rugby on Saturday. (sadly I am guessing the seal didn't get broken unless Kirsteen decided to drown her sorrows with a few drams on Saturday)

Many Thanks To Kirsteen.
Many thanks to Kirsteen for taking the time to chat with me and for giving us an insight into the world of the Master Blender for Scotland's favourite blended whisky and the UK's best selling blended whisky.

You will find the current range of The Famous Grouse available from specialist online whisky retailers such as Master of Malt

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