A story of a man in a kilt, on an island where great whisky is distilled.
Stewart was born in Dumbarton near the Scottish city of Glasgow and moved to the Isle of Mull which lies off Scotland’s west coast when he was 8 years old. He began working in the whisky industry in 1993 at the Tobermory distillery on Mull. Here, he worked in production as a ‘Stillman’, where he maintained the distillery and learned about production. In 2004, Stewart was asked to bring the BenRiach distillery back into production after it had been mothballed for two years. He says he painted nearly every wall, refurbished nearly every piece of equipment, fixed the boiler, and tightened nuts, bolts and screws and learned all aspects of the industry, from warehousing to hosting tastings on top of all that, eventually becoming Production Manager in 2006.
Stewart became Global Brand Ambassador in 2012 which involves travelling all over the world hosting tastings, attending whisky events and working with the media, letting as many people as possible experience all the artisans’ expressions over the three distilleries. The reason he fell into the Global Ambassador role was because of the state of the industry at the time where they were a very small team. The 5 member sales team covered the whole world, and while they were great, none of them had that production background to match the bespoke whisky clubs and single malt stores with a high level of knowledge.
With his background predominantly in production, Stewart enjoys explaining the different techniques of using several styles of cask for the maturation which makes the whisky unique, and in his life as a Global Ambassador a typical day of work is practically non-existent. If he’s traveling with the sales team in a city, a week is usually spent differently each day. A sales meeting and briefing, updating brand knowledge, visiting stores and performing quality control, going on events with general customers or enthusiast associations and covering pubs and bars to work alongside the Bartenders Association in sessions called ‘lunch’n’learn’, where Stewart would accompany them playing around with his beloved whisky for various cocktails.
As a brand ambassador of three whisky brands, Stewart is often asked about the differences between the three. The BenRiach, Glendronach, Glenglassaugh distilleries are each of their own kind. Not only is the ‘terroir’ completely different, the location, water sources and production techniques are completely different too, and each distillery is tweaked to make the most of that.
For instance, Glendronach is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland and is steeped in history. It is nestled down in a little valley and the richness of the landscape along with the gothic feeling of the place makes it come alive. At Glenglassaugh one could stand on the adjacent beach and never experience two days the same. No one would know what he/she’s going to get because of the tides, the winds, the blue skies and all the elements. The endless horizon gives it a real rugged nature. Then there’s BenRiach, which sits at the top of a Speyside valley (on a ‘Ben’). BenRiach’s dynamic personality reflects the fact it sits boldly in the middle of the landscape.
Stewart has also witnessed firsthand the ever changing trends amongst customers. When he went to mainland China five to ten years ago, 99% of the people he’d be meeting would have been older businessmen. Within three years it’s totally flipped round and what he’s seeing at the whisky festivals out there now is mostly people aged 25 to 35 and a 50:50 gender split. A similar case has also occurred in Europe as well. The market in the US is particularly the most challenging one for the rise of all the different American brands which put single malts in the background, it is the new Bourbons and American whiskeys that attract new customers.
In Japan, bartenders are the most educated people in regard to single malt out there. Stewart once spoke in front of 300 bartenders at a seminar who were just busy taking note after note and didn’t lift their heads for 3 hours, such is their vocation and the fact that being a bartender is a lifetime career, there. Eastern European markets and Australia are the latest to really ‘get’ single malts and an explosion of interest is happening. If you put a line-up of whiskies on the table, ninety percent of people would initially be drawn towards The Glendronach because of its darker colour. With BenRiach being mostly Bourbon barrel maturation, he often has to get across that colour has got nothing to do with the age or the quality of the whisky, rather it is the cask the whisky is matured in.
He also sees different taste preferences in different climates. The Scandinavians historically would have more of a peaty palate because they’ve been brought up with foods like smoked fish. Whereas if someone goes to some warmer climates, something fresher and crisper is more suitable. BenRiach goes well in Mediterranean countries and parts of the U.S because it’s got that crisp nature.
Stewart claims his personal favorite is the BenRiach 10-Year Old Curiositas. While he’s not a big peaty whisky drinker, he just loves the balance of that particular one. It’s really a return to the original Speyside character and flavour of malts typical of the nineteenth century. But sometimes he can’t choose a favourite because it will depend on the time of day, or even just the kind of event. He has some whiskies which are social whiskies and some which are solitary whiskies. So Stewart would enjoy a Glendronach in a leather armchair with a couple of friends whereas BenRiach and Glenglassaugh are more social whiskies.