Women have long played a role in Scottish whisky history.
Trailblazers include Helen Cumming in the 1800s, who made whisky on the farm she owned with her husband, which would later become Cardhu distillery. While he took care of the land, she managed bootlegging operations. As the story goes, she used to walk up to 20 miles with bottles tied up under her skirts, to sell to potential customers.
Over 100 years later, Bessie Williamson became the first woman to officially own and manage a distillery in the 20th century – and a particularly good one at that, as Laphroaig fans will agree. Meanwhile, Rita Taketsuru (née Cowan), originally from Kirkintilloch, was taking Scotch to Japan. Affectionately known as “the mother of Japanese whisky”, she set up a distillery in Yoichi on the island of Hokkaido in the 1930s – chosen for its climate and geography, which is similar to Scotland’s.
Despite the exceptional work of these women – and several more, perhaps a list to delve into on a different day – the industry has long been, on the whole, a boys club. Until now. Allow us to introduce you to Kirsteen Campbell, the first female master whisky maker in The Macallan’s near 200-year history.
Campbell started her career at a new-make spirits laboratory. “I really discovered my passion for Scotch whisky in my first role,” she tells us. “This was also when I discovered my heightened sense of smell and was recruited onto the sensory panel to assess the spirits that we produced.”
Fast-forward nearly 20 years and Campbell has risen through the ranks at The Macallan’s parent company, Edrington, earning her latest title in October 2019. “I feel extremely honoured to become one of the custodians of The Macallan,” she says. “It is a privilege to be entrusted with creating a legacy for the brand.”
Heading up the whisky mastery team, overseeing all aspects of the whisky making cycle – from distillation to cask maturation and bottling – is, it turns out, as magical as it sounds. Here, she takes us behind the scenes for a day.
My alarm goes off at:
Mornings often feel like a race against the clock! Before heading out the door, I have a quick breakfast while listening to the news. During the week it is generally a cup of tea and toast, or I will have a bowl of cereal or porridge.
The usual commute:
My time is split between the offices we have in Glasgow and The Macallan Estate in the north-east of Scotland. If I am travelling to Glasgow, my commute is either a 50-minute drive, or a 30-minute train journey, normally listening to BBC Radio 1. Driving to the distillery in Speyside takes a little longer, but it feels such a privilege to call this beautiful part of the world my place of work, so I don’t mind the extra journey time.
I moved house last year, and lockdown meant I very quickly had to convert one of my spare rooms into an office space. It’s turned out pretty well and forced me to unpack a few more boxes.
My morning’s work:
No two days at work are the same and that’s what I enjoy about my job. One morning I’m dressed in smart trousers and a blazer heading to meetings, and the next I’m in safety boots and a high-visibility jacket working in the 485-acre estate at The Macallan.
It is usually a sandwich or salad at my desk between meetings in Glasgow. However, when I am at the distillery in Speyside we usually take time out as a team, away from our desks and from the sample room. It is good to take that break and come back refreshed.
In the afternoon:
Although each afternoon can look different, a huge part of my role is maintaining the heritage of the whisky. When I’m at the distillery, I’m involved in ensuring there are checks at every stage – from distillation to cask maturation and bottling – to ensure the highest possible consistency and quality of spirit that The Macallan is renowned for.
I finish work at around 5:30pm, but often catch up on emails when I get back to my house. In the evening if I’m on my phone, I often scroll through social media to keep up to date.
I enjoy cooking and often try out different flavour combinations while making dinner. Flavour is very important as a master whisky maker and this element of my work extends to other parts of my life.
To relax, Strictly Come Dancing is my go-to guilty pleasure. On weekends, I will have a dram at home and my favourite expression is The Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old, which I tend to drink with a touch of water. It’s created from the perfect balance of American and European sherry seasoned oak casks and imparts a combination of vanilla and subtle spice notes. My other love is wine, I enjoy learning about the flavours and varieties.
To make sure I am prepared for my early start in the morning, I’ll lay out clothes, prep meals, etc. Anything that helps speed-up what I need to do in the morning is a bonus.
My favourite part of the job is:
Nosing (whisky terminology for smelling!) the whisky. Nosing has become second nature to me, having done it daily for the past 12 years. You can begin to understand the characteristics of our whisky through nosing, drawing out the different aromas and flavours, right down to the type of cask that the whisky was matured in. It’s amazing how much you can tell from a whisky, just by nosing.
A memorable moment at Macallan:
In 2018 we opened our new brand home – a striking piece of architecture designed by internationally acclaimed architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. At the time, I was part of a team that ensured the quality of the spirit distilled from the new distillery was of the same exceptional quality as the previous – both distilleries are located a stone’s throw apart on The Macallan Estate. Little did I know then, that a year later I would become The Macallan’s master whisky maker.
If I wasn’t a master whisky maker, I’d be:
At school I always loved arts and crafts and thought one day I would become a teacher or a graphic designer. In my fifth year of high school, I considered what degree was going to give me the best chance of employment – hence why I opted for Nutrition and Food Science.
I have absolutely no regrets though, as there are many creative sides to my current role, such as formulating new expressions of whisky. Much like an artist uses colour to appeal to the eye, I work with mixing flavours in a way which is appealing to the palette. Like art, making whisky is all a matter of taste.