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Whisky jobs… Calum Fraser talks master blenders

Whisky jobs… Calum Fraser talks master blenders

As Master Blender, Calum Fraser is the quality custodian for The Famous Grouse, Scotland’s most popular Scotch whisky. We asked him to tell us more about the day-to-day and what qualities are required to succeed in the role…

As a Scotsman, I don’t think there’s any better industry to work in than Scotch whisky. It’s an industry that has a global reach and the passion that people have for it is amazing. It gives you a real feel-good factor that you’re very much at the centre of it.

My role involves ensuring every dram of The Famous Grouse (either at home, in a bar or restaurant) is as enjoyable as the last dram for our consumer. Being able to detect flavours and consistently describe them is obviously an important part of the role. It perhaps isn’t as difficult as people think but it does take and experience.

My primary function is to ensure consistent quality in the spirit is maintained from grain to glass, allowing The Famous Grouse to deliver consistency in a world which is continually evolving. This means continuously reviewing each point of the supply chain – raw materials, new make spirit at several malt and grain distilleries, the oak casks prior to filling, the oak casks post filling, mature casks, vat samples, bottled product – i.e. not leaving any quality stone unturned in the quest to deliver the renowned signature style.

A normal day in 106 Sample Room (the blending HQ for the The Famous Grouse in Glasgow) involves the requirement to nose hundreds of samples per day covering different parts of the whisky supply process. For example: new make spirit, mature cask samples that go towards making a batch of The Famous Grouse Finest, bottling vat samples, cask samples from the many trials we currently have running, processing water samples on-site. In summary, the role varies greatly and there is no typical working day!

The requirement to work alongside and collaborate with others within the organisation remains paramount to our success. On any given week I will be liaising with our distillery managers on spirit quality, our cask supply manager on ensuring we are continuing to get the finest sherry butts and hogsheads from Spain and ex-bourbon barrels from North America for maturation and our brand team to ensure The Famous Grouse’s spirit credentials continue to remain relevant to our consumers (as well as assisting the launch of any innovations within the range).

My background is quite science-based. My degree and PhD were centred around organic chemistry, which, at the time, was with a view to working in the pharmaceutical industry. I had a passion for Scotch whisky and fortunately I was able to get a job in the industry nearly ten years ago.

During my career I’ve mainly worked in blending, working across several internationally renowned whisky brands and working with some terrific Master Blenders, who I greatly value as mentors, to hone my craft along the way. I also gained valuable experience in managing the largest Scotch whisky maturation site, where about four million whiskies mature in casks, to supply blended Scotch whisky and single Scotch whisky for various products. In January 2020, I took on the role as Master Blender for The Famous Grouse, a brand I am extremely proud to be associated with!

There are three aspects key, for me, that guarantee success in the role:

  1. A good nose. Both the ability to detect nuances of flavour (good and bad) by nose, but also have a good memory for smells, being able to articulate and describe these smells consistently to others.

  2. A passion for whisky. It will be difficult if you don’t possess a love of the industry to stick to whisky blending and forge a successful career. I continue to be amazed at the plethora of flavours and characters which are created during the whisky creation process, be it through the distillation process, oak cask maturation or the blending of aged malt and grain whiskies.

  3. An ability to collaborate across the supply chain. The success of producing a consistently high-quality Scotch whisky such as The Famous Grouse isn’t solely down to a brand’s Master Blender. From a spirit quality perspective, it relies on good relationships within whisky supply - with distillery managers, cask suppliers, blending and bottling managers (to name but a few). However, collaborations across other functions equally as importantly. Being able to liaise with the colleagues in the brand team and markets globally is critical to ensure that the credentials of the whisky itself are articulated to do the brand justice. And fortunately, those I work closely on The Famous Grouse are equally as passionate about their whisky as me!

With the increase in popularity of Scotch whisky there has been more demand for new expression within ranges – The Famous Grouse is no different with examples of innovations within the family being the Cask Series range and Smoky Black. So, there has been an increased proportion of a blender’s time required to deliver new expressions within ranges.

Creating new expressions isn’t a quick, simple thing to do. To allow for new expressions to be created requires trials to take place to try and push boundaries from a flavour perspective – across raw materials, distillery process, cask maturation/finishing and blending. The outcomes of these trials sometimes can take months, even years to understand whether they have worked and are suitable to share with consumers across the world.

What hasn’t changed however is the process of nosing itself; it will be very similar to what it was like 100 years ago (albeit the volumes of whisky being reviewed with be significantly higher!). The creation of every batch of The Famous Grouse is done in a traditional, hands-on way, with spirit at each step of the process nosed. This includes nosing every single cask of grain and malt whisky going into the blend prior to disgorging the casks – that alone is approximately 80,000 checks a year!

It’s all about consistency, that’s the key – building your own vocabulary. If you consistently describe a flavour in the same way, you can build that into your sensory memory, and then you can build on that. A lot of the aromas you pick up in a whisky will remind you of similar aromas from earlier in your life, usually your childhood. From example, one particular malt whisky which forms part of The Famous Grouse has a stewed apple note, which takes me back to the terrific apple tarts my Gran used to bake for me coming to visit.

Your sense of smell is already there, it’s about harnessing that ability and using it in a consistent way. And of course, nosing various styles of whiskies will only help that sharpen you nosing ability!

The Famous Grouse next year will celebrate its 125th anniversary, so to continue a legacy that began in the late 1800s is a real honour and privilege – but also to be able to almost create your own legacy with new expressions as well is incredible. No two days are the same, believe me, there are different challenges every single day. The job certainly keeps you on your toes and gives you great job satisfaction and diversity.

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