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Kirsteen Campbell on Making the World’s Oldest Whisky

The Macallan's master whisky maker Kirsteen Campbell has enjoyed a meteoric rise.

By Alex Martin

They say Scotch whisky has four ingredients: malted barley, water, yeast and patience. It takes a minimum of three years to make Scotch, but you’ll be waiting a lot longer than that for the really good stuff. True to its nature, few things move fast in the industry, but there are moments when giant leaps are made in no time at all.

One such leap came for Kirsteen Campbell in 2019 when, after 12 years at spirits company Edrington, she was promoted to master whisky maker at The Macallan, the jewel in its crown. Moving from a role at one of Edrington’s other Scotch brands, Campbell went from creating $20-a-bottle blends to making vital decisions on what would become the oldest whisky ever bottled.

But while 12 years can seem like an age in some careers, it is the blink of an eye in this one. Whisky making is a craft that, like the liquid itself, can take decades to perfect. Campbell’s rise has been comparatively meteoric, but the seeds of her career were sown long before she started out.

“Like many of us growing up in Scotland, it’s part of our heritage,” she tells Elite Traveler. “I studied food science at university, and one of my first roles was analyzing different spirits. What fascinated me about whisky was the development of flavor, and the elements of time and complexity. I was recruited onto the sensory panel, which was when I had my nose tested. From that moment I knew I had a natural ability.”

[See also: The Most Exclusive Scotch Whisky Experiences]

The Macallan distillery

The Macallan’s eco-conscious distillery in Scotland / ©The Macallan

Not all noses are created equally, it would seem, and Campbell has a particular talent for detecting myriad notes in whisky. “Scotch is so complex,” she says, “so it’s a natural ability to get underneath the whisky and pick out the different aromas and articulate them. That natural ability combines with years of nosing different casks to develop an understanding of how flavors come together.”

For a whisky enthusiast, sampling liquid directly from the cask is a dream job, but at a distillery as big as The Macallan, it is a serious undertaking. Campbell says: “We’re hitting 60,000- 70,000 cask samples every single year. On top of that, a huge amount of work goes into securing the right type of sherry casks, which goes hand-in-hand with whisky making and maturation. Then there is the scientific side, where we continually push our levels of knowledge to understand the science behind what we do, as well as the art of what we do.”

[See also: Bowmore and Aston Martin Reveal ARC-52 Whisky]

As Campbell’s background in food science will attest, whisky making has become a scientific process over the past two decades. While it may not be as romantic as old-fashioned trial and error, it is allowing a typically boom-and-bust industry to accurately match supply and demand. But despite these advancements in technology and a push for ever greater understanding, there remains something intrinsically artistic about whisky making that cannot be quantified.

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Campbell says: “We’ve done a huge amount of research into maturation — how flavors are created, how the spirit interacts with the cask and how that changes over time. That does supplement our skill set but you also need the art, because analysis doesn’t tell us everything. You need a human touch. It is like a chef making their signature dish. There is no defined recipe, and it doesn’t work every time. That’s still part of what we do.”

The Macallan whisky vault

Kirsteen Campbell and The Macallan produce some of the most sought-after whisky in the world / ©The Macallan

A novelty of Campbell’s position is that her most important colleagues do not work alongside her and have long since left The Macallan. Her predecessors, who laid down stock decades ago knowing full well they wouldn’t see the fruits of their labor, have given Campbell a strong foundation on which to build. She finds herself not only responsible for doing their work justice, but also for ensuring her successors enjoy the same privilege.

Campbell explains: “Everything we do today, we are reaching back. We are thankful to our predecessors for laying down stock and leaving it for us. For a lot of the decisions that I am taking today, I won’t see the end result. That will be handed over as part of a legacy to the next generation. It’s quite a unique industry in that respect, but that makes our day-to-day job so rewarding. I find it exciting to know a cask is going to be handed over to somebody else. It’s part of what we do as whisky makers.”

[See also: The Best Scotch Whisky Brands in the World]

Nowhere is the process of looking back more relevant than with Campbell’s first big project, The Reach. This 81-year-old whisky was released in 2022 and is the oldest Scotch ever bottled. Distilled in 1940 in the midst of World War II, the single sherry cask passed through many hands in The Macallan warehouse. Successive whisky makers decided to hold it back, allowing Campbell to put her name to one of the most extraordinary spirits ever released. The most important decision, though, is the final one. And that was down to one person.

“We did a huge amount of sampling and assessment,” Campbell says of The Reach. “In 2019, we knew it was ready to be released and from then on it was just monitoring. Maturation at that point is much, much slower than in the early years, so it didn’t noticeably evolve over those last couple of years, but we knew it was ready. The flavor is massively complex.”

The Macallan reach

One of the hands hold The Macallan Reach aloft belongs to Kirsteen Campbell / ©The Macallan

Campbell’s work on The Reach was deemed so important that she was selected to be one of the three bronzed hands propping up the decanter, a reflection of the many stakeholders who had a role in its creation. It is, however, unlikely to be the oldest whisky for long. There is a constant push to go older and older, driven in large part by The Macallan itself. But how old can whiskies go? Will we ever see one reach a century?

“I think theoretically it is possible,” Campbell says. “You need the right warehouse conditions and the right type of cask… and you have to be aware of the angel’s share. Will we see it? Possibly. Probably.

“Whether that’s in the lifetime of my career, I don’t know, but I think we could see this. It is massively exciting. It’s that opportunity to go back in time. It’s incredible to think that when you sample The Reach, you’re tasting something that someone poured into casks in 1940. It’s mind-blowing.”

[See also: The Finest Rare Whisky and Spirit Releases of 2021]

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This article appears in the 06 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer 2022

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