THOUGH she’s now the Master Whisky Maker at one of Scotland’s oldest and most prestigious single malts, Kirsteen Campbell admits she wasn’t always much of a whisky fan.

“I remember going on a field trip to a distillery when I was at university in my early 20s,” says Kirsteen, who oversees The Macallan. “I loved the tour, but the neat dram at the end wasn’t to my taste. My palate wasn’t ready for it – it was too challenging without a mixer.

“It wasn’t until I was working in the industry that I got a full appreciation and started exploring and experimenting with whiskies, getting a feel for the flavours I like and how I like to drink them.”

Kirsteen and whisky turned out to be a match made in heaven, as her 12 years as a whisky blender highlight. Following a degree in food technology and some initial sensory work with spirits, she has climbed the ranks at Edrington, the spirit company that owns a host of top whisky brands including Highland Park and The Glenrothes, as well as The Macallan, which has been made in Speyside since 1824.

After reaching master blender status at Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse, this year the 42-year-old went a step further, becoming the first female Master Whisky Maker in The Macallan’s proud 195-year history, a role that encompasses responsibility not only for all aspects of the process, but the quality of every single bottle that leaves the distillery.

At a time when women can be found in every sphere of science and technology, yet whisky is still perceived by some to be a masculine drink, does this sort of “first” matter?

“First and foremost, I’m just incredibly proud to be The Macallan’s Master Whisky Maker,” explains Kirsteen, who originally comes from Thurso, Caithness. “But the realisation that I’m the first woman in our long history is amazing.

“I hope it will inspire more girls to think about coming into the industry. While I rarely think about it day to day, others might, and role models are important. Our team is evenly balanced – the lead whisky maker is also a woman.

“There were many women in the industry before me. But what really has changed is the audience at tastings. There are far more women drinking whisky these days.”

The figures certainly bear this out. Research shows that a third of all premium whisky drinkers are women, many of whom are less wedded to mythologies and stereotypes around how the spirit “should” be drunk, perhaps happier to enjoy their dram in a range of ways, whether that’s with water, ice or mixers. Younger people, too, are increasingly enjoying whisky, especially in overseas markets.

“I long for the day when gender and age is not a topic of conversation, when you’re just a whisky drinker. And you should drink whisky whichever way you enjoy it most – with water or a mixer – it’s as simple as that.”

Listening to Kirsteen explain what her job entails, how the nose plays as significant a role as the spreadsheet, it’s clear that making whisky is an art as much as a science. Certain things are fixed, of course, like the fact “whisky” will emerge if you distil a fermented mix of water, barley and yeast and leave it in an oak cask for long enough.

The real magic comes in the creation and expression of the flavours, which is the part of the job she enjoys most.

“You need a methodical and scientific brain to keep on top of stocks, volumes and the like, but the creative side is also so important to this job,” says the Master Whisky Maker.

“With The Macallan there is a core DNA from the spirit and the sherry casks. But there are different levers you can pull to create different expressions. For example, different species of oak used in the barrels – European or American – define entirely different flavours.

“Casks have such a massive influence on the quality of a whisky. At The Macallan we even have our own master of wood, Stuart MacPherson. How casks age and how they are toasted on the inside can also impact flavour. The environment also plays a role, as does the barley.

“There are things we can do at every stage of the process to emphasise or pull back certain flavours, which is how we find the right balance.”

Being a Master Whisky Maker is all about precision and meticulousness, Kirsteen explains. But it’s not an exact science. “There is an element of surprise when you sample a cask 10 years down the line. That’s what you hope for, that’s where the magic comes in.

“For me there is nothing better than being at the bench making whisky, discovering familiar and unusual aromas and bringing them together, whether it’s core consistency or new expressions we’re looking for.”

Kirsteen spends much of her working life between Edrington’s bottling plant in Glasgow and The Macallan’s stunning new £140m Macallan distillery and visitor centre on the Easter Elchies Estate, near Craigellachie, where the single malt has been made for two centuries.

Talking of magic, Kirsteen says nowhere can you sense it more than at the distillery.

“The estate is a very special place,” she says. “Whisky is much more than just a drink. The story of The Macallan is so important; the history and the heritage, the time and effort involved, the craftsmanship and our mastery of it, the meticulous attention to detail.

“It’s amazing to think someone was doing my job 200 years ago. They were pretty much doing the same thing that I do, which is just incredible. Our knowledge of science and craftsmanship has increased, but the product is essentially the same.”

Two decades on from her less-than-successful introduction to whisky, Kirsteen is now a self-confessed enthusiast as well as an expert.

“I can honestly say my favourite drink is Scotch,” she smiles. “Is there anything lovelier than a good dram – obviously I’d choose The Macallan – after a meal? If I’m out with friends in a bar I’ll usually go for a whisky and ginger ale, or if we’re drinking cocktails an Old Fashioned. You’re always in safe hands with an Old Fashioned.”

Tipples leave senses working overtime

LIKE Kirsteen, I didn’t much enjoy my first taste of whisky, sipped clandestinely from my grandfather’s drinks cabinet one Hogmanay in my early teens. A trip to Islay 15 years ago changed all that and, since then, my house has never been without at least a couple of bottles, blends and malts of both the peaty and Speyside variety.

I’m awestruck chatting and tasting whisky with Kirsteen, watching and listening as she examines and explains the complexities of flavour, aroma and colour in two different expressions of The Macallan with such precision. It’s a bit like hearing Ella Fitzgerald talk about singing – she’s the master of her craft, though it’s the nose doing the talking here.

Indeed, the true significance of the nose only really becomes clear when Kirsteen explains how the recruitment process for whisky blenders works.

“Anyone joining the team must have their sense of smell tested,” she explains. “It’s very important. We put everyday aromas in jars and present them blind. We determine not only the person’s ability to pick up the aroma but also how well they can describe it. Then we work on vocabulary, understanding different flavours for whisky styles. Natural ability is everything – the smelling part isn’t something you can learn.”

She howls with laughter when I suggest her nose might be insured for £1 million. “No, unfortunately not. But there are precautions I have to take. I can’t wear perfume to work or use scented hand creams and lotions. I don’t drink much coffee – the taste is too strong – and certainly not until the afternoon. And I never have strong flavours for lunch.

“People sometimes have colds and off days – that’s why the team approach to what we do is so important.”

Right. Down to business. Kirsteen pours two large drams for us. The first is the signature expression of The Macallan, a “double casked” single malt, showcasing American and European oak casks.

Even before I taste the liquid I can smell its delightful bouquet of sweet toffee, a note that seems intensified by the visual experience of gold in the glass. The taste, meanwhile, is utterly divine. I get vanilla and, on Kirsteen’s prompting, notes of dried fruit and nutmeg come through. Wow. The flavours dance and then dissipate gradually from my palate.

“This is a personal favourite of mine,” says Kirsteen. “The harmony of both casks brings the unique flavour. And the natural colour comes entirely from the cask.

“You don’t just enjoy the experience of whisky by taste – it’s also about aroma and colour. The experience starts from the pouring.”

We move on to Edition No 5, an expression that, notes Kirsteen, “is all about showcasing that natural colour”. Created by Sarah Burgess, The Macallan’s lead whisky maker, it comes in a bright-pink box conceived in collaboration with the Pantone colour institute in the US.

The Herald:

It certainly looks stunning: an even deeper, more intense gold than the Double Cask. But what does it taste like? The flavour is richer, fuller and more complex than its stablemate. There’s definitely vanilla, and golden syrup and … and … something fruity I can’t quite put my finger on.

“Baked apples?” suggests Kirsteen. Yes! Exactly! “Sweet with just a hint of soft spice?” She’s bang on. Amazing. My tongue is alive … as, it must be said, is my nose.

“That richness on the palate is the sign of a quality single malt,” she adds. “It’s all down to the casks.”

I leave the tasting room feeling a tad tiddly. I didn’t listen to Kirsteen’s advice to spit the whisky out rather than swallow it.

There was no way I was going to spit out those quality drams. But I leave happy, all five of my senses aroused by a sublime and even subliminal whisky experience. Craigellachie here I come.

Trying whisky ... a beginner’s guide

How do you introduce whisky to someone who’s never tried it before? Kirsteen has a few tips: “I’d start with a mixer or a cocktail. Think about how you’d drink vodka or gin for the first time – it wouldn’t be neat or just with ice. You’d mix it.

“Ginger beer or ginger ale works really well as an introductory mixer with whisky. That’s a classic and still one of my go-to drinks. I switch between the two depending on what I’m in the mood for, how spicy or sweet I want the drink to be.

“There is so much choice of whisky and it can bring so many different dimensions to a cocktail. All the underlying flavours from the whisky can really come through.

“Personally, I tend to drink my whisky with water. If it’s one I haven’t tried before I’ll taste it full strength then add water, because that’s my preference. I find it releases more flavour.

“Try a range of styles to discover what you like. Do you prefer the lighter, fruitier more floral whiskies, the sweet, rich vanilla notes, or the spicy? Then there’s peaty whisky, which has a full range of expressions, from aromatic to smoky to medicinal.

“Don’t patronise beginners by assuming they will only enjoy lighter, accessible whiskies when they might prefer something richer or smokier – it’s such an individual thing and there are so many to try.”