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Keith Law on how he became a master blender

Keith Law, Diageo’s master blender, is celebrating 30 years in the Scotch whisky business. He is, as you’d expect, passionate about whisky and the entire production process

Keith Law Diageo

Keith Law, Diageo’s master blender, is celebrating 30 years in the Scotch whisky business. He is, as you’d expect, passionate about whisky and the entire production process.

He talks to The Drinks Report editor Felicity Murray about his career, his work and what it takes to become a whisky blender

Keith’s interest in whisky distillation began with childhood visits to the distilleries where his father and uncle worked. However, Keith had chosen science as a career – he wanted to work in a laboratory. Luckily for him, he was able to combine both interests when, in August 1979, with the help of his father, he found his first job in the quality control laboratory at the Caledonian Distillery in Edinburgh. Here, at this renowned grain distillery, he worked closely alongside his father.

A sensory specialist in the whisky industry, Keith spent 12 years as part of the management team at Carsebridge Technical Centre, responsible for quality for all grain distilling and specialised areas of malt distilling. The primary focus of this role was around optimisation of distillery yields, flavour profiles and distillery performance; A large part of this role involved the nosing of new-make spirit.

Since joining Diageo, Keith has worked at each of Diageo’s 27 malt distilleries and two grain distilleries. His roles have been heavily focused on all aspects of sensory analysis allowing Keith to develop significant insights into flavor creation, blending and a deep understanding of the effects of oak on maturation, cask structure and wood physiology.

In 2007, with the formation of Diageo’s European Technical Centre, Diageo’s master blenders joined together to become a team of five. Keith’s role is varied and no two days, he says, are the same. However, he adds: “Not a day passes without my nose being in a glass of whisky.” He is heavily involved in the development of new whisky products with end-to-end responsibility from cask selection through to overseeing production of pre-market launch bottlings.

The new blends tend, he says, to be family extensions to Diageo’s existing range of brands, rather than anything “new and wacky”. The inspiration for new blends and brand extensions usually comes from Diageo’s marketing teams, who are in a position to observe new market opportunities.

Keith believes his science background has been a huge benefit. It has helped his understanding of the origins of the various sensory notes, and the effects of different casks on whisky in the ageing process.

But, he says, this knowledge can be also learned and built up though working in different areas – in inventory control, for example, as some of his blender colleagues have done.

 “They have a built up a good understanding of the different cask types and their effects on a whisky’s flavour and nose,” says Keith.
“To become a master blender, not only is it most important you have a good ’nose’ but that you understand the origin of what you are smelling and are able to describe it.

“A knowledge of casks, the flavours they impose on the spirits, what’s in the stocks, and what blends can be made with these flavours is key. It can be taught but to be a master blender you need to be passionate about whisky. I love whisky  – it’s a fascinating subject and you’re learning all the time."

Keith originally hails from Edinburgh in Scotland but now lives in the central region near Stirling. In his spare time he enjoys playing rugby, scuba diving and walking through the beautiful scenery of Scotland with his wife and two young daughters aged one and four.

In rare quiet moments at home, he enjoys a dram of good Scotch.
“My wife likes a glass of wine over dinner and I’m interested in the interaction of flavours – what works well with what. I wonder what whisky would work well in or with a certain dish. Other than whisky, mostly I’d like a beer, but I do have some fantastic drams in the house!"

And how does he like to take his whisky? . . .

“My preference is with a wee bit of water as it opens up the nose and flavours a wee bit more. But it is up to the individual. My father enjoyed his over ice. Some would say that adding cola to a good whisky is a waste, but I’d say – enjoy experimenting and find the perfect serve for yourself.”

1 August 2009