House of Hazelwood: Bottling the private casks of Scotch whisky’s ‘first family’

House of Hazelwood: Bottling the private casks of Scotch whisky’s ‘first family’

This new independent bottler is offering the rare chance to purchase - and taste - old and rare whiskies owned by the family behind Glenfiddich

Whisky Focus | 09 Sep 2022 | Issue 186 | By Gavin Smith

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We tend to think of most major consumer brands as being owned by multinational corporations operating at the whim of shareholders and frequently shackled to short-term imperatives. The reality is, however, that a surprising number of global drinks businesses are actually still controlled by family owners – the likes of Suntory, Bacardi, Pernod Ricard, Brown-Forman, Campari and Remy Cointreau are a few examples. Then there is William Grant & Sons, a company that proudly declares itself as 100 per cent family-owned.

Pulling a cask sample at the House of Hazelwood dunnage warehouse in Dufftown.

From its origins with the opening of Glenfiddich Distillery in 1887 by former shoemaker William Grant, the company has grown into one of the world’s leading drinks producers. It is responsible for a best-selling range of blended Scotch whiskies, the Glenfiddich and The Balvenie single malts, Monkey Shoulder blended malt, Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, Sailor Jerry rum, Reyka Icelandic vodka and Milagro Tequila.

Close family involvement has always been at the heart of the business and this continues to be the case today, with fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of William Grant playing active roles in the day-to-day running of the business. Now, the family has created a unique, stand-alone independent bottler called House of Hazelwood, named after the family’s home near Dufftown on Speyside.

The House of Hazelwood range is packaged in luxurious decanter-style bottles.

The new company has begun offering whisky enthusiasts the chance to purchase some of the rarest whiskies from the family’s remarkable private stock, which is undoubtedly one of greatest (or perhaps even the greatest) inventories of aged Scotch whisky held anywhere in the world.

“Unlike most Scotch whisky producers, our business carries with it no requirement to release whiskies of a given age or a given style on a set date,” explains House of Hazelwood marketing director Jonathan Gibson. “This is a collection of individual spirits, representing unique casks, trials that have taken place over the years, and combinations that may never be seen again.”

Marketing director Jonathan Gibson at the House of Hazelwood launch event.

Though House of Hazelwood’s first release includes whiskies distilled over the past eight decades, age and scarcity isn’t all that makes these rare spirits appealing. Central to House of Hazelwood’s allure is the fact that every release is unique and irreplaceable – each bottling offering a snapshot of Scotch whisky’s evolution during the 20th century.

Even more unusually, around 50 per cent of House of Hazelwood releases will be blends – both blended malts and blended Scotch – that were either created recently, using incredibly old stocks, or blended many years ago and refilled into cask for a long second maturation.

The "Spirit of Scotland" blended Scotch from House of Hazelwood"s first release.

Gibson stresses that House of Hazelwood has a separate and different operating model to William Grant & Sons, noting that the business will be focused on dealing with buyers directly, rather than via retailers (though some select partners may be chosen to hold small amounts of stock). Given the rarity of the whiskies released by House of Hazelwood, the team hopes to build longstanding relationships with the enthusiasts and collectors who purchase its bottlings.

Interestingly, Gibson adds that the business will also undertake private projects by commission through a 'whisky concierge service' that will offer individuals and businesses the opportunity to bottle a single cask or work with the House of Hazelwood team to create a bespoke proprietary blend.

Sampling a dram of bespoke House of Hazelwood whisky.

The company has launched with two ranges of whiskies, named the Charles Gordon Collection and the Legacy Collection. The former comprises whiskies of at least 50 years of age, described by Gibson as “some of the most remarkable stock held within the inventory”, while the latter are “whiskies that are the first of their kind, the last of their line, those that capture the spirit of an era and those that offer insights into the inner workings of the Scotch whisky community.”

Charles ‘Charlie’ Grant Gordon, the great-grandson of William Grant, was responsible for laying down much of the House of Hazelwood inventory. He served on the company board for 60 years, acting as chairman and ultimately as honorary life president. He died in 2013 at the age of 86.

A bottle from the Charles Gordon Collection Batch 1.

Along with his brother, Sandy, Charlie Gordon did much to shape the William Grant & Sons we know today. Glenfiddich Pure Malt was launched onto the world stage in 1963, at a time when malt whisky was rarely seen as a bottled product outside the Scottish Highlands, and Charlie Gordon was largely responsible for the creation of the Girvan grain distillery on the Ayrshire coast during the same year.

Remarkably, Girvan Distillery was built, commissioned and producing spirit within nine months. In a nod to tradition, the first spirit flowed on Christmas Day 1963, just as Charlie Gordon’s great-grandfather William Grant had overseen the initial spirit run from Glenfiddich Distillery on Christmas Day 1887.

The 39-year-old "Sunshine on Speyside" from the Legacy Collection.

While construction of Girvan was in progress, Gordon lived on site in a caravan and rode around on a bicycle overseeing operations and urging on the workforce. When work was completed, he found his bicycle ceremoniously welded to the top of one of the cooling towers.

It is apt that Charlie Gordon’s contribution to the success and continuing independence of the family firm is associated with the House of Hazelwood, as he spent a great deal of time at the Speyside home as a young man, in the company of his two aunts, Eizabeth Gordon and Janet Sheed Roberts. Roberts, or ‘Wee Jannie’ as the latter was affectionately known, lived at Hazelwood House until her death in 2013, aged 110, making her the oldest woman in Scotland at the time.

The entirety of House of Hazelwood"s first release.

Family member Kirsten Grant Meikle, who currently works in the supply chain area of William Grant &Sons’ main business, has taken a personal interest in the launch of House of Hazelwood. A great-great-granddaughter of company founder William Grant and a niece of Charlie Gordon, Grant Meikle and Charlie were not only both relatives and good friends, but he actually recruited her to join the family firm in 2011.

Family member Kirsten Grant-Meikle at Hazelwood House.

“He gave me great insights into the drinks industry and I learnt a lot from him,” she recalls. “I loved his sense of humour, we laughed all the time, but he was also very tenacious and passionate. With House of Hazelwood, we are able to take something to market with his name on it. It’s recognition for him and his work, especially his work at Girvan. It’s great quality liquid in packaging the family knows he would have loved.”

House of Hazelwood First Release

Tasting notes by Christopher Coates, Editor-at-Large

The Charles Gordon Collection

The Cask Trials

53 Years OldSingle Grain Scotch Whisky
House of Hazelwood
ABV: 49%
BOTTLING: Independent
STYLE: Single Grain
REGION: Lowland
PRICE: £3,800
AVAILABILITY: 303 bottles, online and selected specialists

Nose: Amarena cherry, fresh blackberry and cacao. Intense pear drop, boot polish and honey-coated granola with chocolate flakes. Almost no detectable nose prickle – you’d never guess this was nearly 50%.

Palate: Intense and concentrated, but light in body. At first, dark chocolate and sour cherry, sweetening to cherry cola, then cocoa-dusted, roasted almonds. Treacle tart and a little espresso. This gives way to some sweet cereal notes, like puffed rice and wheat flakes. Only the merest tingle of alcohol – it’s silky smooth.

Finish: Medium-short. Intense cocoa and somewhat creamy – like a very intense chocolate milkshake.

Comments: Distilled in 1968 and matured for 53 years in a single European oak sherry butt. Filling grain spirit into sherry wood may seem extravagant to us today, but over half a century ago there were far more ex-sherry casks in use for whisky maturation than is now the case and the cask in question would probably have had a previous filling of whisky.

The First Drop

58 Years OldSingle Grain Scotch Whisky
House of Hazelwood
ABV: 42%
BOTTLING: Independent
STYLE: Single Grain
REGION: Lowland
PRICE: £3,000
AVAILABILITY: 71 bottles

Nose: Delicately perfumed. Desiccated coconut, then the fragrance of gentian liqueur (like Suze), jasmine, dandelion and burdock. Peppermint oil and menthol bring some weight, with mandarin zest notes. Bass notes of dried lime and pencil shavings.

Palate: Light. Pear drop at first. Creamy butter icing, coconut oil, and vanilla essence are joined by delicate lemon zest. Subtle bitterness and delicate tea tannins balance icing sugar sweetness. A little frosted corn flake.

Finish: Medium. The frosted corn flake gives way to green apple core.

Comments: On 8th January 1964, the initial distillations of new make spirit were filled to cask at Girvan grain distillery, and this bottling comes from the earliest cask to be filled. Girvan Technical Lead John Ross recalls that “Charles Gordon’s real passion was spirit quality and each year we would have a quarterly review about the development of our spirit quality. It was never about the status quo with Charles but simply how we would improve the quality through innovation. That said much about him.”

Blended at Birth

56 Years OldBlended Scotch Whisky
House of Hazelwood
ABV: 47%
BOTTLING: Independent
STYLE: Blended
PRICE: £4,500
AVAILABILITY: 192 bottles

Nose: Grapefruit zest, mosaic hop, capaicum and five spice (particularly clove and anise). Underneath, there’s brown sugar, sticky caramels, and some milk chocolate. Real honeycomb and fresh figs, too. Some pine needles, cypress wood and juniper, too.

Palate: Medium. Intense and almost fizzy, with safflower and cranberry. Sour red apple notes sweeten with time on the palate. Fresh juniper berry, orange zest oils, and mosto cotto sweeten to bittersweet burnt caramel.

Finish: Medium, on caramel sweetness. The pine note lingers retronasally.

Comments: Back in the 1960s, it was not uncommon for distillers to fill a blend of new make malt and new make grain spirit directly to cask, in the interests of efficiency. In the case of William Grant & Sons Ltd, such a blend would usually be sold in the USA at three or six years of age. This bottling contains a number of grains and malts, the identities of which have been lost in the mists of time.

The Long Marriage

56 Years OldBlended Scotch Whisky
House of Hazelwood
ABV: 48%
BOTTLING: Independent
STYLE: Blended
PRICE: £4,000

Nose: Intense over-ripe pineapple, dried mango, cocoa, and malted milk. Cinder toffee, too. Dunnage aromas, pot pourri (rose petals, particularly) and ripe passionfruit. Delicate leather and cedarwood, with unlit cigar and charred stave.

Palate: Intense and cordial-like at first, with sourness of under-ripe blackberry balanced by brown sugar. Then comes lime leaf, candied lemon, gooseberry jam, and cocoa-dusted pecans. Some maple syrup and crispy candied bacon, Mellows on the palate to charcoal, milk chocolate and malted milk.

Finish: Medium-short, on malted milk.

Comments: Distilled in the mid-1960s and blended three years later, this blend has matured in two American oak hogsheads for well over half a century. Bottled as a single cask release, this is described by House of Hazelwood as “One of the rarest whiskies within our inventory.”

The Legacy Collection

The Tops

33 Years OldBlended Malt Scotch Whisky
House of Hazelwood
ABV: 51%
BOTTLING: Independent
STYLE: Blended Malt
PRICE: £1,450
AVAILABILITY: 523 bottles

Nose: Sweet and sour notes of prunes in syrup, dried figs, baked red apples, raisins, lemon juice and Vinagre de Jerez. Cinnamon stick, clove, muscovado sugar, and plum liqueur. Kirsch and toffee sauce. Pine sap, cedar and leather. Stewed strawberries and blackberries, then liquorice stick.

Palate: Full. Core notes of toffee apple are joined by bitter espresso, then quickly into liquorice, and zesty marmalade made with grapefruit, orange and lemon peels. With time on the palate it sweetens considerably, with the core notes becoming predominant. Retronasal aromas of cedar, verging into subtle oud. Then prune and roasted almond.

Finish: Medium-long, the nuttiness fades and leaves fresh blackberry.

Comments: A blend of ‘the best of the best,’ top malt whiskies from the inventory that are highly prized by blenders and used very sparingly over time. Aged in casks seasoned with oloroso sherry.

The Spirit of Scotland

46 Years OldBlended Scotch Whisky
House of Hazelwood
ABV: 43.6%
BOTTLING: Independent
STYLE: Blended
PRICE: £1,200
AVAILABILITY: 500 bottles

Nose: Old, polished oak furniture and ‘bibliochor’ (the smell of old books). This is a mix of vanilla pod, old leather, and blanched almond. Manuka honey, heather and very ripe red apple. Some candle wax and shortcrust pastry. Milk tea with tapioca pearls with brown sugar.

Palate: Medium. A medley of dried bananas and red apples, with over-ripened strawberry, blackberry coulis, dark chocolate, mixed nuts (roasted almond, peanut), and medjool dates. There’s sultana sweetness, and very subtle retronasal aromas of mint leaf, rose and lavender.

Finish: Medium-long. On dates, peanut and red apple. Simply superb.

Comments: A blend created in 1994 to mark the 500th anniversary of the earliest recorded reference to Scotch whisky in the 1494 Exchequer Rolls of Scotland. At the time, 500 bottles of this 18-year-old blend of Girvan grain and Speyside malts were produced, but the rest remained in the cask for another 28 years.

Sunshine on Speyside

39 Years OldBlended Malt Scotch Whisky
House of Hazelwood
ABV: 42%
BOTTLING: Independent
STYLE: Blended Malt
PRICE: £950
AVAILABILITY: 500 bottles

Nose: Milk cookie, coconut flakes, Marshmallow Fluff, and pear drop. Ripe mango and citra hops. A mixture of fruit sherbets: raspberry, lemon, lime and orange. Somewhat chalky. Subtle pine needle, menthol and tea tree oil.

Palate: Immensely creamy, with tart citrus — like a lemon-lime-flavoured milkshake. The zing of lemon sherbet and pineapple. Sweet maltiness, like Horlicks, and frosted rice puff cereal. Almond sponge with lemon syrup and vanilla icing. Then some cherry bakewell notes (icing, glace cherry, almond sponge), shifting into mixed boiled sweets: apple, lemon, and rhubarb and custard.

Finish: Long, on malted milk and lemon boiled sweet.

Comments: Distilled in the early 1980s, this blended malt was created from the contents of four hogsheads, and the identities of the malts in question remain undisclosed. Notable for its unusual ‘Refresher’ fruit candy notes.

The Lost Estate

43 Years OldBlended Grain Scotch Whisky
House of Hazelwood
ABV: 41%
BOTTLING: Independent
STYLE: Blended Grain
PRICE: £1,200
AVAILABILITY: 500 bottles

Nose: A fragrant blend of tropical fruits (especially ripe papaya and pineapple), vanilla pod, whipped buttercream, and mandarin segments. Sawn oak and subtle pine needles bring some resinous and woody notes, but the heady citrus of dried lemon keeps things quite fresh.

Palate: Medium. Immensely sweet and creamy, like eating Chantilly cream, with lemon boiled sweet, a touch of Bisongrass and baked red apples. With time on the palate, icing sugar and fresh green apple emerges, alongside very subtle fennel.

Finish: Medium-long. Fades on vanilla, apple skin and fennel.

Comments: An extremely rare blend of grain whiskies from two now-silent distilleries, aged in extended – or ‘enlarged’ – casks. At the time of distillation, most bourbon barrels were imported to Scotland as ‘shooks’ (batches of staves). Master cooper Ian MacDonald explains that, “Enlargers are barrels expanded by adding additional approximately 8-10 staves to make them into ‘dump hogsheads’. New ends are fitted along with new hoops.”

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