Kirsten Grant Meikle: From fine wine to William Grant & Sons

Kirsten Grant Meikle: From fine wine to William Grant & Sons

There were good odds on Kirsten Grant Meikle entering the drinks industry – but she has taken no part of her remarkable journey for granted

Interview | 13 Jun 2023 | Issue 191 | By Bethany Brown

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Edinburgh, 1998. Kirsten Grant Meikle, 23, is in the kitchen of her father’s house with two friends who are visiting from South Africa. The friends begin to quiz father and daughter – they want to know about the world of Scotch whisky from two members of an industry dynasty that began with William Grant and the foundation of the Glenfiddich Distillery more than a century earlier. But there’s a problem.

“It was at that point that I realised that I didn’t actually know that much about any of it. I remember thinking how embarrassing that was,” Kirsten Grant Meikle muses in 2023, reflecting on the incident. “My dad brought out three bottles from his sideboard, and lining them up, he began an impromptu tasting, much to the delight of my visiting friends. We tasted Grant’s Standfast, The Balvenie 10 Founder’s Reserve, and a Glenfiddich Pure Malt. That was my very first whisky educational session.”

For Grant Meikle, this was the moment that sparked a prosperous career in the drinks industry, and eventually brought William Grant’s direct descendants back to the Scotch whisky company that took his name.

Despite his family history, Grant Meikle’s father didn’t work in the whisky industry, or even live in Speyside. He left the region in the early 1970s to study architecture in Edinburgh, where he then settled. Grant Meikle says her father was on good terms with the company – she remembers him attending a celebration for its 100th anniversary in 1986 – but that they were “a bit removed” from it. A connection to the drinks industry was retained through her father’s involvement in Edinburgh’s Leith Brewing Company, and later through city pubs in which he had an interest.
In young adulthood, the hospitality industry called. She took a job running the cloakroom at The Caves in Edinburgh, owned by former Scottish rugby internationalist Norrie Rowan (she was friends with his daughter, Lisa, who also worked at the Old Town venue). From here, she progressed to bar work in Glasgow for her cousin, Jonathan Grant, co-owner of venues including Bar 91 and Farfelu.

The Glenfiddich Distillery. Credit: William Grant & Sons

After a trip to Australia, she came home to study business in Edinburgh, but returned to hospitality after graduating. This path led her to a manager’s position at Ecco Vino in Cockburn Street (still in business today), a role and venue that sparked a keen interest in wine. “[I] spent a lot of time educating myself as much as I could with supplier trainings and learning from the owner, Derrick Sutherland,” she explains. It was a conversation with one of these suppliers, wholesaler Matthew Clark, which got Grant Meikle her first job in the drinks trade, as a sales rep for Edinburgh working across beer, wine, spirits, and soft drinks. For the knowledge-hungry young professional, it was a perfect role. “It was a fantastic learning [experience] for me, a great company to work for, and they were really supportive of my desire to learn."

Over her seven-year career with Matthew Clark, she rose to the position of wine range controller and took her level 4 diploma with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Unexpectedly, it was through her viticultural education that she reconnected with her genealogical whisky roots: she spent time talking with and learning from her uncle Charles Gordon, William Grant & Sons’ late chairman, who eventually asked her to join the family firm in 2010. (She has, however, retained her passion for fine wine.)

She speaks very highly of her uncle, who was named lifetime president of William Grant & Sons in 2008 after five decades with the company, and his brother, the late Sandy Grant Gordon, who helped bring Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky to the world and led the family firm for almost 30 years until his retirement in 1996. Although idiosyncratic, even eccentric, in the way they worked, the brothers are credited with turning William Grant & Sons into the global force it is today. They stood firm against acquisition during mass distillery buy-outs by drinks conglomerates in the latter half of the 20th century, while simultaneously building a diverse portfolio of spirit brands and bringing their products to previously untapped markets in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Charles Grant Gordon at the Girvan Distillery. Credit: William Grant & Sons

Grant Meikle says, “Both Charlie and Sandy Gordon were without doubt some of the biggest game changers in the Scotch industry, both in terms of vision and instinct but also in terms of being well ahead of their time in their thinking. They were innovators – young men in an industry that was dominated at the time they took control by a much older establishment. They had both new ideas and the confidence to test them.” She says the brothers’ contrasting personalities – Charlie’s instinct to push and drive forward, and Sandy’s moderation and tendency toward longer-term thinking – gave them the informal nicknames of ‘The Accelerator’ and ‘The Brake’. She believes this philosophy has informed the development of one of the company’s newer brands, House of Hazelwood, a collection of highly aged whiskies laid down by generations of the Gordon family and named after their ancestral Dufftown home, Hazelwood House.

In joining William Grant & Sons in 2010, Grant Meikle became the first direct member of her family to work at the company since her great-grandfather, Captain Charles Grant. The youngest son of William Grant, he parted ways with his father’s firm in 1920 to buy the GlenDronach Distillery, which remained in Grant hands until its sale to Teacher & Sons in 1960; the acquisition also gave the nickname ‘Glendronachers’ to his branch of the family. Research by William Grant & Sons archivist Andy Fairgrieve found that, “In his own words, [Charles] was not bookish or academic like his brothers; he craved adventure and to make his own way in the world.” Yet another person in the Grant-Gordon dynasty who harboured the desire to paddle their own canoe. Grant Meikle recalls a family-history book, The Life and Times of William Grant, by Francis Collinson: “[It] refers to Captain Charles and some of his quirks, and when I read this originally, I did indeed think how familiar some of them sounded.”

Since joining the company, it’s fair to say that Grant Meikle has made her mark – and her professional journey has been horizontal as well as vertical. In 13 years with the business, she’s had an estimated seven different roles (she admits she’s lost count), including head of on premise strategy, director of prestige, US commercial strategy director, and most recently in the procurement team. “It is very important that the next generation of the family has a strong holistic understanding of the business to ensure independence and strong leadership well into the future,” she says. “I have learnt so much and I am still learning every day, from everyone I meet both internally and externally across all functions, departments, and markets. I am sure my headstone will read my favourite phrase: ‘Every day is a school day’.”

Indeed, with the pace of change and innovation at a company such as William Grant, particularly in its core whisky stable, it’s best to keep your learning hat on. Recent developments include the promotion of Kelsey McKechnie to malt master at The Balvenie, who took over from her mentor David Stewart following his retirement at the end of 2022 after six decades with the distillery. Meanwhile, House of Hazelwood is finding its footing with whisky enthusiasts, collectors, and consumers. It’s a brand particularly close to Grant Meikle’s heart. “One of the most exciting aspects of this for me is seeing our family business get back into the world of really top-end blends, which is a fascinating space – much loved by whisky writers but largely unexplored by collectors,” she enthuses. “It was my uncle [Charles Gordon] who first really pioneered the growth of the single malt category with Glenfiddich, so there would be something poetic if our family also played a role in driving a renewed focus on blends at the top of the market. And that focus is certainly overdue – the liquids we have been able to release from the family’s inventory through House of Hazelwood are truly out of this world.”

A bottle from the House of Hazelwood whisky collection. John Paul Photography

Glenfiddich, the highly awarded jewel in the company’s crown, has not been slacking either. Fresh off the bottling line is the 29-year-old Grand Yozakura: launched in March, it is the fourth release in Glenfiddich’s limited-edition Grand Series, which has already seen the release of 20-somethings Gran Reserva, Grand Cru, and Grande Couronne. Then there is the Time Re:Imagined series, a trio of luxury single malts that combines highly aged whisky with high-concept design. Priced from £930 to £35,000 at launch and presented in bespoke sculptural packaging, the series comprises the 30 Years Old Suspended Time, 40 Years Old Cumulative Time, and 50 Years Old Simultaneous Time (the latter is understandably the rarest of the three, with only 220 bottles made available). Another 2022 release, the travel retail-exclusive Perpetual Collection, gave an international showcase to the distillery’s solera vatting process. Unique among Scotch whisky producers, the distillery installed its solera vat in the late ‘90s and has since used it to create whiskies including the 15 Years Old Unique Solera Reserve.

Grant Meikle is one of the more outward-facing members of the current administration, fulfilling an ambassadorial role at brand events and speaking about her family’s firm and her own journey in publications from drinks and travel titles to Esquire. And this public profile is put to good use outside the office, too. She plays a particularly active role in the Worshipful Company of Distillers – she sits on the livery company’s Court and a number of subcommittees, and in 2022 became its representative on the board of the WSET, replacing International Wine and Spirit Competition CEO Allen Gibbons. The latter appointment enables her not only to champion the organisation she trained with, but also to share her passion on the importance of education – both formal and informal – for newer entrants to the drinks industry. Overall, Grant Meikle seems incredibly proud to be on the front line of her family's business, supporting present growth and laying foundations for the future (the sixth generation of the family has already entered the business behind her).

Although the gender balance at the top of Scotch whisky is starting to tip, Grant Meikle is still in the minority as a woman who has held a senior position in a company the size of William Grant & Sons. However, she takes an attitude toward her gender that could serve industry decision makers well in their pursuit of greater equity – she doesn’t really think about it that much. “I am not sure that gender has anything to do with my own personal values,” she says, while conceding that some may disagree with her on this point. “I have worked hard both in and out of the family business, educated myself, taken advantage of all opportunities, and learnt from those around me. I believe in giving back by being a good person and supporting others to help them grow their own careers and aspirations, either inside or out of the William Grant & Sons business and even the industry.”

This whole story would not have happened were it not for those friends who expressed their curiosity about whisky back in that Edinburgh kitchen 25 years ago. If, during the course of her career, Grant Meikle can pique that same interest in others, who knows how many other leading lights could be switched on.
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