Smooth operators

Smooth operators

History | 16 Feb 2000 | Issue 8 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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The glass of whisky in my hand is a pale, straw gold with the faint aroma of pears. Its flavour is gentle, understated and above all smooth. So smooth that someone, after probably at least a bottle, was transported to such heights of lyrical fantasy to write, “It slips down the throat like Elizabeth Taylor in velvet trousers.” The mind boggles.We are talking of the world’s biggest-selling malt, the whisky that introduced millions to the pleasures true Scotch – Glenfiddich, the flagship of William Grant & Sons. How that famous triangular green bottle marched south from Speyside in the mid-1960s to colonise the planet is a tale in itself, as is the history of the family behind it.According to legend, in 1746 Alexander, William and Daniel Grant were the sole survivors of a band of brothers who lay dead on Culloden moor after the battle that snuffed out the Jacobite cause. Alexander’s great-grandson was William Grant the distiller, born in 1839. After school he became an apprentice to a cobbler in Dufftown, a place with no less than 12 of them, before going to work at a lime quarry nearby. But after a dispute at the quarry, William found himself out on his ear three years later. As fate would have it, the town’s solitary distillery of Mortlach was looking for a book-keeper and took him on. Married by the age of 20 to Elizabeth Duncan, William soon had several young mouths to feed, and thankfully after a few years he was promoted to distillery manager . But soon a new dream began taking shape – that of starting his own distillery.For a man with nine children on £100 a year it appeared he had gone soft in the head. There was the annual £7 he received as the precentor of the Free Church of Dufftown, plus whatever he could afford from his wage packet, but it looked an impossible task. His success after 16 years of saving was thanks to the frugal good housekeeping of his wife. If “he was all sail”, as one of the grand-daughters later described him, “she provided the ballast”. The big break came in 1886 when Elizabeth Cumming, proprietor of Cardhu distillery, decided to install new equipment. William Grant bought the old copper stills, the tuns, worm and water-mill for £120, and for another £650 managed to construct, with the help of his six sons, a distillery out of stones from the bed of the river Fiddich. The chosen site was a small field below a pair of wells that gurgled throughout the year. Beside lay a burn which could be damned and diverted to power the malt mill, and the effluent could run off into the river below. On Christmas Day, 1887, the first spirit flowed from the stills – 223 gallons of baby Glenfiddich. All William needed now was someone to sell it to.His luck was in – a fire at the Glenlivet distillery had left them unable to supply an Aberdeenshire blender called William Williams whom they thoughtfully directed towards Glenfiddich. Williams bought the lot, and entered into a contract to have sole supply, perhaps reinforcing Grant’s resolve to build another distillery. When a local man from Glen Rinnes attempted to obtain an adjoining patch of land on which to build a distillery, Grant immediately launched a counter-bid to buy 12 acres including the derelict Balvenie House. As with all distilling, control of the water supply was crucial. Had he failed, the other fellow would have had legal rights to half the precious water from the Robbie Dhu spring. What then became the Balvenie, one of 20 new distilleries to be built on Speyside during the 1890s, cost over twice as much as Glenfiddich. Grant picked up what he could second hand including a low wines still from Lagavulin via a Glasgow dealer. A letter from one firm said they did have a mash-tun in stock but that it was deeper than the one specified. On the back a terse note scribbled to his son reads, “Don’t be afraid of depth, a man does not need to piss his pot full unless he likes!” The first spirit flowed from Balvenie in May 1893 and together with Glenfiddich made up the heart of the family’s blends. These were sold as “Best Procurable” and “Stand Fast” – as in “Stand fast Craigellachie” the battle cry of Clan Grant. With Queen Victoria in her dotage, whisky sales were in full spate. There were occasional doubts raised about the scale of the distillery boom in the north, but no one was listening until 6 December, 1898, the day that Pattison, the great whisky wholesaler, crashed through the floor.Somehow Grant’s survived the collapse of its biggest customer, and instead of cutting back decided to expand into wholesaling and blending in order to supply the retailers direct. William Grant despatched his son Charles, and son-in-law, Charles Gordon, to set up an office in Glasgow. With the whisky cellared in the crypt of a church in the Gorbals, an extremely poor and tough district, they set off to conquer the city. After six weeks of knocking on the doors of pubs, hotels and restaurants they had sold precisely three cases. It was not an auspicious start. Despite failing health and losing his sight at the start of the century, William Grant survived until 1923. By the time of his death, aged 83, the company’s blends were being sold from Adelaide to Vancouver. They survived American prohibition and began to thrive in the post-war boom. In the early 1950s Grant’s agent in south west England, Jimmy Green, could afford to travel around in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. On arriving at a pub, the chauffeur would fetch the publican to come and discuss his allocation of whisky in the back seat.By the 1960s the company was suffering at the hands of DCL, the colossus of the industry which kept the price of whisky down for a whole decade in an apparent attempt to choke all competition in the home market. As an example of DCL’s strong-arm tactics, its chairman threatened to withhold supplies of grain whisky on hearing that Grant’s planned a TV campaign. This led directly to the company setting up a new grain distillery in 1963 at Girvan in Ayrshire. Seven years earlier, Grant’s Standfast, its leading blend, had been launched in a radical new bottle designed by Hans Schleger, a pre-war refugee from Nazi Germany. The idea behind the triangular bottle was to imbue the brand with real personality, but others saw added and often unforeseen benefits. Businessmen admired the way it fitted into the newly fashionable slim-line attache case, for others it was the way it stacked more efficiently in the cellar and one woman, for being the only bottle that didn’t roll out of bed! In 1963 the brothers Charles and Sandy Grant Gordon took the momentous decision to sell Glenfiddich outside its heartland of Scotland. To do this they packaged eight-year-old whisky in a green version of the triangular bottle and described it as ‘straight malt’.Now Glenfiddich Pure malt, essentially a five year-old, was the brand leader in Scotland. A confusion developed between the two brands and their pricing policy north and south of the border, so it was decided to retire the cheaper Scottish version. This led to Glenmorrangie stealing the lead, a position it has hardly ever lost, while the English were still struggling to pronounce Glenfiddich. As David Grant, the founder’s grandson, recalls, “There was a lot of treading pavements in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. In the pubs the typical response was, ‘Never heard of it . Never had anyone ask for it’ .“ Yet one of the beauties of building not just a new brand, but a whole new sector in England and abroad was that newspapers and magazines fell over themselves to describe this novelty and how it was made. It hardly mattered whether they mentioned Glenfiddich or just the word malt since the two were practically synonymous. The British market was built bottle by bottle to reach 24,000 cases by 1970. Only a year before the Scotch Whisky Association was still questioning the wisdom of selling malt to the Sassenachs, especially those who pursued sedentary occupations.The philosophy of William Grant & Sons can be summed up in the following ditty, “He that whispers down a well about the goods he has to sell seldom reaps the golden dollars as he that climbs a tree and hollers.’They may not have been the biggest, but by God people were going to hear about them. Apart from paid advertising, the company ran a raft of promotions from ‘Hunt the Haggis’ to ‘Win a Sporting Holiday’. At The Grant’s 1000 Guineas’ horse race, a Surrey civil servant and a police sergeant from Northern Ireland, who had been taken with their wives to the Derby, were given £1,000 to bet. While presenter David Hamilton followed them round the course, Grant’s scooped 17 minutes of free air-time on national TV. Best of all was a brilliantly simple wheeze cooked up by one of the directors. Having talked to various people in the entertainment industry one, Bill Smith, persuaded his firm to bottle a line of Glenfiddich with flat ginger-ale, and deliver it to London’s television studios and theatres. It may not have been whisky but it looked and tasted an awful lot better than cold tea. Given the sophistication of today’s product placement industry, the whole idea seems
charmingly naive.By now William Grant & Sons had formed a separate company with three of the big brewers to try and break DCL’s virtual monopoly of blended Scotch in Britain. Meanwhile, helped by the strong sales through airport duty-free shops, Glenfiddich was expanding overseas where the main competition came from premium whiskies. Glenfiddich has been criticised for withdrawing its age-statement in the late 1970s, for if it is still an eight year-old, then why not call it such. David Grant defends the decision as follows: “The problem was that premium blends were all following Chivas Regal and its 12-year-old age statement. By being an eight-year-old we were being unfavourably compared even though ours was the only malt.” Five years after launching the brand in the UK, Glenfiddich became the first distillery in Scotland to open to the public. For David Grant it was a very important step. “It has helped reinforce the traditional values of Glenfiddich. When people come here they can see the craftsmanship and that it really is a cottage industry.” And yet, with its battery of stills, ten for the wash and 20 for the spirit, it may not be everyone’s idea of a cottage industry. That said their visitors’ centre was soon flattered by imitation throughout Speyside, though none of the others attract anywhere near the 100,000 people who traipse round Glenfiddich every year.All the while Balvenie had been quietly distilling away, its barley supplied in part from the surrounding fields and malted at the distillery’s own floor maltings. The family finally bought the 1,000 acre farm, though the old house had long since gone. In 1973 Balvenie was launched as a single malt in a curious wrap-around label in black leatherette that sounds more kinky than it probably was. Mercifully the packaging was dropped and The Balvenie has won a growing band of devotees for its luxuriant style, “akin to Earl Grey tea” to quote the late whisky writer, Gordon Brown. Then in 1992, having sold Glendronach 30 years before, the family decided it needed more malt and built Kininvie alongside Glenfiddich and Balvenie. There was always a risk that Glenfiddich would fall victim to its own success and so older styles and special finishes have been introduced. World-wide sales are steady at around 800,000 cases a year, and it outsells its nearest rival by a factor of four to one. The standard Glenfiddich Special Reserve may not be the most complex malt, but it seems happier in the mainstream than most. And like the firm itself, it has aged rather better than the velvet-clad superstar we met at the start.
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