Distillery Focus

A family affair

John Lamond examines the history of this independent distillery
By John Lamond
Glenfarclas is wonderful – it is truly magnificent! It is firmly ensconced in my top five. But don’t just take my word for it. In 1912, after a rook shoot at Ballindalloch, the great Tommy Dewar tasted a sample of the 1881. He said that it was “The King of Whiskies and the Whisky of Kings. In its superiority, it is something to drive the skeleton from the feast and paint landscapes in the brain of man. In it is to be found the sunshine and shadow that chase each other over the billowy cornfield, the hum of the bee, the hope of spring, the breath of May, the carol of the lark, the distant purple heather in the mountain mist, the dew of morn and the wealth of autumn’s rich content, all golden with imprisoned light.”This is the whisky that we (Tommy Dewar and I) are talking about. The distillery, sitting alongside the A95 between Grantown-on-Spey and Craigellachie, is not quite so gorgeous. My first visit to Glenfarclas was with a small group and we had taken a ‘short-cut’ by an unclassified road from the south across Ben Rinnes’ shoulder. A bone-rattling, twisting journey during which I, and others, wondered if we would ever re-encounter civilisation. Then Glenfarclas hove into sight, a very welcome haven. Alfred Barnard’s journey was similarly difficult. He commented: “all was strange, gigantic and sublime” and talks of a somewhat longer than anticipated journey: “We could see Glenfarclas for miles before we reached it, standing isolated at the base of Benrinnes.”The water supply flows through the peat moss, as it tumbles down the granite mass of Ben Rinnes at the northern foot of which Glenfarclas sits. This causes supply problems if a hot summer follows on from a dry winter: water supplies tend to dry up.A distillery on Rechlerich Farm, by Tomfarclas Wood, was licensed to Robert Hay, a farm tenant, in 1836. Although the distillery was established prior to this date (John Grant, the current chairman has a painting of the distillery dated 1797), this is the first recorded license for the location.John Grant, a farmer and successful cattle breeder (the great-great-grandfather of the present chairman of the company, also John Grant), negotiated a tenancy agreement for the farm in 1865. He bought the distillery from Robert Hay’s executors for the princely sum of £511/19s. This was a hefty price for the time, as demand was on the up in the 1860s and distillery prices were correspondingly high.The distillery was leased to John Smith for five years until 1870, when he established Cragganmore. John Grant, in partnership with his son George, took over the running of Glenfarclas. From then until his death in October, 1889, John developed the distillery, and increased the reputation of its spirit. He was succeeded by his son, George, but only for a year. After George’s sudden death, his widow, Barbara, then became the licensee, with the day-to-day running of the distillery under the control of her two eldest sons, John and George, a recurring theme throughout the Grant family history.John and George set up The Glenfarclas-Glenlivet Distillery Company Ltd. in partnership with Pattison’s Ltd., the Leith blenders. In 1896, in exchange for a 50% share, Pattison’s made a welcome financial investment in the business.The Pattison connection was terminated from 31st December, 1898, when, with the assistance of a £6,132 loan and a mortgage on the property for £21,600 from the Caledonian Bank, Messrs. J. and G. Grant took control of their distillery. Part of their funding came from the sale of a large part of the company’s maturing stocks to R.I. Cameron, an Elgin-based whisky broker. The prudent partners were able to pay back all of their borrowings within eight years and a fiercely independent, family-centred business was born. Their experiences of the involvement of non-family members only served to reinforce the brothers’ independence.Cameron himself capitalised on the shortage of mature whisky stocks created by the closure of many distilleries following the outbreak of the First World War. Aided by the healthy mature stocks of Glenfarclas which he had bought at a knock-down price, he became a millionaire.Even at this time, the Grants were distilling in the months following the harvest then selling their whisky in the summer months and Glenfarclas was not yet generally available as a bottled malt. Until the 1920s, the company sold its whiskies to many of its customers in an octave, a 10 gallon cask. This would sit on the end of the bar and the publican would serve his customers direct from the cask. The traditionalist in me regrets the passing of this custom, but I am certain that Scottish Environmental Health Departments would not allow it to continue today.Despite Prohibition, George, by now running the company on his own and enjoying the brand’s availability in bottles, developed export markets during the 1920s and 30s, including the US.My own connection with Glenfarclas goes back a couple of generations. My maternal grandfather, John Junor, was manager of The Commercial Bank in Dufftown between 1911 and 1918 and became friendly with George Grant. He acquired a taste for the finer whiskies during this period, knowing intimately all of the distillers between Grantown and Elgin. Grandfather Junor was transferred, initially to Callander, then Girvan and finally to Perth. Over this period, he must have kept in contact with George, as he stayed at the Bank House in Perth with my grandparents when he went to the Perth bull sales during the late 30s and the 40s. 1948 was the year of ‘The Party’, a social milestone in the company’s history, an event held in Austin’s Tea Rooms in Elgin. The company (mistakenly) believed that Glenfarclas Distillery had been initially licensed in 1845 and, with the Second World War finally over, George saw this, together with his two sons’ 21st birthdays already passed and his own Silver Wedding (1946), as an appropriate time for a (belated) centenary celebration. After such revelry, sadness followed when, in February, 1949, George died. He had guided the company through a near financial collapse after Pattison and the difficulties of compulsory closure during both wars. He had also overseen the brand’s growth and expansion into new export markets and taken the distillery into its second century. He was survived by his widow and their sons, John and George, both still in their 20s. Like most of the industry, the 1950s was a period of considerable growth for Glenfarclas. The 1880 Spirits Act, which had prevented brewing, or mashing, and distilling at the same time (separating periods of brewing and distillation by a minimum of two hours), was replaced by the Customs and Excise Act, 1952. The 1880 Act effectively slowed production unnecessarily. As the country moved out of a system of rationing, its succession was overdue. The manufacturing industry was under governmental pressure to raise the levels of exports, and thus generate a much-needed boost to the economy. The UK domestic market was permitted to expand in 1951 by 25% over pre-war sales, but this meant that the US, which had developed a seemingly insatiable thirst for Scotch whisky, could only receive 6% more than its 1950 import level. The 1880 Act would not permit any more whisky production. The 1952 Act had the literal effect of doubling production overnight.In the case of Glenfarclas, the timing was perfect. The company had been in the process of reviewing its sales policy and an increase in permitted production would tie in nicely with an increased sales push.Just as things were running smoothly, John, the younger of the Grant brothers, died prematurely at the age of 34, leaving George to steer the company through the turbulent times which were to come. 1959 saw production expand by 50% through an increase in the number of stills. It doubled in 1975 to the present level of 1.3 million litres of alcohol per annum. The stills at Glenfarclas have, for many years, been the largest on Speyside, with the big wash still holding a monumental 6,500 gallons (29,549 litres). Their size and shape, in an industry which abhors change, has remained true to the original 1836
dimensions, or at least since the Grants took over in 1865. On one of my visits in the early ‘90s, the roof was off the stillhouse, with a new spirit still having been delivered some hours before. The snow was swirling around the normally warm space, with the tour guides and tourists pleased, for once, to get out of the stillhouse and back into warmth of the visitor centre. The stillmen were not so lucky.The visitor centre opened in 1973, and incorporates the opulent Ship Room. This is fitted out with the original oak panelling from the First Class Smoking Lounge of the SS Empress of Australia, a liner which plied the passenger routes between the Far East and America from 1913 to 1952.Glenfarclas Distillery engenders long-term family loyalties. Thirty years’ employment with the company is far from uncommon: Eddie Thomson, a recently retired Brewer, had been with the company for 42 years and Annette Tweedie, the Senior Clerk, for 36 years. Her parents, aunts and uncles have worked for the Grants since at least the 1880s.One 19th century connection remains. George Grant, the current Managing Director’s great-grandfather had a brother, William Gordon Grant, who was the first Manager of Aberfeldy Distillery from the latter part of the 19th into the 20th century. His daughter, Christina, was born at Aberfeldy Distillery in 1897 and she celebrates her 105th birthday this year.The bottled range from Glenfarclas has always been one of the most extensive available. The youngest, Glenfarclas 105, is bottled at an indeterminate age (although never less than eight years old), at 60% vol., cask strength. It is very spirity, a touch astringent, with a little oily-oak character and slightly sweet. The finish is quite dry. The next, at 10 years old, is delicately light, round and sweet with a rich liquorice/rubber character, leafy oak, a touch of malty coffee and spice in its tail.The 12 years old is round, medium-sweet and quite full-bodied. Peach, honey, cloves, sweet red apples and beeswax compete in the aroma stakes over a delicate peat note subsumed in the palate by a little spice and rich orange notes. The finish is velvety smooth, with a little smoke at the end. By the time we get to the 15 years old, it’s really showing some class: very intense, full, rich, sweet and creamy with a lusciously unctuous, oily-oak character, a delicate burnt peat character, notes of apples, raisins, demerara sugar and toffee. At 21 years old, Glenfarclas is full-bodied, rich and sweet, with aromas of vanilla and mint. Smokiness is more apparent and it is elegant and long-lasting. The 25 years old is big, ripe, sweet and round with a finely peated touch and aromas of orange marmalade, honey, coffee and a sherry nuttiness. The flavour features gentle chewy oaky tannins and toffee.At 30 years old, it is surprisingly fresh, not as sweet (this is the driest of the company’s bottlings). It is velvety smooth, gently oakily chewy with lemon/honey cough linctus, mandarins, citrus oil, honeyed oak, beeswax and chocolate.The final bottling is 40 years old. Only 600 bottles were produced. Sweeter than the 30 years old, it has good background peat, is full-bodied, rich and buttery with a hint of liquorice, slight honey, clove and dried apricot notes. There is also dark walnut, a hint of turmeric and a creamy toffee note. Fresh on the palate, it has a touch of spice and liquorice recurring in the finish, which is long, complex and deliciously malty.So, now you see why Glenfarclas whisky is one of the nectars of the Gods!