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A maverick state

Can an area steeped in as much tradition as Speyside produce a few true modern mavericks? Neil Ridley catches up with the free thinkers, and the liquid, that have changed the course of thinking in the region
By Neil Ridley
Type ‘maverick’ into any of the world’s most efficient online search engines and the general consensus is that of a lone dissenter; an intellectual and someone who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates.

Unquestionably, the whisky business has historically produced its fair share of freewheeling thinkers and pioneers: Charles Doig and his ingenious ventilator (aka the pagoda roof), Sir Peter Mackie and Speysiders George Smith and William Grant certainly qualify. But modern day mavericks are perhaps a little harder to identify, given the traditions and heritage surrounding the region. Given the nature of the maverick, three names stand out further than most among the undulating landscape of Speyside.


The spirit of independence...


Glenfarclas


For a clear vision of independence, look no further than Glenfarclas and the Grant family. But would the indefatigable George Grant be happy being described as a maverick?

“In my book, I think the fact that mavericks are people who stand alone, then yes;” he explains. “What we do at Glenfarclas doesn’t have to abide by what big companies are doing and saying. We do things the way we want to do them. In terms of production, we’re still operating direct fired stills which is unique for the area but I guess one aspect that’s important to us is that we can turn things around very quickly here, which isn’t something the whisky business is necessarily well known for.”

So because Glenfarclas possesses such operational freedom, does George find it easier for the distillery to get a greater number of creative ideas across?

“Absolutely. We are a small operation and everything we need is here on site. It’s not like we need to email someone to ask for permission to do something – we can make the decision straight away,” he points out. “The perfect example for this happened a couple of years ago with a 1967 cognac cask release. We discovered the whisky in the warehouse and phoned the distributor in Germany. Two days later it was bottled and ready to go.”

One further example of the Glenfarclas way of doing things is a forthcoming release which sees whisky matured for 25 years in quarter casks, which certainly goes against the grain of the traditional use for such small casks and neatly demonstrates Glenfarclas’ commitment to adding unusual releases to their portfolio.

“We bought back 10 quarter casks from a private seller and found that one of them was actually 35 years old;” smiles George. “So we’ve decided to vat them together and release the result as a 25 Years Old. After getting the samples in we were blown away with how it’s turned out.”


The liquid lone wolf...


Ardmore


From purely a liquid perspective one distillery has set itself apart from the rest of the Speyside pack, at the same time courting controversy as to whether it’s actually a Speysider at all.

“We would always consider ourselves as a Highland distillery;” explains Alistair Longwell, distillery manager at Ardmore, “although we’re right on the periphery. I think it was Gordon & MacPhail who first classified us as a Speyside distillery and from there everyone else took their lead;” he laughs. “Michael Jackson always called us a Speyside too. We’ll probably have to pay a supplement to be involved in the Spirit Of Speyside festival now;” he jokes.

Whether or not the organisers will be asking for Alistair’s passport at the opening night remains to be seen, but there’s no denying the status of this distillery, however you draw up the boundary lines. Ardmore doesn’t make a whisky that resembles any of its neighbours’ wares and I’m keen to find out from Alistair whether he feels this marks them out as maverick.

"Ardmore doesn’t make a whisky that resembles any of its neighbours’ wares"


“If you think back to when the distillery was first built back in 1898, by the son of William Teacher, there’s certainly always been a maverick element here,” he points out. From steadfastly eschewing the standard practice of chill filtration (which, ironically, was pioneered by the Teacher family back in the 1920s, alongside the self-opening cork in 1913) favouring a simpler ‘barrier’ method, the distillery also favours extensive use of the less-than-economical quarter casks to mature their flagship release (Ardmore Traditional Cask). All this is before we address the distinct smoky character of the spirit, which the distillery can truly call its own.

“The Teacher’s blend has always been rich in malt whiskies from the area,” explains Alistair. “But the blenders were looking for something peated to define the heart of the blend and Ardmore has been producing continually peated whisky ever since.”

He continues: “If you go right back to the original malting books you can see that Ardmore was always peating to higher levels. Also, we produce a very sweet, malty whisky, with the peatiness on top, which is something our cousins over the border in Speyside have moved away from since the 20s and 30s.”

Of course, to the unsuspecting drinker, any casual mention of the word ‘peat’ is likely to conjure up images of the brooding landscape on Islay, Skye or Orkney. So where does the word ‘peat’ is likely to conjure up images of the brooding landscape on Islay, Skye or Orkney. So where does the Ardmore style fit in to this fairly broad (and smoky) church?

“All our peat is local to the distillery, cut by the Northern Peat & Moss Company in St Fergus, which is about 40 miles away as the crow flies,” explains Alistair. “Aberdeenshire peat is totally different to the more well known maritime peat. It’s much more carbon rich and there’s a lack of sphagnum moss, so you don’t get the iodine/salty hit, which the likes of the Islay malts have in abundance. Our peat has a much more charcoal/burnt ember character, which gives the whisky a dry, sooty note.”


The ideas man…


The Macallan’s Ken Grier


The rolling hills of Speyside would be the last place one would expect to find a maverick thinker with an acute understanding of the global luxury market. Yet Ken Grier, director of malts for the Edrington Group is the man behind the many innovative campaigns that have turned The Macallan from being a respected, robust single malt into a powerhouse distillery with a global reputation.

“The Macallan has always had the DNA of being maverick. In fact, many, many years ago, the distillery was described as having the wild men of the district who worked there,” he points out. “So we’ve always had this reputation for being a little bit different.”

At its heart lies a desire to challenge perception and, as Ken puts it, ‘dare to be different’. From the engagement of leading photographers across the Masters Of Photography releases (Rankin and Annie Leibovitz) to working with renowned perfumers (Roja Dove) as well as a partnership with Lalique crystal, The Macallan have perhaps, like no other Speyside distillery, managed to move the perception of whisky making into the superstar luxury world.

“It’s not only from the campaigns we design or the people we employ, but partly down to the fact that we use sherry casks where others have eschewed them for cost and convenience. But the underlying mantra is all about creating something surprising, clever and innovative – but also beautiful. Start with a strong idea and a great liquid and challenge yourself to do something different and better every time.”

The most recent example of The Macallan pursuing the ethos of the maverick hits new heights for brand associations. The distillery has partnered with the Advanced Product Design team at Oakley (famed for their outdoor apparel) to move the humble hipflask into an entirely new arena indeed. Taking in some of the world’s most advanced structural technologies, the flask looks more like modern day body armour, creating the most resilient hipflask ever devised. The distillery has also shot a film featuring the flask being put through its paces using a couple of super cars ‘playing’ with it.

On one hand, the whole campaign feels so far removed from the rustic, traditional imagery of Speyside, but at the same time, is perfectly in kilter with Grier’s vision for The Macallan as the ultimate word in luxury.

“For me, the most important starting point is what’s at the heart of a strong idea and then how it’s delivered,” muses Ken. “The strength of our business is that we tolerate the mavericks and support them, allowing them to dare to be different.”

So let’s raise a glass to the lone wolfs, the rule breakers and the freethinkers.