History

A reluctant whisky hero? (Bill Smith Grant)

Bill Smith Grant wasn't meant to inherit The Glenlivet. But as Iain Russell reports, his bold business decisions once he did revolutionised the whisky and made it famous
By Iain Russell
Bill Smith Grant didn’t intend to become a distiller. His father, George, had stipulated in his will that Bill’s elder brother John should inherit The Glenlivet Distillery on his 25th birthday, in March 1914. Bill was destined to farm a few hundred acres, or perhaps become ‘something in the city.’ Then came the First World War… Both John and Bill were officers in the Territorial Army, and they rushed to join their regiments when war was declared on Germany in August 1914. John became a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Scots and fought in the trenches in France, before joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and rising to the rank of Flight Commander.When he was wounded in action for a second time, in May 1918, he was sent to a military hospital at Doullens in France. He was undergoing surgery in the operating theatre when it was bombed by German aircraft, and he was killed along with the surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses who were tending to his wounds.Bill served with the Gordon Highlanders on the Western Front, and was wounded in action in 1915. He returned to his unit and fought at the Battle of Arras in 1917, when he attacked an enemy machine gun nest and destroyed it with hand grenades.He won the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty,” but he was seriously wounded in the engagement and invalided home. On his 25th birthday in 1921, Bill became proprietor of the distillery that had been founded by his great grandfather, George Smith, in 1824.Inevitably, Bill’s character was profoundly affected by his war-time experiences. The battle-hardened veteran took a no-nonsense, unsentimental approach to business, but he felt a keen sense of duty and care to the distillery’s 50-odd employees, many of whom were fellow veterans. The 1920s and early 1930s were difficult years for independent whisky distillers.Prohibition virtually closed the lucrative United States market and the large British blending companies slashed their orders for fillings of single malt whiskies. Bill did his best to keep up morale in the remote Banffshire glen, helping to resurrect The Glenlivet Highland Games and assisting with the laying out of a new, nine-hole Glenlivet Golf Course behind the distillery.But orders for The Glenlivet remained disappointing and Bill came up with a novel way of increasing demand for his product, reducing his dependency on the blenders, and safeguarding jobs. He decided to promote his whisky as a single malt.Blended Scotch whiskies had become enormously popular since the late 19th century, and by the 1920s it was rare to find bottles of single malt for sale outside Scotland’s traditional distilling areas.However, Bill was certain that The Glenlivet, one of the most famous names in the industry, could spearhead a revival.He employed a Glasgow firm to bottle The Glenlivet, and began distributing it in the United Kingdom in the early 1930s: customers included the exclusive White’s Club and the International Sportsmen’s Club in London. As soon as Prohibition ended in 1934, Bill began to search for business partners in the United States.Only a few hundred cases of The Glenlivet were shipped to the USA during 1934, but annual sales increased nine-fold during the remainder of the decade.The famous Pullman Company began to stock two-ounce miniature bottles of The Glenlivet in its restaurant cars, on trains which carried Americans across the country on business and vacation trips.The single malt acquired a loyal following on the special Blue Ribbon trains that operated on the most important inter-city routes. With demand soaring, it looked as though Bill was on the brink of establishing The Glenlivet as America’s first popular brand of single malt Scotch. But then came another war… The Second World War wrecked Bill’s ambitious plans, as shortages of materials in Britain and the disruption of maritime trade forced him to cease shipments to the United States in 1940. When the war ended five years later, his problems remained.American clients were keen to resume business and the Pullman Company practically begged for fresh supplies of miniatures for their restaurant cars.However, Bill no longer had the stocks of 12-year old whisky that were required to meet his customers’ requirements, and indeed had made no whisky at all during the 1943-44 season. The Americans had to make do with a paltry 3,000 cases a year.The post-war shortage of The Glenlivet did nothing to harm its cult status. Customers included Hollywood actors such as Yul Brynner and Robert Taylor. Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese Nationalist who became President of Taiwan, kept a stock to offer to visiting dignitaries.Some cases were reserved for the great Transatlantic liners, the SS United States and SS America, to serve to the rich and the famous on their voyages between the Old and the New Worlds. In 1953, Bill released a limited edition of Coronation Glenlivet, a special bottling of whisky distilled on the day of King George VI’s coronation in 1937 and bottled to mark the coronation of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, in 1953.This was one of the world’s first ‘limited edition’ bottlings of a single malt Scotch, and only 3,600 bottles were distributed among friends and special customers. One case was reserved for the officers who served aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia.Although the vast bulk of The Glenlivet was reserved for blenders, the accumulation of more aged stocks during the 1950s allowed Bill to ship greater quantities to the USA and to begin re-building a market for the brand there. Other distillers, most notably the Grants of Glenfiddich, had also begun testing the American market, but by the mid-1960s Whisky legends 48 | WHISKY Magazine | Issue 54 The Glenlivet still accounted for more than 50 per cent of all the bottled single malt whisky sold there. It has remained in fierce competition with Glenfiddich ever since. Bill was a tall and powerfully-built man, with the natural air of authority of an ex-army officer.He was invariably photographed in his old Hunting Grant tartan kilt and his Highland Brigade tie, often with a cigarette in hand and a grumpy look on his face – he disliked big fuss and was uncomfortable giving interviews.His plain-speaking would cause palpitations in a modern public relations department. He grumbled when American customers insisted that they must have 12- year old The Glenlivet, complaining that the distillery’s 10-year old was just as good.He told Time Magazine he was horrified at the American custom of drinking Scotch with ice, soda or water. When asked what made The Glenlivet so distinctive, he refused to deliver the usual marketing ‘patter.’ “There’s nothing secret about it,” he told one journalist. “It just comes out like that… I think it’s 99 per cent the water, and a certain fiddle faddle in the manufacture.” But he didn’t explain what sort of ‘fiddle faddle’ was involved – Bill was no fool!Bill Smith Grant died in 1975. He was never meant to be a distiller, but he became one of the most famous figures in the whole whisky industry.To many people, he was the pioneer of the single malt Scotch whisky revival and did more than anyone to prepare the ground for its remarkable success in the USA.