Distillery Focus

Forty not out:

Girvan isn't your normal run of the … er… mill distillery. Ian Buxton paid it a visit
By Ian Buxton
Here’s a curiosity. This article celebrates a distillery you’ve probably never heard of; whose whisky you’ve never consciously drunk and which you can’t visit. It’s a mere 40 years old, located in a region without any recognised distilling tradition and it’s very proud of the precision of its computer control systems.However, it’s also a critical element in the worldwide success story of Scotch whisky and one of the keys to the survival and prosperity of one of the industry’s most ruggedly independent family concerns.Give up?This issue we’re at William Grant & Sons grain distillery at Girvan in Ayrshire, just down the coast from that shrine to golf, Turnberry.Every whisky lover should experience a grain distillery at least once in their lives.It’s essential to understanding the modern industry and a very worthwhile and interesting way to spend some time to boot.Without grain whisky Scotch would never have captured world markets from the middle of the 19th century and, without that, it’s very doubtful indeed if the wide variety of single malts we enjoy so keenly today would have ever survived this far.So we owe the grain distillers several votes of thanks, not least for their vital contribution to blending and the many subtle and beguiling drams conjured up by the magic of the blender’s alchemy.But where does Girvan fit into all this, and why is it located so far from Grants’ traditional home on Speyside? After all, this company’s practice has been to group its distilling interests, with Glenfiddich, The Balvenie and Kininvie all clustered together, surrounded by the family’s extensive farming operations.Well, in a curious way, we have the old Distillers Company (now part of Diageo) to thank for this. Back in the 1960s it supplied much of the industry with grain whisky for blending, generally on annually negotiated contracts (as often as not negotiated in a cosy clubroom somewhere).Grants was a big customer and, with its Standfast blend roaring away, it was vital to secure long term supplies.But whisky was booming everywhere, with a consequent pressure on stocks and new fillings. All the talk was of sustained sales growth, and somehow the idea got about that DCL would be turning off the taps, in favour of its own brands. Grants would be left out in the cold.However, this is not a family or a firm to be under-estimated. Then, as now, it was noted for its rugged independence and it simply determined to build its own grain whisky distillery to secure that future.Except that it had to do it from scratch. In less than a year. And never having produced grain whisky in its history.Well, it was a triumph. Managing director Charles Gordon promptly acquired a derelict World War II munitions factory at Girvan, moved to live on site, hired more than 300 bricklayers, supplied them with over 2,250,000 bricks and, in nine months, opened what was at that time the largest and most modern grain distillery in Europe.In a nod to family tradition, the first spirit ran on Christmas Day 1963 (his great, great grandfather having opened Glenfiddich on December 25th 1887). The Provost of Girvan (Scotland’s equivalent of a lord mayor) declared it “undoubtedly the greatest single event in the history of the town since the construction of the railway.”And why Girvan? Because it faced the Atlantic and was a convenient location, with a deep water anchorage, for the supplies of North American maize that were, then at least, the principal constituent of grain whisky.That North American connection is evident in one of the few Girvan bottlings that you can find. In 2001, Grants produced just 1,200 bottles of the January 1964 filling of that first batch distillation for sale as a single grain.Most will end up, I suspect, as collector’s trophies – which is a shame, for this is a rewarding and richly layered whisky, giving the lie to grain as a bland and pedestrian spirit, fit only to act as the platform for more spectacular single malts to demonstrate their versatility and power.Aged for 37 years, it is of course, a rare experience. For all that time it remained at Girvan, in ex-bourbon barrels. The bourbon connection is immediately apparent, from both the original maize and the wood regime, but after that initial hit of sweetness, the nose opens up to reveal an enticing dark orange marmalade aroma.It drinks somewhat younger than the age would lead you to anticipate, with some older notes of wood and vanilla experienced after a drop of water is added (this was bottled at 48% abv). There’s a toffee sweetness and, according to the official tasting notes, baked apples in the finish though I’ll admit to missing that one entirely.After some years of producing with maize, changes in EC farming subsidies led to a ready supply of wheat coming onto the market and today this forms the bulk of the source material together with a proportion of malted barley.This hasn’t been the only change. Finding the production of grain whisky gave it greater control of its own destiny, Grants has progressively expanded and innovated at Girvan.Today this is a truly impressive enterprise, with everything on the grand scale. The 200 acre site is home to 35 giant warehouses, with around 1.2 million casks stored here. Yes, that’s correct – 1.2 million casks of maturing spirit, enough to supply the entire world’s demand for whisky for around 12 months. I didn’t like to enquire as to the value, but rest assured the warehouses are well spread out and Grants has its own fire brigade.In fact, Girvan is pretty well self-sufficient. A miniature power station supplies the guaranteed continuous electricity that’s vital to the process – and sells its excess production to the National Grid. A sophisticated computer control system ensures low energy usage and rigourous quality control.The process of grain whisky distilling is, of course, very different from the familiar single malt process. For a start, this is a continuous process as opposed to the batch method of a single malt distillery. The resulting spirit is drawn off at around 94.6% abv, considerably higher than in single malt production and it is significantly purer as it goes to be racked.Grants has developed the grain whisky process very significantly in its 40 years at Girvan. The original distilling columns – known, prosaically enough as the ‘No 1 Aps’ (‘number one distilling apparatus’, as christened by HM Customs) – are now redundant, the dark brooding hulk of the still house interior resembling some sinister gothic fantasy by H R Geiger.In their place, the old Coffey system has been developed and overtaken by a five column vacuum distillation method that is more controllable; uses less energy and produces an even more predictable clean and pure spirit.Grants has patented this system and maintains a formidable research and development laboratory at Girvan to continue to innovate in all its processes.The result has been an investment of more than £20 million at the site in the last five years alone and further development and improvement is planned.Some traditional skills, of course, remain. Central to these is the cooperage, again a self-sufficient operation, where the 100 per cent ex-bourbon barrels are maintained. The skills on show here could transfer anywhere in the world of distilled spirits and the quality and craftsmanship of the coopers would compare with any in the industry.The warehouses too, are familiar, if on a gigantic scale – palletised and racked for efficient mass operation. Grants matures a selection of its own and customers’ malts and grains here and a tour of the warehouses is an aromatic tour round Scotland. Here the smoky, peaty notes from Islay gather, giving way to a heavy sweetness as the stocks of Speysiders are revealed. In the still air, the aromas are heady and intoxicating, the sheer scale of the wall of barrels threatening to overwhelm the senses.For all the scale, though, and the innovation and the investment, Girvan remains little known. Odds are, however, that you’ve drunk it, albeit unwittingly.Commercial confidences being what they are I can’t allude to the various customers whose transport we saw, or representatives we met, but from its origins as a determined outsider, Girvan grain has matured to a distinguished member of the blenders’ club and this clean, grassy spirit finds its way into some very well known brands indeed.Unfortunately, you still won’t be able to visit; as a single grain it’s virtually impossible to find (try the distillery shop at Glenfiddich for one of the very few remaining bottles of the 1964 First Batch bottling) and Girvan seems fated to a comparative anonymity.But, after 40 years, the pioneering spirit hasn’t died, and Grants itself remains as resolutely independent and family controlled as it was in 1963. Passing the grand old age of 40 is seen as some kind of rite of passage; as appropriate a time as any to bring this hidden giant to your attention and a fitting reminder that the family motto and blend is, not for nothing, ‘Standfast’.