Back in 1961 Douglas Mackessack, descendant of the Grant brothers who established Glen Grant distillery in 1840, met Italian businessman Armando Giovinetti who was visiting Speyside. So impressed was Giovinetti by Glen Grant that on his return home he began to import the single malt, leading to a firm friendship between the Italian and Mackessack and a long-standing love affair between the Rothes distillery and Italian whisky drinkers. Italy soon becoming the leading export market for the brand.
This served Glen Grant well for many years, and indeed in 2006 Gruppo Campari of Italy purchased Glen Grant from then owners Chivas Brothers for €115 million. Glen Grant was inextricably linked with Europe in export terms, so what befell its fortunes when the Eurozone crisis hit and whisky sales began to plummet in the worst affected nations?
While other distilleries across Scotland are working at full capacity or actively increasing capacity is there tumbleweed blowing across the courtyard at Glen Grant?
Actually, far from it.
Glen Grant is headed by the highly respected and apparently ageless figure of Dennis Malcolm, who was born on the site in 1946, when his father was employed as a stillman and where his grandfather had also served as a mashman and stillman before him. Malcolm Jr began working there as an apprentice cooper at the age of 15. Even by Scotch whisky standards, that counts as fairly remarkable!
Subsequently employed at The Glenlivet, Strathisla, Longmorn and Balmenach, Malcolm was lured back to Glen Grant by Campari after their acquisition of the distillery, and despite more than half a century in the industry his energy and enthusiasm remain undimmed, as he embraces new energy - efficient technology and even bottling - more of which anon.
Dennis Malcolm is quick to give the lie to the tumbleweed theory, while noting that "Glen Grant has declined in Italy for the past seven or eight years, having been selling 500,000 cases per year in the 1970s and early '80s and now approximately 340,000 cases."
This was largely due to Chivas Brothers' laissez faire attitude to the brand prior to its sale in 2006. Their focus on Glen Grant was as a blending malt, with the five Year Old being pretty much left to its own devices in Italy.
"When Campari bought Glen Grant they began to spend money marketing it," explains Malcolm, explaining that while Italy remains the malt's leading market, France has grown into the second largest, accounting for 23 per cent of volume sales in 2012, compared to 14 per cent during 2006, while Italy has fallen from 61 per cent of sales in 2006 to 43 per cent during 2012. France now takes some ¾ million bottles per year, while in terms of volume Sweden ranks third for the brand.
"In Switzerland, Glen Grant is likely to be the best-selling Scotch single malt in the near future," declares Malcolm, "and Germany has grown by 32 per cent. South Africa is also thirsty for Glen Grant and the USA favours the 16 Year Old expression. We were never big in countries like Spain, which were worst hit by the economic crisis. Overall growth under Campari has been five per cent during the period from 2006 to 2012, with new and diverse markets being developed as Italy has declined."
Dennis Malcolm notes that "The Major's Reserve (with no age statement) and the 5 Year Old are our two big runners," explaining how their prevailing style is shaped in part by the distillation regime. "The wash stills have what you might term a 'German helmet' to them, which helps to keep the spirit 'clean'; that is it helps prevent a build-up of solids from the fermented wash. The stills are fitted with purifiers, which work all the time, and they create a huge amount of reflux, which gives the spirit a comparatively light and delicate character.
"Of the spirit we make, the split is 50/60 for our single malts and for blending. We have two major blending customers, one of which is Chivas Brothers. We fill 150 first fill sherry hogsheads per year, and the remainder of the make goes into ex-Wild Turkey Bourbon barrels. We only ever use casks three times for single malts, and our five warehouse staff fill 10/12,000 casks per year."
In 2009, eleven dunnage warehouses with a total capacity of 65,000 casks were purchased from Chivas and £3.5 million was spent refurbishing them. For the past two years a 17,000 cask racked warehouse has also been rented from the renowned coppersmiths company of Forsyth. This stands on the opposite side of the main road through Rothes to Glen Grant, and was formerly part of Caperdonich distillery, built in 1897 as 'Glen Grant Number 2', and demolished by Forsyth's after their acquisition of the site in 2010.
As well as guaranteeing future maturation space for Glen Grant spirit, another major development at Glen Grant distillery was the creation of a bottling hall during 2014. Anyone expecting to see a bijou operation, with staff hand-filling and sealing bottles would be in for a surprise.
"We spent £5.5 million on the bottling hall," says Malcolm, "and if that's not proof Campari is behind the brand, I don't know what is. The equipment is from Italy, and the bottling line can handle 12,000 bottles per hour, or four to five million bottles per year."
In a move unique to Glen Grant, the distillery's seven production employees have been trained to run the bottling hall, with Dennis Malcolm noting that "They bottle for an average of 14 weeks per year, and the rest of the time the distillery is working flat out. We are currently producing 3.8 million litres and bottling, but if we took on staff just for the bottling hall it would free us up to go for potential capacity of just over six million litres per year."
Malcolm explains that "Chivas used to bottle for us under contract, but Campari like to keep things in-house, and the change to own bottling has given us a quicker route to market and means we can control our own destiny. Also, outside bottlers can see what volumes you are bottling and where you are sending them, and often they are your competition!"
Glen Grant is well-known for the quality of its visitor experience, which includes beautifully restored Victorian gardens, complete with a 'dram safe' beside the burn where Major James Grant used to keep whisky to refresh visitors, and a heather-thatched 'dram pavilion' in which to drink it.
Anyone making the trip to Rothes to spend time at the distillery is now rewarded not only with a 'pour-your-own dram' service at the end of the tour, but also the opportunity to buy a bottle of 'Distillery Edition' Glen Grant, only available at the distillery, and varying in age from batch to batch.
The dynamism at Glen Grant exemplified by the in-house bottling venture extends to new expressions of the single malt itself. Although Glen Grant has traditionally been bottled while still youthful, principally to suit Italian palates, 10, 16 and 25 Year Olds are now part of the permanent range, and last year Five Decades was launched.
On 14 March 2014, 150 bottles of an 'in-house' 50 Year Old Glen Grant hit the shelves, each with a retail price of €10,000. What makes the 50 Year Old all the more beguiling is the fact that Dennis Malcolm personally filled the single cask in question during 1953!
Glen Grant Five Decades 46% ABV
Floral on the nose, with orange blossom, peaches and caramel, while the palate is softly spiced, with sherry, salted caramels and pears. Relatively long and sweet in the finish, with vanilla and a hint of cinnamon.
Glen Grant 50 Year Old 54.4% ABV
The nose offers rich sweet sherry, toffee, fruit creams and finally plain chocolate. The palate provides full-on sherry, ripe cherries, baked orange and abundant Christmas spices. The finish is long, slightly musty and mouth-drying.
Malt: unpeated - Optic and Concerto
Mashing: full-lauter mashtun 12.28 tonnes mash
Fermentation: 10 x wooden washbacks - 60 litres each. 48 hour fermentations
Distillation: 5 wash stills, 15,000 litres charge Five spirit stills, 11,000 litres charge