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The Italian job

Gavin D Smith heads to Speyside to discover what's going on at Glen Grant
By Gavin D. Smith
On 1st May Glen Grant distillery will host the Opening Dinner of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in its newly-created £500,000 visitor centre. Described by distillery manager Dennis Malcolm as “a very impressive, state-of-the-art affair,” and developed in the old distillery coachman’s house, this facility epitomises the way in which Glen Grant has long combined tradition with innovation.The world’s third-largest malt whisky brand began life when Glen Grant distillery was established in 1840 by brothers John and James Grant, and it was the first distillery to be built in what subsequently developed into the distilling centre of Rothes.“The founder James Grant was involved in developing the railway network in the 1850s,” notes Dennis Malcolm, “and he installed a water turbine to generate electricity for the Grant mansion and distillery.I believe this was the first electricity north of Glasgow.” In 1872 the distillery was inherited by James Grant’s son, also James, and frequently referred to simply as ‘The Major.’ He was an archetypal, Victorian Highland laird and shrewd businessman who oversaw the continuing growth and prosperity of Glen Grant whisky.Among The Major’s achievements was the development of Glen Grant’s ground-breaking woodland garden, which remains popular with visitors on the Malt Whisky Trail today.It was planted with new and exotic species not usually to be found in the north of Scotland, and equipped with a ‘dram safe’ in the rocky bank of the burn which flows through the distillery grounds.Acentury after ‘The Major’ inherited Glen Grant, family ownership was a thing of the past, and Glen Grant became part of the Canadian distilling giant Seagram Company Ltd in 1977, ultimately passing to Pernod Ricard in 2001.However, Pernod was forced to sell Glen Grant by the European Union’s competition authorities as a condition of its takeover of Allied Domecq in 2005, and the following year innovation was again the watch word at Glen Grant when it became the first Scotch whisky distillery to be owned by an Italian company.The Campari Group spent 115 million Euros purchasing the Glen Grant business, with a further Euros 15 million going on the Braemar and Old Smuggler blended brands.One of the Milan-based organisation’s first and shrewdest acts was to recruit Dennis Malcolm to manage their new acquisition.To use a Scottish phrase, Malcolm was ‘in with the bricks’ at Glen Grant, having been born in a distillery house on the site where his father was a stillman and where his grandfather had also served as a mashman and stillman. Malcolm started work at Glen Grant in 1961 as an apprentice cooper, going on to manage Glen Grant and neighbouring Caperdonich between 1983 and 1992, before ultimately being ‘poached’ by Inver House Distillers to manage its Balmenach distillery in December 1999.Malcolm was tempted back to Glen Grant in April 2006 when Campari did its own spot of poaching. “I came back to my roots,” he declares, “and I’d still have come, even if they’d offered me half the money, but don’t tell them that!“Campari bought the distillery in March 2006 and they also bought about five year’s worth of stock, that’s all there was, so since we got it we’ve been working to build up stocks. We’re now working ‘24/7’ and aim to produce 5.8 million litres per annum (mla) in 2008. We did 5.6 last year. Now, with Campari, the world is our oyster. When I came, the only place in the UK you could buy Glen Grant was at the distillery shop!” Glen Grant currently sells around 350,000 cases internationally each year, and Malcolm observes that “Campari bought Glen Grant because it wanted a really good spirits brand. Glen Grant has a huge following in Italy. In terms of volume it’s the leading single malt Scotch in the country. However, we are limited in how much we can grow until the increase in production.” The Italians like their Glen Grant young, and the expression currently available in Italy is a five-year-old, while the parallel product for the rest of the world carries no age statement. “We got an improved presentation for the version with no age on it in the UK market last year,” notes Dennis Malcolm. “The bottle’s slimmer and the label is better.” The 10-year-old expression is next in line for a makeover, while the first ever ‘house’ bottling of a single cask, cask-strength Glen Grant took place in 2007. “We plan to do this sort of thing every year or so, with cask strength bottlings and also older whiskies, too,” says Malcolm. “We recently purchased 71 casks of Glen Grant aged between 15 and 35 years. The marketing people want to launch a cask strength version in Italy and Germany this autumn, and we need 3,000 bottles for that.“We also bought some red wine casks from Sardinia, and we are finishing Glen Grant in a few and we have filled some with new make spirit. It’s like the new visitor centre – continuing the Glen Grant trend for innovation as well as traditionalism.“We are currently filling around 10 per cent of our new make spirit into ex-sherry hogsheads. That gives the 10-year-old bottling its colour. About 50 per cent of our output goes for blending, principally for Chivas Regal, which we supply to Chivas as part of the acquisition deal. The other 50 per cent is being laid down as stocks.” Malcolm makes the important point that “To get spirit that is good at five years of age we have to use extremely good casks. We give bourbon casks three fills, and 58 per cent of our new make spirit each year is filled into first-fill casks. It’s hugely expensive, but it’s the cost of quality.” Glen Grant has long had a reputation as something of a ‘crossover’ malt, an ideal starting point for blended whisky drinkers who want to ease their way into the world of malts. This is due in no small part to Glen Grant’s 10 tall, slender still, which are among the most distinctive in the industry. Dennis Malcolm notes that “The wash stills have what you might term ‘German helmets’ on them, which helps to keep them ‘clean,’ that is they help 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 comparitively light and delicate character.” Certainly, Glen Grant is a very accessible whisky, but, as Malcolm says “I’ve always thought it was something of an unknown gem. It matures beautifully. It’s very dense and complex when it’s matured in a sherry cask. You get fruitiness, nuttiness, Christmas cake and a lovely floral note if you use second-fill sherry casks.” The distillery itself may not have a large inventory of aged stock, but legendary Elginbased independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail does. “We go back a long way with Gordon & MacPhail,” notes Malcolm. “It has bottled Glen Grant from 1948 stock onwards!“Just because our whisky is usually light and young doesn’t mean it can’t grow old very gracefully,” he insists. “I use the Gordon & MacPhail bottling of a 25-year-old from a first-fill sherry butt as an example of this when conducting tastings.” As well as paying attention to the actual spirit, Campari has overseen upgrading of the fabric of the buildings and the famous distillery garden, in addition to creating its new visitor centre.Another development is a £400,000 hot water recovery plant, which Malcolm says not only has environmental benefits but “Is very energy-efficient in gas and also means we can fit in another mash each week, which enables us to get a further 250,000 litres of spirit output per year.” At present there is an arrangement with Chivas Brothers to fill, mature and dump Glen Grant stock for bottling as required, but 11 warehouses in Rothes, capable of holding 60,000 casks, were purchased from Chivas earlier this year to ensure greater future autonomy.Additionally, Dennis Malcolm points out that there are outline plans to double the capacity of Glen Grant to 12 mla by adding eight new stills and associated plant. “If we go ahead and do that it could be in production by spring 2010,” he says.“Campari wants to be a serious whisky player, and apart from their investment in Glen Grant they are always on the look out for other distilleries or brands.” Glen Grant is clearly going places under the energetic direction of Campari and the passionate management of Dennis Malcolm.However, so long as Malcolm remains in charge, innovation will always be accompanied by respect for relevant and meaningful tradition.“As far as I’m concerned, this is my distillery!” he says with a grin, and you would be very hard pressed to find anyone better suited to running it.TASTING NOTES GLEN GRANT (NO AGE STATEMENT) 40% ABV Nose:Soft,slightly dry,with a delicate,fruity note of apple Palate:Creamy,fruity,with a hint of vanilla Finish:Slightly dry and nutty GLEN GRANT 10-YEAR-OLD 40% ABV Nose:Fragrant and floral,with a suggestion of sherry Palate:Sweet,intensely fruity and nutty Finish:Quitelong and soft,with almonds GLEN GRANT CASK STRENGTH (15-YEAR-OLD) 59.8% ABV Nose:Fairly dry and fruity,with a touch of malt Palate:Rich and fruity,featuring peaches, barley sugar and ginger Finish:Medium in length,with persistent spice and lingering fresh fruit GLEN GRANT 25-YEAR-OLD (GORDON & MACPHAIL) 40% ABV Nose:Rich,sweet notes of Oloroso sherry, fruit and honey Palate:Deep,dark,fruit cake flavours Finish:Long and rich.