Distillery Focus

Unique name, Major distillery (Glen Grant)

Ian Buxton visits the picturesque and constantly surprising Glen Grant distillery in Speyside
By Ian Buxton
One of Glen Grant’s more obscure claims to fame is its name. After all, it should logically be called Glen Rothes, after the small Speyside town where it is to be found.And it does have first claim on that title, having been founded nearly 40 years before the distillery that actually carries the name.And, carrying on with the logic, either Glenfiddich or Glenfarclas might have called themselves Glen Grant if they had seen fit. So what’s it all about? Well, simply good old family pride.Glen Grant was founded in 1840, by John and James Grant who had been distilling at Aberlour since 1832. Deciding to move to Rothes and build their own, more substantial operation they elected to put their own name on the bottle.What greater guarantee of quality than for a man to put his own name on the products he makes and sells? Yet, surprisingly, Glen Grant is the only single malt distillery named in this way.Grant, of course, is a common name in these parts and other Grants were behind Glenfiddich and Glenfarclas (and remain so to this day). They were no relation, however, and so we can be grateful that they chose a more self-effacing approach to their packaging.John and James Grant’s confidence was to prove well-founded. They invested consistently in Glen Grant, installing electrical power ahead of their competitors and expanding the distillery in 1865.James Grant’s son, also James but known to all as ‘the Major’, took over the business in 1872 on the death of his father. It was a fortuitous moment to inherit a distillery as the late Victorian whisky boom was just building up and many years of bumper profits were to follow.In 1887 the Major responded to the apparently limitless demand for whisky by building another distillery just across the road, prosaically naming it Glen Grant Number Two. Today, we know it as Caperdonich. It’s still there but has seldom been in regular production and is available only in hard to find independent bottlings.In 1888, more innovation. The restless Major opened the first mechanical drum maltings in the Highlands. These ran until 1971, when malting ceased and, today, all the malt (unpeated to preserve the delicacy of flavour for which Glen Grant is noted) is supplied by specialist firms.Apparently indestructible, the Major lived to 1931, reaching the grand old age of 84. He had long outlived his sons and his three daughters; perhaps intimidated by their autocratic parent, were not involved in the distillery.Nothing daunted, in 1929 the Major summoned his grandson Douglas Mackessack and installed him as managing director.Along with the title, the new md received board and lodging under Major Grant’s roof but, as the company’s history records, no salary.Notwithstanding this, Douglas Mackessack built up the business, no doubt paying himself along the way. His leadership lasted for nearly 50 years, interrupted only by a long period of captivity as a Prisoner of War. Fittingly, he returned from the Second World War also bearing the rank of Major.In 1978, however, the family connection came to an end. Lacking the capital needed for major expansion, the business was sold to its best customer the Seagram Company, this reflecting the enormous success of Chivas Regal.Today, Glen Grant continues to be an important component of this bestselling blend.Seagrams, of course, have disposed of their distilling interests and today the distillery the Grants founded is part of the Pernod Ricard empire.However, the Grant influence remains strong and, from the boardroom to the visitor centre, evidence of the family’s life and work is everywhere to be seen. Take the gardens for example. It’s said that the first Major Grant liked to entertain.Strolling from the elegant Glen Grant House (now sadly demolished) he would lead his guests from the terraces into a small ravine formed by the distillery burn and up to a little waterfall. There he had cleverly concealed a safe at the waterside, containing glasses and a bottle. Drams would be served and water drawn right from the burn. The way passed through a spectacular garden, with fruit and flower beds, lawns, a kitchen garden and extensive greenhouses.At its peak, 15 gardeners maintained it in glorious profusion and fecundity but after the First World War it fell into disrepair and eventually became overgrown.Many distilleries have pleasant enough surroundings, with neatly trimmed lawns and well tended flowerbeds. Glen Grant, however, has painstakingly restored the Major’s pride and glory and it’s a highpoint of any visit. You can still stroll through the carefully manicured grounds, imagining a procession of elegant Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen and ladies of leisure, pause at the pavilion and savour your Glen Grant in the clear Speyside air. It’s not to be missed when you call in at the attractive little visitor centre and shop.Well, enough of the Alan Titchmarshes.It’s time to go indoors, and see what makes Glen Grant one of the best-selling single malts in the world, as well as a hugely important part of the Chivas blends.This is, of course, a substantial operation and, I’m happy to report, planning to be in full production in 2005. That means around 51/2 million litres of the distinctively delicate, fruity, floral spirit will emerge from Glen Grant’s four pairs of stills.They’re notable for the presence of uniquely large cylindrical purifiers on the end of the lyne arm. Before the spirit can reach the condensers it has to pass through these vessels, which are designed to let only the lightest and most ethereal vapours proceed onwards. Heavier spirit, trapped by a series of copper plates, is returned to the stills.The result is that Glen Grant is delicate in flavour and this is reflected in its pale colour. Certainly this is true for the best selling expression, a non-age version that’s hugely popular in Italy. It’s been a runaway success there since the 1960s, following some pioneering marketing by Milanese hotelier Armando Giovinetti, encouraged by Douglas Mackessack.Elsewhere you can find a 10 year old bottling, with limited United Kingdom availability and exclusively at the distillery there’s the Cask Strength Edition, sold in 50cl bottles.Around one-third of the production is laid down as single malt, a staggering volume when you consider the distillery’s size. With its pale colour and delicate taste, this isn’t a single malt that fits the prevailing fashion for heavier and more aggressive styles.It’s not to be overlooked, however. As a component in a blend it adds refinement and subtlety. As Alister McIntosh, master blender for Chivas Brothers, comments: “Glen Grant brings quite a distinctive character to a blend and is both different and complementary to the more traditional fruity, estery Speyside malts.”The new make is soft and fruity, with a slightly grassy or hay like nose and hints of malty bread-making. At six years old the key flavour and taste notes have started to show more clearly: my study begins to fill with delightful aromas of citrus fruits; dry, slightly oaky or spicy hints and overtones of almonds.A12 years old ex bourbon barrel sample is still ghostly pale, but a fat rolling spirit, heavy with candied peel, creamy butterscotch and layers of vanilla that dance gracefully over the taste buds. It’s chewy, without losing grace or balance, punching way above its weight and I return time and again to its smoothness and dry citrus finish. I find myself envying the blender fortunate, indeed, he or she who acquired this cask.Finally, an older sample is produced: 20 years in the wood, but with its provenance not declared. Adarker colour is suggestive of the extra age, but the nose offers up more surprises: a hint of smoke (where did that come from?) and some oaky aromas give way to floral notes (rose pot pourri) and even hints of ginger.The taste, even at cask strength, is sublime: this Glen Grant is deep and mellow, soft, rich and fruity. It seems capricious to add water but, thankfully, it reveals more fruit notes, toffee sweetness and an even longer and more complex finish, with dying waves of oak, wood smoke and dried fruits falling away for minutes after I have put the glass, reluctantly, to one side.All of this character is hinted at in the standard expressions but, for enthusiasts, best captured in the Cask Strength Edition, sold exclusively at the distillery visitor centre.There you can also see a small exhibition on the history of Glen Grant and step into a recreation of the Major’s study in Glen Grant House. It’s full of Victorian memorabilia, including a poignant memento of his oldest son, also James.Against his father’s wishes he trained as an engineer with the Great North of Scotland Railway and a model locomotive he built takes pride of place in the little room. Later he travelled to India, where he died as a tea planter aged just 22.Elsewhere, the Grant personality still pervades the offices. The Major’s portrait dominates the boardroom and a glass case displays a cabinet of curiosities collected by him on his African travels.It’s fitting really. Shakespeare would have us believe that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ but I’m not sure. John and James were, I feel, right to ignore convention when they proudly named their distillery – Glen This, Glen That or Glen Theother. This could only be Glen Grant.Contact
Glen Grant Distillery,
AB38 7BS
Tel: +44 (0)1542 783 318
Fax: +44 (0)1542 783 306
Opening times:
Open April – October,
Monday – Saturday 10am – 4pm
Sunday 12.30pm – 4pm