Distillery Focus

Weathering the storm

Family-owned distillery Glenfarclas isn't flash or fancy, but it's in rude health Dominic Roskrow reports on a good old-fashioned success story.
By Dominic Roskrow
If running a business in the current economic climate is akin to sailing through a storm, then running one selling whisky is like sailing through a gale and trying to refurbish the boat for future voyages at the same time. Every decision taken today is tempered by what might happen in the future. What you choose and bottle now will impact on how much older whisky you have next decade. Plan for a big demand for your malt in 2020 and you have to make an investment in grain and wood this week, affecting your capability to steer through the swells if the weather turns particularly nasty. Point your boat towards new horizons and you risk being stranded far from your home port. On the bridge of the good ship whisky it’s one challenge after another... should we go for a single cask bottling? An array of manager’s choices; a very old and ridiculously expensive super premium release; non aged expressions; peated malt from our normally non-peaty distillery or vice-versa; or perhaps an extensive range of special wood finishes? How about the lot then mateys? Aye, aye captain. The economic seas may be choppy but without doubt we’re being tossed between the clichés ‘we’ve never had it so good’ and ‘there’s never a dull moment’ as the producers of our favourite malt search for the most fertile fishing spots for them.With some notable exceptions.Take a look at the HMS Glenfarclas, for instance, and you’ll find her in the eye of the storm, sailing steadily ever onwards, a clear trail showing where she’s travelled from and her eyes firmly placed on the horizon. A beacon of serenity in a crazy world.Glenfarclas doesn’t do trends. It doesn’t chase whims or follow fashion, and it doesn’t try and predict the future. It’s as if the Grant family who have run it for five generations worked out long ago the best course to take, and have doggedly followed it ever since, remaining fiercely independent, battening down the hatches when necessary and ignoring industry observers, doom-sayers and self-styled experts who dared to suggest that their approach was out-dated oldfashioned and redundant.There’s nothing glam or glitzy about Glenfarclas, and there’s nothing glam and glitzy about the distillery. If you approach it from Craigellachie you come across the sign for it in a stretch of open farmland. It doesn’t particularly look like a distillery on first impression and as you pull in to the car park there’s a sense of timelessness. It all seems laidback, unhurried, unfussy and traditional. First impressions can deceive,however, and the visitor centre, a sizeable airy and open plan room, is the first indication that this is no small scale operation. It’s not in the same league as The Glenlivet along the road, but it’s no boutique operation either, its big stills capable of producing three million litres a year. And it needs to, because according to George Grant, because sales are buoyant. Those economic storms might be raging but Glenfarclas it seems, is set fare. “Certainly the recession does not seem to be affecting the whisky industry too badly and certainly not Glenfarclas,” he says. “I think it will be very difficult in the United Kingdom next year but we are seeing healthy sales in some emerging markets and there are signs of recovery in America and across Europe. Even in Spain we have seen signs of recovery. “This year visitor numbers have been down but we have had terrible weather over the summer, and yet sales overall are up. It has been looking very good.” Glenfarclas is, of course, famous for its sherried and full flavoured whiskies, and if anything justifies the decision by the Grant family to ignore outside advice it’s the fact that the distillery is in rude good health while still peddling a style of whisky that some predicted was no longer in demand in the domestic market. When Edrington launched Macallan Fine Oak, for instance, they said it was in response to a European move away from big, dark and bold flavoured whiskies and a demand for lighter spirits. George Grant stops short of openly scoffing at Edrington’s reasoning and is too polite to offer up a different interpretation of why Fine Oak was launched, but he calmly rejects the view. “What’s going on is very strange,” he says. “There are certainly people who enjoy a lighter whisky and that’s fine, but equally there’s certainly a call for sherried whiskies. “If you look at what GlenDronach is doing its whiskies are heavily sherried and perhaps in some cases, too sherried. “But the way people drink whisky has changed. Maybe in the past people had one bottle of whisky and they were loyal to one style or another but now people will have a few representing different styles and they will move between styles. Sherried whisky is one such style and it still very much has a place.” As far as Grant is concerned, whisky drinkers will always be drawn to good quality malt, and for that reason if you stick to your guns there is no need to chase after potential consumers. It’s why Glenfarclas never went for special wood finishes. “I’ve always felt that if you need to finish a whisky in another style of cask you’re saying you didn’t get it right in the first place,” he says. “We think that Glenfarclas is as it should be and doesn’t need anything else. To be fair on Glenmorangie it did something new and different and it brought a whole new generation in to whisky. But once everyone started to copy it there were some really awful whiskies.” That’s not to suggest that Glenfarclas is above doing something different and attention grabbing. Back in 2007 the Grants released the Family Cask series, a collection of single cask releases spanning 43 consecutive years from 1952 to 1993. This year it launched a new 40 Years Old – at about a third of the price of many other 40 Years Olds. “The Family Cask series has been amazingly successful for us,” says George. “I wanted to do something which would get people to take notice of the whisky and to focus on it a bit and it certainly did that. It got us a huge amount of press coverage and it’s been very successful. We’re just about to do the sixth release since 2007, so that has been excellent for us. “With the 40 Years Old I wanted to put out something which people could afford and would possibly drink and not stare at for 20 years. It’s designed for drinking and if people do want to keep it that’s fine but it wasn’t the original intention. “Glenfarclas has had its share of ridiculously expensive whiskies in the past but this was different. I didn’t want a situation where I put this malt in a Lalique vase and then the distributor adds his 30 per cent and then the wholesaler adds 30 per cent and then the retailer adds 30 per cent and suddenly you find you’ve got £2000 for the packaging alone. There’s no expensive packaging with this and as a result it suits bars because they end up just throwing the packaging away anyway. “There’s upwards of 20 bars in the United Kingdom alone able to offer this. And there has been a tendency in recent years to just drink one or two drams of something really good rather than drinks large amounts of something cheaper.” The issue of bars brings us on to the encouraging signs that there is a distinctive internet-savvy and computer literate 20 something year old generation discovering whisky for themselves and in their own way and are adopting single malt as a badge of honour.“There are very encouraging signs of an interest among younger drinkers,” George says.“I was approached by someone recently and he was asking me about Glenfarclas and he seemed to know everything there was to know about the distillery.“So I said to him ‘this is incredible. How do you know so much about whisky?’ He replied: ‘Because my dad drinks vodka.’ It’s an indication that there’s a generation coming through whose fathers didn’t drink whisky and they’re discovering it for themselves.” It’s not all good news for George, however.He’s been trying to cut back on the travelling a little but the way things are that’s looking like a forlorn hope.“Sales are very good in several markets,” he concedes. “So much so that I think we are going to have one of our best years ever.” No rest then, but all is shipshape on HMS Glenfarclas, and the wind is in its sails.