Mention the name ‘William Grant & Sons’ and most people think of Glenfiddich. Beyond that, some may think of Balvenie. Inevitably the family-owned distiller’s two high-profile single malt brands and Speyside distilleries take centre stage, but much of the organisation’s most important action takes place far from the company’s Dufftown roots.
The Ayrshire coastal town of Girvan is home to Grant’s grain distillery and bonding and blending facilities, not to mention Ailsa Bay malt distillery, and the rather Roald Dahl-esque set up that is the suitably quirky Hendrick’s gin distillery, known within the company as ‘The Gin Palace!’
The Girvan site covers 380 acres, employs 130 staff, and in addition to its three distilleries, is home to more than 40 warehouses – holding some 1.5 million casks - office functions, a laboratory, blending operation and a dedicated cooperage. This is one of the Scotch whisky industry’s largest integrated operations, and also one of its best-kept secrets. This is principally due to the fact that the company has never been one to shout about many of its activities, although the showpiece Glenfiddich distillery attracts some 70,000 visitors per year.
The creation of Girvan grain distillery, back in the early 1960s, was the brainchild of then Managing Director and now Life President of William Grant & Sons, Charles Gordon. For an emphatically independent organisation, the one chink in its corporate armour was a reliance on external supplies of grain spirit for blending, and with the post-war boom in blended whisky really getting into its stride; supplies were becoming increasingly uncertain and correspondingly expensive.
There was another factor at work, too. Ever innovative, William Grant & Sons had proposed advertising on television, but the mighty Distillers Company Ltd, which pretty much ruled the distilling roost at the time, was firmly against such apparent vulgarity, and threatened to withhold supplies of grain spirit from Grant’s unless they backed down on their intended promotional strategy.
Anyone who has met Charles Gordon will be aware that he is not a man to cave in under such pressure, and instead he began to search for a suitable location in which to build Grant’s own grain distillery.
Eventually he plumped for Girvan, which offered a good water supply from Penwhapple reservoir, proximity to the sea for effluent disposal, a co-operative Town Council eager for investment, and a former munitions factory site which could be acquired for some £25,000.
Demolition work on the old munitions factory began in April 1963, and just nine months later, on Christmas Day, the first spirit flowed from the stills of the grain distillery that rose in its place.
It was a remarkable achievement by any standards, with Charles Gordon taking a very hands-on approach to the project, living on site in a caravan and travelling around by bicycle, overseeing every aspect of the new distillery’s creation.
The production of spirit on Christmas Day harked back to the fact that William Grant’s initial spirit run at Glenfiddich distillery had taken place on Christmas Day in 1887, and in order to match this achievement, Charles Gordon reputedly hired every bricklayer in the west of Scotland and gave away some 1,500 bottles of Grant’s whisky as an incentive to complete the work on time!
Today, the Girvan operation has expanded out of all recognition from that of the early 1960s, but one of the original continuous stills from 1963 survives and remains in use, together with two more recent additions. Along with the vast fermentation vessels, the highly efficient stainless steel stills are housed externally, and each contains almost two tonnes of ‘sacrificial’ copper to help eliminate sulphurous characteristics.
Although most ingredients and practices of grain whisky distillation are relatively similar - nowadays using wheat as the principal cereal, along with a small percentage of malted barley - the Girvan stills are unique in Scotland, because they operate by vacuum, and are able to boil off alcohol at a lower temperature than would normally be the case.
This means that particles of wheat and barley do not stick to the plates inside the still and burn as they otherwise might, a factor which is instrumental in generating the spirit’s citric, floral, fruity and elegant character. It is also considerably more energy-efficient. Some 80 million litres can be produced per annum, which is just as well, as the Girvan ‘make’ is in great demand with blenders outside the company.
If the grain distillery at Girvan is now a well-established part of Grant’s activities and an element of the Scotch whisky ‘establishment,’ the neighbouring Ailsa Bay malt distillery is still a new kid on the distilling block, and its development was ultra-low-key, in classic company style.
The new distillery – a welcome addition to the Lowland category, in geographic terms, if not in stylistic ones - was developed within an existing structure that had previously housed a plant making glucose syrup for the confectionery industry until 2003. Ailsa Bay was created during 2007, with the first spirit flowing on 24th September of that year, which means that Grant’s Master Blender, Brian Kinsman, now has a quantity of youthful Ailsa Bay to add to his blending palette. The distillery took nine months to build, just as the Girvan grain facility had done, more than four decades previously.
Apart from the logistical advantages of siting the new malt distillery within an existing bonding and blending environment, another attraction of the venue was the existence of a deep sea effluent pipe, which had been installed when Girvan grain distillery was built.
“That means you don’t have any of the effluent disposal problems that you do on Speyside,” explains Brian Kinsman.
The eight Ailsa Bay stills were modelled on those at Balvenie distillery, with similar pot size, shape and lyne arm angles. According to William Grant’s CEO Roland van Bommel, Ailsa Bay was created to produce “...a high quality single malt for blending” and up to five million litres can be distilled per year.
Two features of the still house stand out: firstly, a unique, eye-catching octagonal spirit safe, and secondly the fact that one wash still condenser is made of a metal alloy, rather than copper. Introduced earlier this year, it is intended to allow the production of a sulphur-rich spirit, and experimentation with the style is ongoing.
Brian Kinsman also notes the intention to fit a stainless steel condenser on a spirit still, too, allowing for further experimentation. “The whole place was set up to let us to be experimental in ways we can’t be with our more traditional distilleries,” he explains. Some 95 per cent of the Ailsa Bay output is ‘standard’ style, peated to less than 2ppm, while up to five per cent comprises lightly (5-8ppm) and heavily peated (+15ppm) spirit.
Interestingly, Ailsa Bay – named after the distinctive, conical island in the Firth of Clyde which provides granite for curling stones – is not the first malt distillery on the site, as between 1966 and 1975 a now demolished pot still facility made malt whisky for blending purposes under the Ladyburn name.
So what of the blended whiskies which the Girvan site really exists to serve?
Key to William Grant & Sons activities is the Family Reserve blend, described by Brian Kinsman as “A Speyside style blend with a sweet base of grain. Our own three malts of Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie give it its essential fruity and floral style. A tiny amount of peated whisky is also used, helping to add complexity, but it’s not overly smoky.”
In addition to the ‘standard’ Family Reserve blend, the portfolio includes the first two cask-finished blended Scotch whiskies to be introduced to the market, namely Ale Cask and Sherry Cask, together with 12 and 18 Years Old, and the 25 Years Old. “They all reflect the recognisable flavour profile of Family Reserve,” says Kinsman, and in 2008 Grant’s blends were the global fifth biggest seller in the blended whisky sector.
William Grant & Sons has long had a reputation for innovation and technological advancement, and the Girvan site is at the forefront of energy efficiency within the Scotch whisky industry. Some £7.2 million has recently been spent on two anaerobic reactors which convert ‘co-products’ of distillation into electricity for use within the distillery complex and which produces a surplus for sale to the National Grid.
“We operate here 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 51 weeks per year,” says Ludo Ducrocq, global brand ambassador for Grant’s blended whisky, “and Girvan stands as a symbol of our independence.”
Sampling the spirit
Grain ‘New Make’, 94.5%
Clean and slightly sweet, some fruitiness. Fruitier with water. Creamy on the palate, more fresh fruits and mildly nutty. No cereal or sulphurous notes.
1964, 41.9% (Sherry Cask)
Over-ripe bananas, almonds and big, sweet Sherry and molasses notes on the nose. Sherry dominates the palate, over a buttery, stewed fruit and liquorice character. A fascinating piece of liquid whisky history.
‘New Make’, 68.0%
Fresh and fruity on the nose, with quite ripe melon and pineapple. Very soft and clean. Gently spiced malt, nuts and a hint of digestive biscuits on the palate.
Soft leather on the fragrant and floral nose, with developing slightly smoky orange. Sweet and fruity on the substantial palate. Peaches and apricots in condensed milk.