It’s never too late to start a new career. William Grant was already 50 years old when, in 1886, he built the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown. William Grant & Sons is now the largest and one of the few remaining family owned blended Scotch whisky companies. From humble beginnings do such empires grow; Grants now produces 5M bottles a year and is the world’s third largest producer of Scotch whisky, distilling some of the world’s leading brands including Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky (the world’s number one single malt), Grant’s Blended Scotch Whisky (the world’s number four Scotch) and The Balvenie range of single malts as well as other premium spirits including Hendrick’s Gin, Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum and has recently acquired Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey.
The site at Dufftown was chosen because of the water from the nearby Robbie Dhu spring, still used today in the production and cutting of the whisky. Like Bordeaux, whisky is all about the blend; whereas Bordeaux blends varietals and plots each vintage to create the best wine possible, Whisky blending is all about consistency. For example the Grants Family Reserve blend uses 25 different whiskies to maintain this consistency. Brian Kinsman is only the 6th master blender to work at Grants and he was trained with the 5th, again consistency. He has been with the company for 17 years, although you wouldn’t know it to look at him; whisky obviously has similar anti ageing properties to Red Bordeaux!
This notion of consistency is important to the family. The 5th generation are now running this, the largest family owned spirits company in Scotland. They are justly proud of this heritage and it is central to their philosophy, reflected in their commitment to quality, their attention to detail, and a policy of reinvestment not just in their products and in the place but in their staff. It gives them a long-term view and a respect for sustainability.
But nobody is taking anything for granted here, respect for tradition hasn’t stopped innovation, or perhaps it’s the spirit of William Grant that encourages it. Until 1963, everything produced in Scotland was blended and even now, 90% of Scotch Whisky is blended. Glenfiddich was the first ever single malt, it was also the first whisky to offer cask finishes in 2001 and they were the first distillery to open their doors to the public in 1969.
They now welcome over 100k visitors every year to discover the distillery and Malt Barn bar and restaurant that serves local specialties (that includes locally made Haggis). They are constantly re investing.
We were lucky enough to be hosted at Torrin, a beautifully renovated old workers’ cottage overlooking their smaller neighbouring Balvenie Distillery. Local workers using local products have created a home here that perfectly reflects their notions of hospitality and sustainability; particularly the talents of master carpenter Paul Hodgkiss.
The Auld Alliance is a theme I’ve touched on before, unsurprisingly, as France is one of the largest Scotch markets in the world, and also as we were there to taste the first batch of a cask aged whisky finished in Cerons (sweet white Bordeaux) casks from Chateau du Seuil. As you will know, the use of new oak for ageing in Bordeaux, is an expensive choice, many properties age red wine in up to 30% new oak with some of the top growths using up to 100%. With whisky, things are different. They use casks (they seem to change from barrels to casks when they cross the channel) from all over the world, the thousands of barrels in the ageing warehouses are all shapes, sizes and colours reflecting their origins, be it Spain, Portugal, USA or France, making for a very different impression to the neat and tidy lines of barrels we are used to seeing in Bordeaux cellars.
Here, when they talk of new casks, they mean wood that has been previously used for ageing something other than Whisky: wine, sherry, bourbon, etc. whereas for us new oak is, well, new! Some of the casks are aged to order in Xeres for the distillery.
They are one of the rare distilleries to have their own on-site cooperage that allows them to recondition and re-toast barrels. Again, their definition of toast is not the same as ours; they flame their barrels, charring them rather that the mild toasting we are used to. So much so that some of the black char can be seen when they decant the whisky from the barrels during ageing. No photos of that I’m afraid; they were too concerned that a flash of a camera might ignite the strong concentration of alcohol in the air. This angels share, the part of the alcohol that evaporates through the wood during ageing, makes us look like amateurs in Bordeaux when we talk about 5 -10 percent lost to evaporation and racking. After ageing for 40 years there might only be the equivalent of 100 – 120 bottles in a whisky cask. They don’t top up here either, unlike wine, the Whisky will not be adversely affected by oxidation. There is so much Whisky in the air around the distillery it encourages the growth of a specific fungus on the trees that turns them a rather sinister black!
The parallels and contrasts in wine and whisky production, be it blending, the use of wood or ageing, is fascinating, the choices made reflect a passion for quality, an attention to detail and a respect for heritage that I see in both in Bordeaux and Scotland. It’s a successful blend and the proof is in the tasting, as with the blend of Scotch Whisky and French oak in the Cerons cask finished 20-year-old Glenfiddich; another successful example of the auld alliance.