The Grant Plan: Take A Tour Of William Grant & Sons Distillery
Whisky? Scotland? Summer? I did hope that a quote I’d heard, “I love summer in Scotland. It’s my favourite day of the year”, was a quote and nothing more. This hope had been dashed on my last two visits to Scotland, with vivid memories still in my head of shooting clay pigeons in pouring rain. However, during my first trip in 2007, standing on a rain sweptpier one day with a glass of single malt in my hand did make me appreciate how much whisky meant to the Scots, particularly when dealing with their weather.
My previous trips had also helped acquaint me with the matter of fact relationship Scots had with their whisky. Although the Scotch whisky industry has made enormous strides over the years in perfecting its craft, and coming out with more and vivid expressions, it all boils down in the end to a pale golden liquid, beckoning to you from a glass. And how you drink it, as countless whisky gurus have told me over the years, is completely up to you, a fact I was reminded of as I was watching the classic Bogart movie, The Big Sleep, on the way over. “How do you like your brandy?”, Bogey was asked. “In a glass”, was his curt reply.
With Bogey’s words ringing in my ears, we were off and away from Glasgow and speeding our way to a resort in Ayrshire, famed for its links courses. The Turnberry dates back to 1906, when it opened its doors as the world’s first golf resort. The main building is a gorgeous Edwardian structure, with sweeping views over the bay to the Isle of Arran, and in the near distance, you see the Ailsa Craig, a formidable volcanic island jutting out in the Firth of Clyde, whose blue hone granite is considered ideal for the manufacture of curling stones. Before we get to the Turnberry, however, it’s only proper, as we’re on a whisky voyage, that we stop and pay tribute to Robert Burns at his birthplace cottage in Alloway. We park, walk over to the cottage and remember Scotland’s national poet, who wrote frequently of Scotch whisky.
After a pit stop at the Turnberry, we’re on our way to the Girvan distillery, owned by our hosts, William Grant & Sons. A company with its origins dating back to the late 19th century, William Grant is a rarity in the Scotch whisky industry, in that it is family-owned and run. Its founder, William Grant, spent many years working in a distillery, and was seized by the ambition of creating what he called “the best dram in the valley”, eventually building a distillery which he named The Glenfiddich (Gaelic for ‘valley of the deer’) with his 7 sons and two daughters, with the first drop of spirit emerging from the stills on Christmas Day in 1887.
As the story goes (and there are enough stories to go around in the Scotch whisky industry), Girvan has its roots in whisky history. When William Grant & Sons were refused supplies of grain whisky, they decided to set up their own state-ofthe art distillery at Girvan, a project spearheaded by Charles Gordon, a great grandson of William Grant. He was determined, like his grandfather before him, to have the first drop of whisky flowing from the stills by Christmas day of 1963, and promised all the workers a large ration of whisky to help them meet the deadline, which they did. As a tribute to Charles, who used to cycle everywhere, they then welded his cycle to the top of one of the cooling towers of the distillery.
Grain whisky is of critical importance to the Scotch whisky industry, as any blended scotch (like Grant’s Family Reserve) is a blend of a grain whisky and a range of single malt whiskies. As a blender once described to me, if a blended scotch could be compared to a painting, then the grain whisky is the canvas, while the single malts are the brush strokes, wielded by the painter. With the proportion of the blend often ranging between 60 per cent grain whisky to 40 per cent single malt, it’s no wonder that the Grant family saw fit to have their own source of grain whisky, and thus was born Girvan, which supplies grain whisky not just to the Grant family of blended whiskies but also to several other major blended Scotch brands.
Our first port of call at Girvan, however, is a small building, tucked away in a corner of the sprawling estate, where a modest lady called Lesley Gracey weaves her magic. You wouldn’t think it, but this is where every single drop of Hendrick’s, a super premium gin, is produced. It’s one of (if not the gin) which gave birth to the gin renaissance we’ve seen over the last few years. A slow burner, with its launch in the early 21st century, it was carefully nurtured largely owing to the fact that William Grant & Sons remains a family-owned business, with an eye on the long term.
It’s distinct from most other gins, due to the fact that apart from the usual mix of botanicals (botanicals are the names given to the herbs, seeds, roots, berries and fruits which are used to flavour gin), it has a unique infusion of rose petals and cucumber essence, with Charlie Gordon of the Grant family playing a large role in emphasising the importance of incorporating flavours which would pay tribute to the English origins of gin. That’s not the only connection of the Grant family to Hendrick’s. It’s also believed that the name comes from the name of the favourite rose tender of Janet Sheed Roberts. Janet was, until she died at the age of 110 in 2012, the last surviving grandchild of William Grant, and also, at the time of her death, the oldest woman in Scotland.
Three large copper stills dominate one end of the shed, and one length of the room is taken up by large, handsome wooden chests, each one of which houses the botanicals which are used in Hendrick’s. These botanicals hail from all parts of the globe, with the juniper berries from Macedonia and the coriander from eastern Europe. A table, all laid out for our initiation to Hendrick’s, occupies the centre of the room, and what Lesley proceeds to do for the next half hour or so is to deconstruct for us, with grace, energy and humour, the piece of art that every bottle of Hendrick’s is.
The first of the copper stills we see is called the Bennet still, and first up for us is a taste of the distillate from this one. A distiller always has a favourite child, and for Lesley that would be the Bennet, dating back to 1860, which she has promised to take home with her when she retires, even refitting her garage if need be. The exploding demand for Hendrick’s over the last few years led them to create a replica of the Bennet in 2014, a still called the Carrick Still, which is the last of the three stills in the room.
Our next taste is of the distillate from the Carter Head Still, which dates back to 1948, with a taste profile very different from the first one. As Leslie explains, when it comes to Hendrick’s, it’s the output of the Bennet Still which forms the core of the distillate, with the Carter Head output forming a frame around that. The Carter Head still has a long neck, and is distinguished from the Bennet still in the fact that, as opposed to the Bennet (where the botanicals are added to the spirit), the botanicals are placed in an external basket, through which the alcohol vapour is passed.
To create Hendrick’s, these different distillates are mixed together in a ratio, and this is what we taste next. Both distillates are technically, at this time, what is known as the most popular style of gin the world over – London dry gin. It’s what happens next that transforms Hendrick’s into what is known as distilled gin to gin geeks. A word of caution from Lesley before our next sample – do not, under any circumstances, taste. What we are doing is to separately nose the rose and cucumber essences, which are added to the distillate separately. This is extremely concentrated, and hence her warning – those foolhardy enough in the past to have given it a taste have found their palate numb for a while.
Our penultimate tasting is of the output of the three stills combined, along with the rose and cucumber distillates. This distillate is what goes on to be diluted multiple times to create what we finally know as Hendrick’s, so this is very much like tasting Hendrick’s on speed, and accordingly has an intensity of flavour which burns through our senses.
Coincidentally, this particular baby (the Hendrick’s recipe) also took 9 months to create, says Lesley, and it’s this, the final product, which we taste, the Hendrick’s which we’d drink if we bought a bottle. There’s tonic available for those who want it, and Hendrick’s has also become a darling of cocktail-inclined bartenders, but Lesley’s go-to serve for Hendrick’s is with elderflower cordial and soda, a serve I ask for when we’re dining in Edinburgh, raising a toast to her skill and taste.
We return to the Turnberry, from where we walk down to the Turnberry lighthouse, and then back again to head out for dinner. The next morning, we have an early start and are back on the road to Girvan, where our agenda can be stated in one word – whisky. The scions of William Grant were quick to turn adversity into opportunity. An early instance was in 1899, when a big blender, who used to purchase Grant’s single malt whisky, went bankrupt. Faced with the loss of this crucial customer, Grant decided to start blending whisky himself, and released the blend we now know as Grant’s Family Reserve in 1903, a blend which has now grown into the 3rd largest selling blended Scotch in the world.
Charles Gordon, who was married to Isabella, daughter of William Grant, was the company’s first ever salesman, and a very good one at that – it was just that it took Isabella to make him a great salesman. Frustrated after visiting 180 establishments without clinching a sale for the new brand of William Grants, he recounted this to Isabella, who had a simple piece of advice for him – “Get them to taste it”, and lo and behold, that’s what he did with the 181st establishment, which led to success and an overflowing order book from then on.
By now, we’re well ensconced in one of the warehouses on site at the Girvan distillery, where special permission has been taken from the excise officials (Whisky Trivia – Robert Burns was once an excise official too!) for us to do a tasting onsite. Health and safety regulations require us to wear hard hats and fluorescent jackets at all times, and we make for a colourful group as we gather around the barrels, where the whiskies are laid out for our tasting pleasure. Our host is Rohan Bhardwaj, William Grant brand ambassador in India. It’s an especially exciting tasting to be a part of, because a couple of the whiskies from the range we are tasting, are not yet available in India.
The first whisky we taste was born from a stroke of inspiration on the part of David Stewart, the previous Grant master blender, now the Malt Master at The Balvenie and one of the most respected names in the Scotch whisky industry. Observing how people often like to have a shot of whisky with a beer chaser on the side, Stewart decided to make a version of the Family Reserve blended Scotch by giving the whisky an ale cask finish (finishing, or secondary maturation, involves re-casking of the whisky in a secondary cask via the influence of a particular type of cask / wood). Thus was born the William Grant and Sons Ale Cask Finish (part of the cask editions of William Grant and Sons), with a bright blue label, which I particularly like.
The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) however stipulates that only a traditional cask must be used for “finishing” a whisky (that is, one that has historically been used to mature Scotch whisky), and was loath to give sanction to this process of finishing the whisky in an ale cask. David was, however, saved by one of the Master Coopers in their onsite cooperage, who swore an oath to the SWA that this was not without precedent, and that in his youth as a young cooper, he had also come across other whiskies which had been finished this way. We all owe a great deal to that cooper, as the Ale Cask finish was without a doubt one of the best blends I’ve tasted. Smooth and sweet, it didn’t have the usual spiciness of a blend, and the taste profile appealed to me.
The lack of spiciness in the Ale Cask was more than made up for by our next taste, which was of the Sherry Cask finish (also part of the Cask finish range). A green label on the bottle also helps distinguish this blend from the others. The finest Oloroso sherry casks from Jerez in Spain are used to finish this whisky. The casks, apart from lending the spicy flavour, also give a lovely, warm finish to the whisky.
Our next taste is that of the stalwart of the range, the Grant’s Family Reserve, a truly superlative blend, as good with water as it is in a Manhattan, and a winner of the Best Scotch blend at the 2013 World Whiskies awards, a gold medal in the 2011 Scotch Whisky Masters and a Gold in the 2009 International Wine and Spirit competition. A lot of responsibility for a bottle to deliver, and deliver it does. A whisky with a lot of history, this blend dates back to 1903, when it was launched under the name of Stand Fast, the family motto, which has held true through the years, as the Grant family has remained steadfastly family owned. Perhaps it’s coincidence, perhaps not, that 1903 also saw the Wright brothers give wings to man, via their experiments at Kitty Hawk in the USA.
Our last blend is the Grant’s Rare 18 year old, which is finished in a Port pipe. To give some perspective on cask costs, a Port pipe (pipe is the term given to a long barrel with tapering ends) costs around 500 British pounds a barrel, vs. 250 pounds for a sherry cask and 40 pounds for an ex-bourbon cask. The 18yo is a great whisky to mark a special moment with. A splash of water is recommended, but like all the other whiskies, you’re free to have it any way you want. With all that lovely whisky sloshing around inside us, we have Burn’s words from Tam O’ Shanter ringing in our ears as we leave for our next destination.
‘Inspiring bold John Barleycorn [whisky]!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippeny [tuppenny ale], we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae [whisky], we’ll face the devil!’