Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

Distillery Visits


They are all Grants – in Speyside they are all Grants. The biggest distillery, Glenfiddich,  is owned by William Grant and Sons, Glen Grant was founded by James Grant, and then of course there is Glenfarclas, the property of J&G Grant. None of them were directly related but the area is the home of Clan Grant, so I presume there are a lot of them about. Of those three one, Glen Grant, is now owned by a multinational but the other two are still private companies. Obviously WG&S has innovated and grown to be one of the bigger whisky producers, the other J&G Grant has done something rather more unusual: it has continued on its own sweet way as a single medium sized distillery always controlled by a family member.

Remaining a single distillery company for such a long time is no mean trick, so difficult only Springbank and Glenfarclas have managed it, as the general business rule is usually grow or be devoured. Remaining essentially the same, or expanding modestly is like saying we are happy as we are, so just leave us alone. This is only possible for private companies, usually a family concern, wanting to pass things on from one generation to another, i.e. maintain a tradition. It is completely different for a listed company which always has to be looking over its shoulder at shareholder value and maximising short term returns. Whisky  by its very nature is not a short term business but even so there are take-overs, consolidations, expansions and closures as the market rises and falls. Glenfarclas however seems to be able to ride things out steadily, putting enough stocks by, having continuity, and building on a reputation for making excellent whisky. Somehow Glenfarclas seems solid. You get the sense of a company confident of what it does and with a belief that if it continues to make good whisky everything else will fall into place.

Glenfarclas visitors centreOn entering the visitors centre and the first thing that strikes you is the tartan. OK it is the Grant tartan but even so it shows you that this is a company going full-on with the whole traditional Scotland/tartan/whisky, trope. In general I wish this would stop. If done to excess it is a lazy use of Scottish touristy symbols that can reek of a fusty 1950s gentlemen’s club. But Glenfarclas, remaining constant in its philosophy of staying true to itself goes that little bit further by making the building look like a golf course clubhouse, with historic bottlings instead of trophies in the cabinets.  So we have tartan, whisky and golf – the only things missing are shortbread biscuits and scottie dogs.  There is a place for your clear, crisp designer lines and your metropolitan minimalism, this building says, but it is not here.

Glenfarclas controlsGoing round the distillery I am struck by the contrast to the shiny-new still house of Glenlivet. This does not look like a space ship with the  control desk hovering above on a mezzanine floor. Things are a bit more hands-on, the circuitry comes from a previous era and the slightly grimy, gun-metal grey control cabinet has the look of a Twentieth Century light engineering works. You can see this is a place of work and that is as it should be. The other thing you notice is that the building is not that old. Glenfarclas has obviously expanded its capacity over time – you can’t survive by staying exactly the same. Tradition is about the continuity of values not trying to stop the clock.  The capacity is 3,400,000 litres, solidly in the middle rank of distilleries and just a little less than Aberlour a bit up the road.

When you tour a distillery you look at a number of things like: architecture, location, technical differences (e.g. Glenfarclas has the biggest stills in Speyside); but you are also there for something a bit more vague – a sense , a feel, the atmosphere of the place. This place feels comfortable. And so going round is easy and enjoyable. A lot of that, of course, comes from the guide who is knowledgeable and engaging, happy to answer questions and expand on topics. I have tremendous admiration for people who can take group after group around saying the same things and yet still retain a freshness and enthusiasm for the place and its produce. It makes all the difference. If the guide is merely efficient, you learn little because the principles of making whisky are always the same, however if the guide has a genuine interest in both their own product and whisky in general, there are always things you pick up. Sometimes it is not necessarily a piece of information; it might be the way  staff interact. Here it was the way she talked about John and George Grant and their close involvement, nothing  revelatory, but it made you realise that the company is close knit and it is all based here. With most other distilleries it is not the case because, obviously, they are part of a larger group.

So back to the visitor’s centre for the tasting. The reception area might look  like a modest golf club but the tasting room has a different atmosphere, something a bit more upper class, a bit more Edwardian. It is decorated with the panelling and fittings from one of the grand rooms of the Empress of Australia, a ship broken up in in Inverkeithing in 1952. Apparently the then chairman saw it in the Legion Hall in Rosyth and restored it for his distillery. He did it because he had the autonomy to do so and he liked it – no other reason. There is no great connection between Glenfarclas and Australia, shipping, or India (the ship was used as transport for British soldiers, leaving India upon independence). My first thought was that I  liked the randomness but then realise it was not random. Shipbuilding, including ocean liners, used to be one of the great Scottish industries but no more.  By preserving something from that past the distillery is displaying something about the history of the country and uniting it with that other great symbol, which, of course, is whisky.

P.S. The Empress of Australia wasn’t actually built in Scotland, it was broken up there. But no matter my point still stands.

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