Pouring the dram

I visited Glen Grant Distillery in November 2017. Situated in Rothes it is quite far in the Speyside and coming from the A9 there are plenty of opportunities to stop, so I was expecting a quiet tour considering the season. And it was so quiet that I had the lovely tour guide just for myself, a private tour of the distillery! I chose to go to Glen Grant instead of others (on this particular occasion) because the garden is said to be very nice, and despite the fact it is a said to be one of the 5 bestselling Single Malt in the world (first one, in 2016 was Glenfiddich, followed by Glenlivet), it is quite discrete in the UK to be honest, so I was really curious and eager to visit it. The production is probably exported a lot and Italy is certainly one of the main markets as the owner is Campari (it was purchased in 2006 from Pernod Ricard’s Chivas Brothers for €115M). And I wanted to have a dram as an act of repentance as I had recently passed on a dram of it! Also, the gardens of the distillery are quite beautiful and well known in the area. The tour cost £5 with a £2 discount on a 70cl bottle and 2 drams! So this is a super value for money tour, no doubt about it.

No there is no River Grant in the surroundings! It’s actually one of the rare distilleries that carry the name of the founder… Another Grant family: it was set up by brothers John and James in 1840 when they decided to stop being outlaw (illegal distilling and smuggling) and to take a distilling licence. It was inherited by James Grant, also known as ‘The Major’. He was keen on growing the business and was innovative: he expanded rapidly the distillery’s capacity, the distillery was the first to have electricity, the stills are tall, he invented the purifiers,…  The family vested interest in the business gradually decreased from the middle of the 20th century with the post war recession, restructuration, mergers and takeovers were necessary but The Major’s grandson, Douglas MacKessack (the cricketer), was in charge and, although it wasn’t its initial vocation, he ended up being well recognised in the industry as well as being a good employer. He also was a good businessman and took risks to penetrate the Italian markets. Finally, there is no relation to other Grants of the valley, John Grant (Glenfarclas) or William Grant (Glenfiddich)… Grant is not the most uncommon name in Scotland for sure! It’s currently the 40th surname in Scotland, would be interesting to get some historical and geographical stats.

No visit of the malt mill, as often, a nice little stand where everything is explained, not too much in details but enough to get the principle for sure. It will become much clearer when we visit Balvenie distillery, or better, an industrial malting plant (it might be the subject of a special stage at the fringe of the Single Malt Tour, let’s be patient!). The story is the same: barley harvested in Scotland, soaked, germinated, dried to stop the germination (else enzymes and starch is getting consumed) and here we go, ready to be milled and mashed. There’s the usual sample of barley, malt, grist and peat, which is not used at Glen Grant distillery. And nice timing, a truck was just tipping some malt just at the time of the visit.

The first notable thing is the 4 waters. While most of the distilleries are operating 3 waters (with the first 2 transferred to the next stage), Glen Grant is mashing with 4 waters (with the first 2 transferred to the next stage). This could mean it is to create bring the original Gravity (OG) as high as possible. In other words, there is probably more malt in the tun than necessary compared to the volume of water and the wort would be saturating quicker, leaving the room for 2 other waters to extract the remaining sugars. A sweeter wort means more sugars to convert into alcohol during the fermentation and overall a better efficiency. But on the other side, Glen Grant runs a short fermentation (it was said it could be as short as 24 hours), so it could be just a way to optimise the final extraction for the water that are looping in the process. The mash tun (there’s only one) is in stainless steel and has a 7T capacity. The mashing process is taking 6 hours to complete.

Then the fermentation: no surprise, 10 washbacks in Oregon pine as it’s the best for the structure (no veins), has a long lifespan (40 years) and retains efficiently the good bacteria. They are running a short fermentation cycle, minimum 24 hours, maximum 48 hours.

The still house is impressive, 8 big stills (in excess of 10,000 litres) all nicely aligned. Tough to get them all on a single picture! They used to be directly fired by coal and they have kept the doors of the fireplaces. Nowadays, it’s probably gas fired and the heat is indirect. There’s also ‘purifiers’ standing before the condensers, it’s a system invented by George Gran, Campari website says: “this ensure only purest vapour is allowed to pass from the still to the condenser, and therefore creates a fresh, and light whisky”. This is the cylinders at the end of the neck of the still.

The book “Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing” explains (page 162, Chapter 9, Batch Distillation) that it is “a device fitted with baffles and cooled by an external water jacket or internal coil. Its use is to encourage heavy oils (higher fatty acid esters, C15+) to return to the body of the still during distillation. The purifier returns the heavy oils to the still via a U-bend.”

The spirit safe is quite big considering the 8 stills, the capacity of the plan distillery is probably very close to 6ML of pure alcohol, this is a lot of spirit flowing through the safe, a lot of duty HRMC will want to recover for sure! The process was explained quite well. As usual, head, heart and tails are cut with the usual secrecy and magic formula, this is one of the steps having a significant impact on the flavours of the fresh distilled spirit. But it’s also a safety component, you don’t want to drink too much acetone, methanol or ethyl acetate!

No picture inside the warehouse. A lot of the warehouses are actually on the other side of Rothes. There’s not enough space onsite indeed. The warehouse is always nice to visit anyway, nice smell, nice vibe, can hear the angels fly… And drink! Nothing out of the ordinary there, this is a traditional warehouse, full of Sherry and Bourbon casks, hogshead and butts.

Back into the visitor centre for the traditional dram! Nice set up, convivial bench along a single big table, it must be very convivial when there’s a lot of people! The shop is next to the tasting room but there was no commercial pressure (I did my purchases with my own free will!).

One excellent little touch is that you help yourself with the tasting of the Major’s Reserve. Bottles are on display and you pour your own dram. It adds to the experience to pour the dram alone, without measured pourer. The second dram was not on display though, and because I received a special treatment thanks to the fact I was the only one visiting, instead of the 10 years old, I tried the 12 years old! The 12 years old had a clear apple, almond and vanilla influence, a clear indication of a high concentration of ex-Bourbon barrels with decent aging. The Major’s Reserve is going to be similar, vanilla, apple, lemon, rhubarb, definitely younger but not harsh and surprisingly light without feeling diluted.

 I have to admit, I left with a Major’s Reserve bottle, great to serve to guest who aren’t intrinsically fan of whisky and maybe in cocktails. The market is becoming more and more premium, there is therefore sometimes some disdain about the lower range of Single Malt which is sometimes unfair and sometimes quite pedantic. If one reads the Master of Malt reviews for the Major’s Reserve, some are pretty harsh. The truth is that a lot of people will judge the whisky on the label and packaging, the age statement and the preconceptions about the distillery… Usually, they can be easily tricked in a blind test! For sure, NAS has been used in the industry to hide stock gaps and sell younger Scotch for more, however, when the price is not over inflated thanks to clever marketing tricks, there’s nothing wrong about it, as long as it’s a good product for the range: and for below £20, this is a very enjoyable whisky.

After one dram, I needed a little walk. The garden is reached after going past the bottling hall (everything was said to be bottled onsite, since 2013), not much to see, a few cask and palletized dry goods.

And then comes the garden and it is quite beautiful. In summer, I would be tempted to get a dram in the pagoda. There’s a safe, the Major use to invite guests and was leaving the booze inside the safe.

I had a very bucolic walk day dreaming, and the garden walk is perfect to make to potentially reluctant partner the case for the distillery visit! Be a whisky geek and after, a nice little romantic walk, win-win situation!

So an excellent visit to sum-up, great conditions (alone, lucky), nice staff, nice surroundings! One thing leading to another, it took 2.5 hours including the walk in the garden, and for £5, this is an amazing value for money! Although it is part of a big group, there is still a traditional family feel. One of the example is the fact they released a special edition to celebrate the work anniversary of the Master Distiller Dennis Malcolm and to honour him: The Five Decade edition. Casks up to 50 years old were hand selected to produce what is said to be an outstanding Single Malt… A pricey £500! Also the 170th Anniversary edition, is said to be a nice one, only £100 a bottle.

Further Reading:

Glen Grant Website: http://www.glengrant.com

Spirit of change: 50 years in Scottish whisky trade: https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/spirit-of-change-50-years-in-scottish-whisky-trade-1-2965737

Master of Malt – Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve: https://www.masterofmalt.com/whiskies/glen-grant-the-major-s-reserve-whisky/

Glen Grant Five Decades Single Malt Whisky: http://www.whiskys.co.uk/product/glen-grant-five-decades-single-malt-whisky

Glen Grant – Case Study in Entrepreneurism: https://www.smws.com/glen-grant-distillery

Glen Gant – The Difference, Distilled: http://www.camparigroup.com/sites/default/files/brand/documents/glen_grant_-_distillation_process_eng.pdf

A How To Guide To Cuts and Fractions – Pot Still Run: http://learntomoonshine.com/a-how-to-guide-to-cuts-and-fractions-pot-still-run

Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing Inge Russell  and‎ Graham Stewart: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Whisky-Technology-Production-Inge-Russell/dp/0081013035

National Records of Scotland – 100 Most Common Surnames: https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/statistics-and-data/statistics/statistics-by-theme/vital-events/births/popular-names/archive/100-most-common-surnames

Scotch Whisky Brand Champion 2016: https://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2016/06/scotch-whisky-brand-champion-2016/

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