One family is dedicated to producing a little-known but top of the range Scotch whisky for the connoisseur. Rodrigo Amaral met with the family to discover their secrets
The drinks industry is a merciless environment where big multinational companies swallow smaller competitors in search of every little market advantage they can get. This trend has been affecting the once tranquil landscape of Scotch whisky distillers, particularly since the 1990s. European, American and Japanese multinationals have absorbed many of the most famous brands that for a long time were controlled by family groups. Now only a few independent family whisky-makers remain.
Some of these companies, such as William Grant & Sons, producers of the Glenfiddich range in Dufftown, have become sizeable players in the drinks market in their own right. Others, such as Springbank, the famous Campbeltown-based brand, still work with reduced volumes and, despite the difficulties that this entails, try to make the most of the sense of exclusiveness that a small production creates.
The Grant family-owned Glenfarclas distillery is located in the Speyside town of Ballindalloch, just a few miles from Dufftown. But its spirit – in the metaphysical sense – is probably closer to the likes of Springbank. The Glenfarclas brand remains little known to the wider public, even though many newcomers have discovered the pleasures of a fine single malt in the past few years.
Glenfarclas is a whisky-lover's single malt. You can seldom find its bottles in a supermarket, but those in the know don't have any trouble in recognising the malts made by the Grants, with their distinctive full bodied and fruity character. "We keep producing the same whisky that we made 100 years ago," says sixth-generation member George S Grant, the company's brand ambassador. "Glenfarclas is widely recognised as a big, rich, sherried whisky that ages very well."
The malts tend to be amber-coloured, reflecting the predominance of the use in the maturation process of Sherry casks selected personally by John S Grant, the current chairman and George's father, who lives next door to the distillery. Even the youngest dram, a 10-year-old, where a higher ratio of faster maturing bourbon casks will have been used, looks redder than other whiskies of the same style. As with other Speyside brands, the malts are smooth and well balanced. However, whereas vanilla flavours usually prevail in younger whiskies in the region, at Glenfarclas even the 10-year brings to mind berry and wine flavours that denounce the use of Sherry casks.
The family of Glenfarclas whiskies includes malts of several ages. Some of them, like the 15-year-old and the 17-year-old, target export markets –Japan and American in particular. The oldest malt in the production line spends 30 years in a warehouse before bottling. It is a strong and dense whisky with a sweet, winey flavour that lingers for a long a time at the back of the mouth (and the mind too). But some older vintages are sometimes launched to mark special occasions or to meet the demand of the most ardent aficionados. In 2005, a cask of spirit distilled 50 years earlier was selected by George for bottling in order to celebrate the bicentenary of the company's founder, John Grant. Only 110 bottles were produced of a very dark amber malt that very few lucky people will ever be able to taste. At $2,000 a bottle, the vintage was recently selected by as one of the five best whiskies to buy for investment purposes.
A recent innovation was a new range of malts called The Family Casks, launched in September year. Among the 50,000 plus casks they have in store, the family chose one single cask distilled in every year from 1952 to 1994. These casks were bottled in limited editions of spirits whose maturations were deemed especially successful. "This is very exciting project and a very difficult one to turn into reality too," George says. "The response has been phenomenal and we will be soon launching new releases." Special editions like this one are aimed at collectors, but they can also attract new kinds of consumers, according to George. "Some people want to buy a whisky produced in their year of birth, or to give an 18-year-old malt to a son or daughter when they reach that age," he remarks. "But of course there are those who simply want to buy a whisky and drink it – they are always my favourite kind of customer."
The history of the glen
The Glenfarclas distillery has come a long way since its first licence was granted in 1836. The current owners started their involvement with the company almost three decades later, when farmer John Grant signed a tenancy agreement for the estate where the plant was located. The relationship with what would later become a major whisky brand happened almost casually to the family. "John Grant actually bought the farm," says George. "The distillery came as an extra bit." In truth, the Grants took little notice of the distillery at first, subletting it to a third party.
Farming and distilling have always gone very well together, as the waste of whisky-making can be used to feed animals. It is understandable if cattle on the Rechlerich Farm deem themselves particularly lucky beasts, as they are able to feast on solid residues that were used to produce some of the finest single malts around. By the time the Ovaltine scented grub of malted barley mashed with water and fermented with the help of yeast is discarded, it has already accomplished its mission of delivering a nutritious "sour beer" with an 8% alcohol content.
From then on, the magic of distilling takes place. Every distillery has its own stills, with different sizes and shapes that somehow influence the character of the spirit. Glenfarclas is no exception. The company's six copper pot stills are boasted as the largest in the Speyside, which helps to provide the characteristic smoothness of the company's spirit. And George is proud of the fact that they are heated externally, a process he describes as very difficult to control, but that helps to give the whisky its distinctiveness and to maintain flavour stability.
Once two distillations are over, the spirit is stored in casks made with American or Spanish oak. Those casks have been used before to mature bourbon or sherry and account for much of the character of a whisky – after all, the spirit will stay inside for at least three years, and in the case of fine malts, a minimum of a decade, collecting some flavours and discarding others. The company also refuses to use racked, tall warehouses, privileging the old buildings at the site where a maximum of three casks are piled over each other. Warehousing remains one of the least understood and most important parts of the process of making whisky, so old, proven practices tend to have a lot of credit.
Despite the increasing popularity of Scotch malts, investing in distilleries remains a courageous thing to do. Returns, if they come, will only materialise in the long term, and even the results of a distilling batch will only be known for sure after several years, sometimes decades, of maturation.
However, perhaps the biggest threat comes from a surprising quarter. In the 2008 World Whisky Awards, held in April this year, Japanese whisky scooped two of the top awards, sending shivers down the spine of any self-respecting Scotsman. The Yoichi 20-year-old won the world's best single malt accolade, while the Suntory Hibiki 30-year-old came in first place in the world's best blended whisky category. Judges praised the Yoichi for its "very interesting, complex and bold flavour profile" and described the Suntory Hibiki as a "very balanced dram".
Notwithstanding the growing competition that seems to come from everywhere, George says that the goal of the company is to carry on growing and to keep its independence. Export markets constitute a high priority, not only traditional consumers of whisky such as Germany, Spain, Japan and the US, but also the emerging markets of Russia and China. To grow there, Glenfarclas has developed commercial relationships with a network of family distribution companies spread around the world. In such a cannibalised market, joining forces may be the best solution for families like the Grants of Ballindalloch.