Last month master distiller Dennis Malcolm celebrated a scarcely imaginable 60 years in the business. We sat down over a virtual dram to discuss his long and varied career in Scotch whisky, and his enduring love for Glen Grant.

People use the expression man and boy to describe a long career but in Dennis Malcom’s case it’s true because he started at Glen Grant at only 15 years old. This was back in 1961 when stills were coal-fired, dramming was a perk of the job and the filling process required a team of men. 

Glen Grant Distillery

Glen Grant Distillery, where it all began

A different time

For every cask that you filled, you would weigh the casks empty and then weigh them full,” he explained. Then you had to calculate, in the days before calculators, the “proof gallons of alcohol in the cask.” Furthemore, there were no forklift trucks, so each cask had to be man-handled. These included bourbon barrels, hogsheads and sherry butts which weighed half an imperial ton (around 500kg). “It was very, very labour intensive,” he said. That’s an understatement.

The two things that haven’t changed, though, are Malcolm’s love of Glen Grant and the quality of the whisky: “I’ve been here for 60 years and I can tell you that the process parameters and the procedures that we have in place have not changed,” he said. Even over Zoom, Malcolm’s energy and passion for the distillery that he calls home is palpable. Can he really be 75 years old?

To the manner born

He was literally born on the grounds of Glen Grant in 1946 so it was somewhat inevitable that he would follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and work at the distillery. Malcolm’s first job was an apprentice cooper. He found the whole idea of casks fascinating: “Purely because a cask is an odd shape and I was always intrigued, how did it hold a liquid which is thinner than water, with no glue!”

He did five years coopering and “I spent the next six years going through all the different process of the malting, the mashing, the distillation, the fermentation,” he said. A brilliant education in whisky making.

By the time he was 25, Malcolm was production manager which made him the boss of men much older than him. “I was the young boy really, so I had the energy and the willingness to do the job and they had all the experience, which was a big benefit for me,” he said.

Glen Grant Distillery

Look his tie matches the flowers! What a class act

Corporate shenanigans 

When he started, Glen Grant was a family business, part of a small group with Glenlivet and run by Douglas MacKessack, a descendant of the distillery’s founder John Grant. But the ‘70s and ‘80s was a time of mergers and multinationals. The company, now called Glenlivet Distilleries, joined with Longmorn and Benriach in 1970. Then in 1978, it passed into the hands of Canadian giant Seagram in what Malcolm called an: “unfriendly takeover.”

Despite this, Malcolm stayed on and in 1992 became general manager for all nine distilleries in Chivas Brothers group, under the Seagram umbrella, plus three farms, and an animal feed plant. “So I still had my link with Glen Grant, I never lost it.”

But he wasn’t so happy when Pernod Ricard took over in 1999 following the collapse of Seagram. “They wanted their own people there. And I didn’t really like that because I had been in production all my life,” he said. 

Malcolm is candid about how he thinks Glen Grant was neglected under Pernod Ricard ownership. The distillery was mainly used to provide malt for Chivas Regal with the only single malt visibility being the 5 Year Old for the Italian market and “the 10 Year Old in the visitors centre at the distillery. That was us, nothing else,” he said. “Glen Grant almost disappeared from the single malt arena”. 

A change of scene

So, Malcolm took some time away from his beloved Glen Grant and went to work for the Inver House at Balmenach Distillery. “It was a hands-on operation. It was eight people and if you wanted to move a cask you pushed it. If you wanted to turn the steam onto the stills you had to go and turn it on and turn it off. That appealed to me,” he said. There was a family connection too: “my wife is the great-great granddaughter of Janie Macgregor, who was the daughter of James Macgregor, who built and founded Balmenach Distillery.”

Campari takes over

In 2006, Campari bought Glen Grant, it’s first and only single malt Scotch whisky distillery. “They asked if I would come back and head up Glen Grant for them. Well, I didn’t need to think twice about that because I think the biggest part in my life and my heart is Glen Grant.” he said. “Campari were Italian, they’re very passionate people and I’m passionate about Glen Grant. It was a great combination.”

Malcolm set about turning the distillery into a single malt powerhouse. “Campari invested heavily behind it and allowed me to create new expressions.” There’s now a core range of  10, 12 and 15 year olds, plus various special editions. But it’s the all bourbon-cask 18 Year Old that has whisky fans in particular raptures and is considered the quintessence of the Glen Grant style with its combination of fruit, sweetness and delicate nutty complexity.

The stills at Glen Grant, the heart of that fruity taste

The stills at Glen Grant, the heart of that fruity taste

The Glen Grant style

I asked Malcolm to describe the style: “Glen Grant is very much a light, fruity, estery, whisky on the nose and on the palate it’s creamy and fruity. Because we’re using quite a high percentage of bourbon casks, you get this toffee-vanilla note from it. It’s got a fruity sort of nutty taste. When we see younger expressions it’s more like hazelnut and as it matures longer and gets softer and refines better, it’s more a soft almond, marzipan sort of note.” He describes really old Glen Grant as tasting of “Christmas cake.”

“The two important things for defining character in a single malt is the distillation style, the stills, and the wood that you put it into,” he said. His coopering background gives him an intimate knowledge of what makes a good barrel.” He was delighted, therefore, when Campari acquired Wild Turkey, giving him the first pick of ex-bourbon casks. “Bourbon does play a big part in Glen Grant and having our own bourbon distillery guarantees supply for us,” he said. 

Award-winning whisky

Glen Grant now has a groaning trophy cabinet most famously (or perhaps I should say infamously) from Jim Murray who named Glen Grant 18 Year Old Scotch Whisky of the Year three years in a row. Now, of course, Murray isn’t quite the name to conjure with that he was before last year’s accusations of sexism. Though, I noticed that the Jim Murray Whisky Bible logo still sits proudly on the box of the 18 Year Old that the distillery was kind enough to send me.

Malcolm was diplomatic when I brought up Murray, though I could see the PR people hovering nervously on the video call. “Jim Murray was very good at marketing Glen Grant,” he said. But, he went on to say, “the brand speaks for itself. You get press and you get recognition, which is really good, but it doesn’t matter what you do, if you’ve got a successful product it will always be there.”

Malcolm is particularly proud of how fondly Glen Grant is perceived in the industry. When the 15 Year Old Batch Strength won a best Speyside single malt award at the Spirit of Speyside Festival in 2019, “that one gave me more pleasure and accepting because it was all my peers in the industry that voted for it,” he said.

Casks at Glen Grant Dennis Malcolm

He knows a fair bit about casks

60 year old release

Later this year Glen Grant will be releasing a special limited edition 60 Year Old single cask bottling to celebrate Malcolm’s anniversary. Naturally, Malcom himself chose the particular barrel: “I looked at quite a few 60 year old casks there and selected one that I thought was the best. l selected one that I thought reflected or recognised the characteristics of Glen Grant base, this liquid Christmas cake, this fruitiness, the softness..” He was keen to find something that wasn’t too woody. “The aroma, the taste, has got to be in harmony.” It’ll set you back around €25,000.

To celebrate his 60 years on 3 April, however, Malcolm chose something a little more down to earth, the classic 18 Year Old. “It’s very, very delicate, it’s floral on the nose with nice fruitiness. There’s oaky overtones and hints of spices there but it’s got a long, sweet and a hint of nuts and spice in the finish.” He described it as “really sophisticated and refined.” In other words, classic Glen Grant.