Creating world class Scotch means staying true to your roots, Jim Murray believes. It’s an approach that Glen Grant’s master distiller Dennis Malcolm knows a thing or two about. We spoke to both in London to find out more.
It’s no small feat. Over 5,000 whiskies, a thousand of which were new entrants, were rated by Murray. In the end, only the 2017 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection release of William Larue Weller ranked higher to scoop the coveted accolade of World Whisky of the Year. In an official statement, Murray declared: “Once more the stunning Glen Grant 18 Year Old single malt carried the banner for Scotland, displaying Speyside Whisky in its most sparkling light.”
Providing the world with a refined whisky is what Glen Grant has been all about since 1840, when brothers John and James Grant founded the site in Rothes in Speyside. Some will tell you the secret to its style is the innovative tall slender stills, others will point to the revolutionary purifiers that James ‘The Major’ Grant, son of founder James Grant, was one of the first to introduce to the Scotch whisky industry over a century ago.
Malcolm appreciates the influence of both, but is keen to underline the importance of approach, “it’s consistent quality from the whole process, from the production right through. I used to jokingly say to people, when you mill it and mash it and ferment it, it’s almost a generic process!” he explains, “the secret is in your stills and your casks, that’s your big influencers, but you’ve got to be consistent with everything you’re doing.”
It’s this steadiness that resonates with Murray. “Glen Grant is the best distillery in Scotland and it is the most consistent. What I can tell you, is that if you tasted Glen Grant from a 1952 distilling or whatever, there’s no difference to now. It’s one of the few distilleries where the DNA has not changed”, Murray told us, “I can’t think of any other distillery that is as true now as it was in the past. And it’s one of the reasons I love it so much, and that makes it virtually unique in Scotch.”
Nobody typifies the consistency at Glen Grant like the multi-award winning Malcolm. He was actually born in the grounds of Glen Grant in 1946 and has worked for the distillery in various capacities for over five decades. “My grandfather worked at Glen Grant and worked for the son of the founder, then my father worked there and then I left school at the age of 15 and went to be a cooper”, Malcolm recalls, “I wanted to create casks. That’s helped me along my career but I’ve always said ‘I know what casks are all about.’ Casks are like people, they all mature at different stages.”
It’s because of this background that he knows what Glen Grant whisky should be better than anybody. When I ask Malcolm how he knows when a spirit has that crucial Glen Grant profile, he says: “We look at it before we put it into the cask and what we want is a new, fine, fruity, estery Glen Grant new spirit. So the spirit at Glen Grant is monitored and passed fit for casking in the still house. That’s when we do it.”
Every part of the Glen Grant distillation process is about retaining a consistent quality. “We have a standardised system so it’s easy to operate. It’s broken into four pairs of stills, so one batch does a six hour process from mashing into distilling,” Malcolm explains, “when the spirit comes off, the first one pair, two pair, three pair, four pair, goes into separate receivers and it’s checked individually. I think attention to detail is the secret of consistent quality.”
Murray concurs, revealing that when he trains blenders around the world it’s by following this approach. “So they can always make sure that they’ve got control. Because if you take your eye off it and you don’t have control that’s when suddenly something goes wrong,” he says, “now it’s this attention to detail that separates the great distilleries from the good distilleries and Glen Grant is just a great distillery, it just is.”
Talking to Malcolm and Murray, it’s clear how passionate they are that part of Glen Grant’s triumph is that it retained its identity and didn’t change simply to satisfy the market. “You’ve got to hold your ground. You have to be careful it doesn’t just become a fashion item for that one year. So what I try to do is protect the DNA of Glen Grant,” Malcolm says, “if the financial people want to save some money, they would say ‘use the casks four times there because you’re using a million pounds for bloomin’ casks every year!’ and that would put another million pounds on the bottom line. But I say: ‘hey, wait a minute, the only reason we’re here is because of our consistent quality so we need to keep that’.”
The Campari Group, who acquired Glen Grant whisky distillery in 2006 for €115m, were obviously wise enough to heed Malcolm’s advice. Under its ownership, the 12 Year Old and 18 Year Old whiskies were added to the core range in 2016, alongside The Major’s Reserve and the 10 Year Old. It’s notable to Murray that these were additions, and not replacements.
“There was another really brilliant Speyside whisky that used to be ten years of age and it doesn’t exist anymore now because the company that owns it decided that ten years was too young. Not because ten years was too young for the whisky, it was too young in marketing terms,” Murray says. “Because the main guys that they were fighting against were 12 year olds. So they obliterated this fantastic whisky and bought it out as a 12 year old which was brainless! Utterly brainless! They had just destroyed a great whisky.”
So, after all that work, how did it feel to be honoured with the title of Scotch Whisky of the Year? “Well, you can’t really print what I said when I heard it for a start!” Malcolm jokes, “I really liked it because I was going back in time with this one, back to our roots. I thought, ‘well maybe it hasn’t always got to be new decorations all the time’, you know you decorate a house in different colours every year?”.
But what makes Glen Grant 18 Year Old stand out among all other Scotch whiskies for Murray? Well, one reason, he explained, is that it’s so complex that it takes him longer to nose then any other whisky: “You just watch every nuance come through because there’s a half hour journey in every single glass. You never get it on one nose.” Murray told us that the tasting note in the Whisky Bible is actually the shortened version: “You think ‘this could go over two pages, this is ridiculous’, because it is that complex. That’s why it gets number two in the world.”
Murray is particularly impressed by this depth of character given it’s what he describes as a “purely naked whisky.” He explains that, “because it’s 100% bourbon cask. There’s no sherry or anything in there that can go over the top and hide something, it’s all there to be seen. Which makes it very special.” Malcolm agrees: “There’s no sherry there, there’s no colour correction there, it’s just natural single malt Glen Grant.”
It’s clear that Murray feels a very strong connection to the Glen Grant distillery and its whisky: “I’ve tasted Glen Grants from before the Second World War, I’ve tasted a lot of Glen Grant over many, many years. Everything about it is natural and it’s just utterly true to its roots, it is the true Speyside.” Glen Grant 18 Year Old is his go-to whisky when he’s at home. “If I’m travelling around and I’m knackered, I just curl up with a glass of this, over half an hour and suddenly I just feel human again, it’s just absolutely amazing.”
It’s fascinating watching Murray be so intensely passionate about a Scotch whisky, because he’s acutely aware of his and the bible’s reputation. “People say to me ‘oh Jim, you don’t like Scotch’ and I say ‘don’t I, really?! Have you ever seen what I’ve written about the 18 year old Glen Grant?’” he explains defiantly. “Scotland makes some of the best whisky in the world, because there’s things like Glen Grant 18 that can just absolutely seduce you.”
Having enjoyed a dram or two myself that night, I’m inclined to agree.