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Tag: Glenfarclas

Whisky Advent 2019 #20: Glenfarclas 15 Year Old

Behind the door #20 of the Drinks by the Dram’s Whisky Advent Calendar lies a classic 15 year old Speyside single malt aged in sherry casks. Yum! Earlier this year…

Behind the door #20 of the Drinks by the Dram’s Whisky Advent Calendar lies a classic 15 year old Speyside single malt aged in sherry casks. Yum!

Earlier this year we attended a masterclass with George Grant from Glenfarclas where he talked us through five years of The Last Casks releases of rare whiskies. Well, masterclass isn’t quite the right word. What you’re not going to get from Grant is the slick brand ambassador act: on-brand, on-message and lots of well-honed schtick. Instead, we were treated to jokes, rambling anecdotes about peculiar goings on in a Las Vegas hotel and a startling admission that one bottle in the line-up just wasn’t very good. Everyone had a great time. It helped, of course, that the whiskies (even that particular one) were so good.

Grant can get away with being a bit unconventional because his family owns the distillery and have done since 1865 when George Grant bought the place. As Grant said to the group, it’s a very easy story to remember as pretty much everyone is called George Grant. He is the sixth generation Grant in the business.  There is no corporate hierarchy, no shareholders, and no mission statement. The distillery is a similar experience: it’s not glitzy and polished, the equipment neither particularly old nor brand new. The whiskies are matured in oloroso casks, the stills are direct-fired, a rarity now, and look at those labels, they’ve never been near a brand consultant.

George Grant - Glenfarclas

George Grant with faithful hound

The 15 Year Old lurking behind door number 20 offers much of the sherried goodness of the Last Casks but at a very reasonable price, especially when compared with a certain other Speyside distillery famous for its sherry casks. To tell us more, we spoke to George Grant himself:

Master of Malt: In what ways does being family-owned enable you to do things a little bit differently at Glenfarclas?

George Grant: Being family owned means we can react to things much quicker, can change direction, be a bit more adaptive.

MoM: You spend quite a bit of time on the road spreading the word about Glenfarclas. What’s your favourite place to visit and why?

GG: My favourite place to visit is home and my own bed. Because I sleep much better. I love watching those TV commercials about getting a new mattress and we are supposed to change them every 10 years. My mattress easily will last 30 years then.

Glenfarclas 15 Year Old

Glenfarclas 15 Year Old – sherry heaven

MoM: What has been your highlights of 2019 at Glenfarclas?

GG: Highlight must be the Glenfarclas Trunk, contain 50 x 200ml bottles of Glenfarclas every year from 1954 to 2003

MoM: What does the future have in store for the wide world of whisky?

GG: Continued enjoyment, education of future generations to enjoy such a wonderful spirit.

MoM: Which Glenfarclas will you be drinking at Christmas and why?

GG: Mmm, which ever one Master of Malt send me for answering your questions.1959 Glenfarclas, was the last year we distilled on Christmas day.

 

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#WhiskySanta’s Glenfarclas 50 Year Old Decanter Super Wish

It’s been an exciting year of #WhiskySanta, but he’s got one last Super Wish up his immaculately cuffed sleeve – and it’s a real showstopper! Well, I’ve certainly been a busy Blitzen,…

It’s been an exciting year of #WhiskySanta, but he’s got one last Super Wish up his immaculately cuffed sleeve – and it’s a real showstopper!

Well, I’ve certainly been a busy Blitzen, haven’t I? I’ve been giving out gifts to Master of Malt customers at the checkout, and I’m not really looking to slow down until the middle of next week (I’ve got something I’m contractually obliged to do that Tuesday night, you know…), so that means you shouldn’t slow down on doing wishes either! That being said, it is time for my very last Super Wish of 2019. However, never fear, because I’ve got my hands on something absolutely incredible indeed…

This week’s Super Wish is for a single malt whisky that has matured for half a century! Or 50 years, if you prefer your units of time to be more plentiful but smaller. It was distilled by a magnificent family-owned distillery in Speyside. It slumbered in Spanish oak sherry casks. It’s just awesome. That enough preamble for you? Good, because I’m extraordinarily excited to say that the Super Wish this week is for a bottle of Glenfarclas 50 Year Old!

Oh yes, chums. For the final Super Wish of 2019, I’ve managed to get my mitts on a bottle of Glenfarclas 50 Year Old Decanter, worth a massive £12,000! Oodles of years maturing in sherry casks has given this one a spectacularly rich, complex and decadent flavour profile – the sort of thing any whisky fan would be astonished to find wrapped up underneath the Christmas tree.

You should know the score with Super Wishes by now, but in case you don’t, let’s go over it one last time, eh? If you fancy being in with a chance to get this bottle, you’ll want to wish for it! Head on over to the Glenfarclas 50 Year Old Decanter page and slam dunk that zazzy red button that says “Wish” on it. Using magic, a box will pop up with a  pre-populated Twitter or Facebook post. Hit publish and ta-da – you’ve gone and wished! You can also wish over on that fancy Instagram, just ensure you use the #WhiskySanta hashtag, otherwise my elves won’t be able to see it.

There’s that button!

You’ve got until the end of Thursday to make your wish for this breathtaking bottle, so ensure that you do that! In the meantime, I’ll continue granting all sorts of delicious wishes across the social medias, and handing out gifts to Master of Malt customers! I’ve got to keep busy, y’know, otherwise I’ll get bored and end up helping myself to whatever the MoM folks have put in the fridge. They put their names on all the food in there so I know who to thank after I gobble it up. Very kind of them.

UPDATE: My final Super Wish of 2019 has been granted – I do hope you enjoy deliciously old Glenfarclas, Catriona McCaw!

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Ronnie Lee – the man who mends mills

This week Ian Buxton celebrates a true whisky hero, a Welshman without whom Scotland’s distilleries would literally grind to a halt. What about those malt mills, eh? They’re just about…

This week Ian Buxton celebrates a true whisky hero, a Welshman without whom Scotland’s distilleries would literally grind to a halt.

What about those malt mills, eh? They’re just about the first thing you see on any distillery tour but, once you’ve heard the guide’s regulation story about their age and how they outlived the company who made them, you move on.  

It’s a shame. Painted, usually, in that distinctive shade of dark red, sturdy, planted four-square in the mill room, ready to receive another load of malt, these quiet occupants of an unobtrusive corner of the distillery just do their job in a modest and under-stated way.  A malt mill would never shout or draw attention to itself you feel, happy to do an honest day’s work and then await the next consignment to be turned into grist.

But if you take a second, harder look you might see a simple plaque discreetly fixed to the side with the legend RONNIE LEE, MILLWRIGHT and a telephone number.  One day I couldn’t bear it any longer; I was puzzled and intrigued; I had to ask: “Who is this bloke Ronnie Lee?” 

R. Boby

Plate from an old Boby mill

“I have no idea,” was my host’s honest, if unhelpful reply (but then he was a marketing type). I began asking production folks – real whisky people. To a man, they smiled.  “Ronnie Lee,” they said. “You must know Ronnie Lee.” Embarrassingly, I didn’t and the more I learned the worse I felt. So, I set to tracking him down because everyone told me that, though he wasn’t their employee, Ronnie Lee was a vital part of their team. From Diageo to Kilchoman, Chivas Brothers to Rosebank, he keeps the mills running. Without his unique service those antique rollers might seize up and fail, whisky could not be produced – indeed, a great national disaster would befall Scotland.

So I called the number and found myself on an industrial unit alongside a chicken farm in Chepstow – about as far from the glamorous world of luxury seen in whisky’s current imagery as may be imagined. This is where old-school engineer Ronnie and his two sons are based and where the world comes when a mill – possibly more than one hundred years old – needs some TLC. 

These fine pieces of machinery, be they the familiar Porteus design or that of their less well-known rival Boby, were built to last.  Their solid construction and simple, yet well-proven design has stood the test of time and, entirely fortuitously, speak to our present-day concerns about sustainability and the responsible use of resources.

A beautifully-restored Porteus

A beautifully-restored Porteus mill

But how long can they continue to run? The answer may well surprise you. I was certainly taken aback when Ronnie proudly shared with me his latest project: the restoration of a Boby mill, found in an Australian brewery and saved from scrap, that he believes was manufactured around 1855-60.

It may well be the oldest surviving example of a malt mill anywhere in the world and, following 80-100 hours of skilled and experienced cleaning and restoration, it will certainly work again and looks good for another 150 years of service (though, strictly speaking, non-commercial use as it lacks the anti-explosion guard fitted to later models).  Perhaps it will become a display piece, tribute to some far-sighted Victorian engineers as Robert Boby Ltd of Bury St Edmunds.

And how has it happened that Ronnie has found himself in this highly specialised niche? He grew up near his present Chepstow home and, after school, was apprenticed to the motor trade, quickly passing through a dozen or more jobs before embracing self-employment.  Back in 1995 he was contracting to Buhler, a Swiss mill manufacturer, installing their larger systems in flour mills (there aren’t many in distilleries, though you can see a mighty example at Glenfarclas). 

Ronnie Lee with an old Boby mill

The man himself with an old Boby mill

By this time, Boby was being closed down and the old Porteus company was owned by Briggs of Burton (a name you’ll find on mashtuns and other larger pieces of brewery and distillery equipment). But the heyday of the Porteus mill was the 1960s and by 1972/73 manufacturing had ceased. Maintenance and spare parts became more and more of a problem and eventually Briggs were unable to support what was by now, for them, an obsolete product. 

Ronnie was able to acquire the original Boby plans and drawings (he could build you one from scratch) and armed with these and Porteus’ withdrawal from the market, it was natural for him to step into this gap. His affinity with old machinery and his ability to coax new life from their aging cogs and gears has ensured his unique place in whisky. So, in a world which lauds distillery managers as rock stars, spare a thought and raise a glass to Ronnie Lee, the man who mends the mills and a true whisky hero.

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Vintage Cognac masterclass with Eric Forget from Hine

Where you age spirits can make a huge difference to the finished product. To learn more, we spent a morning with Eric Forget from Hine, trying vintage Cognacs, some matured…

Where you age spirits can make a huge difference to the finished product. To learn more, we spent a morning with Eric Forget from Hine, trying vintage Cognacs, some matured in the warmth of France, others in cold grey England. Yeah, it’s a tough life.

The results are in from the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC): while global Cognac sales are doing very nicely thank you, the shocking news is that Europeans and, more particularly, the British just aren’t drinking enough of the stuff. What are you playing at? It wasn’t always this way, Cognac as we know it was largely created for the British market, often by British and Irish merchants. Perhaps the most British of all the Cognac houses is Hine, which was founded in the 18th century by a Dorset lad called Thomas Hine.

Until recently, a descendant, Bernard Hine, was still involved with the company (now part of French drinks group EDV SAS) but he has stepped down due to ill health.  Hine still specialises in a peculiarly British style of Cognac called early-landed. This dates back to when brandy was shipped in cask to Bristol and connoisseurs noticed how it aged differently to the French-matured product. Hine now matures these special Cognacs at Glenfarclas in Scotland (in its most humid warehouse) which then have to be shipped back to France for bottling (damned bureaucracy). Earlier this year, we were fortunate enough to meet with Eric Forget, cellarmaster at the company since 1999, for a comparative tasting of Bristol-aged versus Jarnac-aged Cognacs, as well as the core range.

Eric Forget

Eric Forget deciding whether it’s good enough to be a vintage Cognac

Hine is famous for its pale, elegant style. Forget explained the philosophy: “everything is finesse, delicacy and fruitiness, no harshness or bitterness.” There’s a lot less wood influence, to achieve this, he doesn’t use Limousin oak which he thinks has aggressive tannins, “we use Normandy, Limoges or Paris oak, northern oak trees have a finer grain and less tannin.” 

Forget doesn’t want the wood to mask the fruit: “We want to keep terroir, floral flavours, and maintain balance for all products.” The fruit comes only from the Champagne region. Hine owns 120 hectares in Grande Champagne, “we are vine growers. We also purchase from other growers and distillers, the same people every year,” Forget told us. The company never buys in aged Cognac. Hine distills on the lees: “lees means you can age for a long time, they give it body,” he explained. 

99% of grapes in Hine Cognacs are Ugni Blanc. Forget is sceptical about other grape varieties: “the rest forget it, very susceptible to rot”. But he’s not averse to experimentation. New crosses with some American genes are being developed which have some of the character of Folle Blanche (one of the old pre-phylloxera Cognac grapes) but with more resistance.  According to Forget: “we might see something in seven to eight years. Cognac changes in time, if well-managed, why not? We are not conservative. There are lots of young people in industry. I am the only old person at Hine.” 

Hine HQ in Jarnac

Perhaps to butter us up a little, he praised the British taste in Cognac, where delicacy is prized. He was less complimentary about the American and Chinese markets: “They believe dark Cognac is better, big mistake!” Hine produces a brandy called Homage to Thomas Hine ; named after the company’s founder, it’s a tribute to the lighter style that was popular in 18th and 19th century Britain. “VSOPs are meant to be pale, 200 years ago Cognac was paler,” Forget told us. Homage is a blend of early-landed Cognac, “to give it finesse” and other lighter brandies. 

Homage is a blend, but Hine’s speciality is its vintage products. “Vintages are easy, just select the best and there’s nothing to do”, Forget joked. The differences between the Jarnac-aged brandies and the Bristol-aged products is marked; in 1984 Forget was pleased with the early-landed but “the Jarnac-aged one was not so good, so I blended it.” He gave us the 1983s to taste, the French one was peachy and floral whereas the English one was angular with flavours of gooseberries and English hedgerow flowers.

In 2015 Hine launched a completely new product called Bonneuil, which not only came from a single vintage, but a single vineyard in Grand Champagne. Such a thing was almost unheard of in Cognac. The idea was to sell it with less age so that it expresses the terroir more than the effects of ageing. The first vintage was the 2005, we tried the deliciously fruity 2008. In it’s delicacy and fragrance, Bonneuil might be the quintessential Hine product. 

Hine Homage, note not too dark colour

The company doesn’t produce vintages every year, only in special years, “like d’Yquem” said Forget, referring to the legendary Sauternes château. He decides after five years whether the brandy is good enough for vintage, “otherwise we blend it,” he said. As part of the commitment to delicacy, vintages are only kept in wood for around 20 years before being transferred to glass demi-johns. And Hine use zero boise in any products and no caramel in the vintage or Homage.

Forget talked us through the range with a twinkle in his eye and an honesty rare in the often over-hyped world of booze. He’s not averse to criticising Hine’s own products: he wasn’t so keen on the opulent 1975 we tried, the vintage was too high in sugar apparently and the style is not typically Hine (I rather liked it). The early-landed 1975 in contrast is lean and citric. He’s also candid about the trend for vintage Scotch whisky: “vintages for Scotch are just marketing. It’s nonsense.”

Hine’s number one market is now China but, according to Forget, “China is very difficult because they keep changing the rules.” This is followed by America, Russia and then the UK. Mainland Europe isn’t doing so well. Compared with whisky, demand for rare Cognacs isn’t so strong. This comparative lack of interest, however, means that beyond a few bling-tastic bottlings, Cognac is seriously undervalued. So it might be time to have a look, or don’t because it means there’s more for us.

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Top picks for sherried whisky fans

Here’s a round-up of some our favourite sherry-matured expressions, either aged or finished in casks which previously held the delightful Spanish fortified wine. It’s hard to resist a good sherry…

Here’s a round-up of some our favourite sherry-matured expressions, either aged or finished in casks which previously held the delightful Spanish fortified wine.

It’s hard to resist a good sherry bomb. The indulgent, fruity and rich drams are a perfect reminder as to why sherry casks have played a massive part in the Scottish whisky industry for well over 200 years. The style is very popular here at MoM Towers and we know there are many of you booze lovers out there who are equally partial to the sweet, spice and everything nice profile of a well-sherried spirit, particularly as we approach autumn. That’s why we’ve gathered quite the selection of sublime sherried treats here for you to enjoy, from peated Scotch, American rye whiskey and even a Venezuelan rum…

Redbreast 12 Year Old

A classic single pot still Irish whiskey, Redbreast 12 Year Old was made from a mash of malted and unmalted barley, triple distilled and matured in a combination of bourbon seasoned American oak barrels and Oloroso sherry seasoned Spanish oak butts. It can’t stop winning awards and stealing our hearts.

What does it taste like?:

Nutty, rich and oily, with notes of citrus peels, ginger, linseed, melon, marzipan, dried fruits, custard and a hint of Sherry.

Bowmore 15 Year Old

For those who desire a rich and complex sherried single malt Scotch whisky with a hearty helping of peat shouldn’t look past Bowmore 15 Year Old. It was matured first in bourbon barrels before it spent its final three years spent in Oloroso sherry casks.

What does it taste like?:

Dark and punchy, with Corinth raisins, baking spices, mochaccino, sweet dates, woody, pine oil, creamy toffee and malt.

Scallywag

From the fantastic Douglas Laing, this blended malt was made entirely from Speyside whiskies, including Mortlach, Macallan and Glenrothes, with spirit matured in Spanish sherry butts and bourbon casks. It was bottled without chill-filtration or additional colouring at 46% ABV.

What does it taste like?:

Icing sugar, sultanas, candied ginger, vanilla, cinnamon, sherry, nutmeg and cereal.

James E. Pepper 3 Year Old – Oloroso Cask Finish (That Boutique-y Whisky Company)

Something a bit different, a young rye whiskey from James E. Pepper that was independently bottled by That Boutique-y Whisky Company. Three different batches were released in the series with each whiskey finished in different types of cask, one an Ale Cask, one Pedro Ximénez and this expression was finished in Oloroso casks. James E. Pepper owner Amir Peay also features on the label, which is pretty neat.

What does it taste like?:

Red cola cubes, sticky toffee pudding made with dates, blood orange rind, creamy vanilla, dusty oak spice, rich dark chocolate, chewy rye notes, red fruit and aromatic warmth from clove and cinnamon.

Glenfarclas 105

Anybody who enjoys Scotch whisky will know that you can always rely on Glenfarclas for a delightfully sherried dram. From one of Scotland’s few family-run distilleries, Glenfarclas 105 was bottled at a cask strength 60% ABV after it was matured for 8-10 years in a combination of both ex-sherry and ex-bourbon barrels. It’s superb value for money and captures everything great about Glenfarclas.

What does it taste like?:

Honey on toast, a touch of smoky coffee, almond, praline, hazelnut, dried peels, Armagnac, a hint of rancio and spicy and peppery oak.

Smögen 5 Year Old 2013 Sherry Project 2:2

We do really enjoy Swedish single malts from the Smögen distillery, and the expressions from the Sherry Project series are no exception. This bottling is Sherry Project 2:2, which was matured in first-fill sherry quarter casks, which are smaller than your run-of-the-mill casks, which allows for more surface area for interaction between the wood and whisky.

What does it taste like?:

Honey-glazed ham, dark chocolate truffle, malt loaf, Sherried sweetness, meaty peat, fudge dotted with raisins, burnt ends and a hint of orange oil freshness.

Mortlach 20 Year Old

The elder statesman of the Mortlach range, Mortlach 20 Year Old is an elegant presentation of what The Beast of Dufftown is all about. The sherry casks this beauty was matured in offers the perfect balance the robust, bold and uncompromising character of the whisky. This single malt is dubbed ‘Cowie’s Blue Seal’ in tribute to one of the original Mortlach bottlings dating back to 1909.

What does it taste like?:

Roast chestnuts, sweet tobacco, dense chocolate, meaty malt, clove, brandy butter, chewy dates, orange peel, mature oak, Christmas spice, cooked summer berries and red berry richness.

Diplomático Single Vintage 2005

A bit of a curveball to end our round-up, we’ve got a sherry-tastic rum. This expression of Diplomático Single Vintage was distilled from the harvest from 2005 before it was aged in bourbon barrels for about 12 years which was blended by the cellar master and then finished in old oloroso sherry casks for a year.

What does it taste like?:

Roasted orchard fruit, soft oak, strawberry and balsamic, espresso, cassia and star anise.

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Five minutes with… Pip Hills, founder of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

When Philip ‘Pip’ Hills bought with three of his friends a sherry quarter cask from a certain Speyside distillery filled with 10-year-old liquid, little did he know it would mark…

When Philip ‘Pip’ Hills bought with three of his friends a sherry quarter cask from a certain Speyside distillery filled with 10-year-old liquid, little did he know it would mark the beginning of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Today, the Edinburgh-based bottler boasts more than 26,000 members across international branches spanning Austria to Australia. We take five with member #001…

“At the beginning of the eighties I discovered malt whisky,” Hills recalls over the phone. “To be precise, I discovered Glenfarclas.” This Speyside gem would go on to be the first of more than 138 whisky distilleries in Scotland and beyond to have its liquid bottled under The Scotch Malt Whisky Society name. A feat made even more remarkable when you consider the ill-health of the Scotch whisky in the early eighties, a period that saw many producers close their distillery doors, never to reopen. How did his fledgling idea flourish in such a trying climate?

“If you add one thing to another, it’s an arithmetic progression,” outlines Hills. “If you double it each time, it’s a geometrical progression, which leads to an exponential curve. If you produce a really good whisky and I give a bottle of it to somebody, and that person has lots of friends – as most whisky drinkers do – if they love it, they’ll give out drams. So out of one bottle, you may have 50 or more converts to that particular whisky. You don’t have to be an arithmetical genius to figure out that the curve of increase just rockets. It becomes almost vertical.”

That, Hill says, is precisely what happened with his syndicate. “Our friends told their friends, who told their friends, who then wanted to join, so we doubled in size. Then, all the friends of friends told their friends, who all thought it was wonderful. Eventually the time came where I said to the syndicate, ‘look, I’m fed up procuring whisky for all your mates. Why don’t we do this commercially?”

Pip Hills, outside The Vaults, with a 1937 Lagonda, the car he used to transport the first-ever cask of SMWS whisky

Prior to the Society, Hills “never had anything that could remotely be considered a career”. A keen mountaineer in his teenage years – until a climbing accident that almost killed him – Hills spent seven years studying philosophy, working as a docker, a truck driver, and other industrial jobs during the holidays. He “bought a pinstripe suit and became a respectful civil servant” working for the Inland Revenue, where he stayed “for the best part of five years, just to show that I was in earnest”.

From there, Hills set up a tax accountancy firm – “it wasn’t a high-flying tax evasion for rich people sort-of-thing,” he clarifies, “but helping my poor freelance mates get out of some of their troubles” – and even helped to raise £7.5 million to bid for the Scottish Television franchise with friends. “We didn’t get it, which was a relief, because I hadn’t really any interest in television but it was a good idea conceived over drinks in the Traverse Theatre bar one night,” he says.

With The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Hills had found his calling. But those early days were not without challenges. “The whisky industry didn’t understand what we were doing,” he explains. “And from what they did understand, they didn’t like it much.” Barring a select few, distillers and brands were initially “very, very cagey”, not least because of the industry battle against people making a quick buck by ‘passing off’ imitation whiskies with the use of similar labels.

Trademark laws meant Hills couldn’t add distillery names to Society bottlings – something he turned to an advantage by numbering each distillery instead. “Since the first one we had was Glenfarclas, we made that number one, and we put a point after the number which indicates the consecutive cask bottled,” he says. “Nobody could take out legal action against us, because we weren’t passing anything off. And if you said in a newsletter, ‘if you go down the A96 past Aberlour and take the second road on the left for about three miles, you might just come to a distillery from which this whisky came’, no court would say that was a trademark infringement.”

Just some of the incredible SMWS range

Navigating legalities in this way proved to be an excellent marketing tactic – people liked the feeling of being in-the-know. Not that there was any real difficulty bringing whisky drinkers on board. “If somebody liked whisky, you say to them, ‘well, why don’t you try this?’, and let them taste it,” says Hills. “It was like starting a really good religion. All you had to do was show people the whisky and they would say, ‘God, you’re right!’, and they’d join.”

Hills adopted a policy that still sticks to this day, in which the Society doesn’t pay for advertising. “I’d always said, ‘if this thing is as good as I think it is, we won’t need to advertise’,” he explains. “However after we’d bought The Vaults [in Leith] and established ourselves, I thought, ‘maybe we ought to reach the wider public’.” He flew to London armed with a suitcase containing five whiskies for a meeting with “famously ferocious” wine writer Jancis Robinson, who went on to write a feature for The Sunday Times Magazine

“The whole thing just exploded,” Hills recalls. “After that I did lots of press – a middle page spread in The Sunday Express, a full page in The Wall Street Journal… David Mamet came over from the US. I took him down to the Society and showed him a few drams and he wrote five pages in Playboy. All that cost me was about £10 worth of whisky. And it went on like that for years.”

While Hills stepped away from the Society in 1995, he’s “absolutely delighted” to see how the company has evolved. “I hadn’t really been back until about a year ago,” he says. “The Society personnel and bar staff are bright and enthusiastic and it’s great, I love it.” Indeed, much may have changed in the decades since the Society was established, but one thing remains constant: Hill’s whisky preferences. “I’m sitting here with a glass of Glenfarclas in front of me,” he tells me, when I ask if his tastes have changed over the years. “Perfectly lovely whisky.” 

 

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Drinks billionaires – keeping it in the family

Today Ian Buxton takes a closer look at some of the illustrious families of the drinks industry such as the Haigs, Bacardis and Ricards, and reveals which great brands are…

Today Ian Buxton takes a closer look at some of the illustrious families of the drinks industry such as the Haigs, Bacardis and Ricards, and reveals which great brands are still in family hands.

Do you ever wonder who might raise a glass to you when you, to coin a phrase, raise a glass yourself? It’s an intriguing question. After all, drinks companies are fond of maintaining the façade of family owners. Think Bulleit Bourbon – it’s actually a Diageo brand (which arguably was mainly developed under Seagram’s) but a very high profile is maintained by Tom Bulleit and, until recently, his daughter Hollis. They’re speaking via their lawyers now. The story behind their acrimonious break-up is a rather unfortunate one and perhaps for another day, but sadly illustrative of the potential problems lurking in any family.

The Nightcap Drinks billionaires

Bulleit bourbon, a family business?

But back to Diageo. In its Scotch portfolio we’ll also find the Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and Haig brands. Now, once upon a time, there were real-life actual people answering to Walker, Buchanan and Haig who owned the distilleries that made these products – but no longer.

Today Diageo is a publicly-quoted company. That means you can buy a share in the business and be a part-owner. Actually, if you have any kind of a pension plan (whether through your employer or direct) you probably already own a share in some shares. Diageo is one of the UK’s largest and most successful businesses, and most well-balanced pension portfolios will have a holding in the company.  To declare an interest, I certainly do (I checked), and I’m very happy with its recent performance.

Many large industries have evolved in this way. But the drinks trade is something of a curiosity as a number of important brands remain in the hands of the descendants of the founding family.  Though some, like the Walkers, Buchanans and Haigs have long since cashed in, other companies remain determinedly independent and make great play of the long-term planning required in the spirits business. This, they suggest, means the industry is well suited to family ownership rather than being driven by the short-term demands of the financial community.

Some of the smaller examples are well known. Glenfarclas, for example, is happy to stress the fact that the distillery has remained in the Grant family since 1865 with chairman John Grant and son George directly and actively involved in every aspect. Grant Snr even lives on site, and you can’t get more hands-on than that.

Whisky Advent 2018 Day #18 Drinks billionaires

George Grant from Glenfarclas

Glenfiddich too is a family concern so, along with the various brands they own – think Balvenie, Hendrick’s Gin, Tullamore D.E.W. and Sailor Jerry rum among others – the forty-odd descendants of the founder William Grant thank you for every bottle you buy.  Oddly, though, while the public face of the company is largely represented by the Gordon branch (Peter Gordon and Grant Gordon in recent years) the major shareholder is believed to be the intensely private Benedicta Chamberlain. If her reputed 29.9% of the business is anywhere close to accurate, she’s comfortably in the billionaire class. Think of that next time you pour a dram of the world’s best-selling single malt.

As you’d expect, the family take the whole business very seriously. So much so in fact that Peter Gordon has even published a book on the subject. Family Spirit: Stories and Insights From Leading Family-Owned Enterprises looks at the strategies of eleven other family-owned businesses, though mainly not in the drinks industry. One of the companies he might have studied is Bacardi.  Yes, every drop of Dewar’s or Aberfeldy single malt or William Lawson’s (a million case-plus blended Scotch you’ve probably never heard of) adds a few coppers to the eponymous descendants of Don Facundo Bacardi.  A Bacardi and Coke puts a smile on their face, as does your call for Grey Goose, Martini, St-Germain or Patrón tequila.

Alexandre Ricard Drinks billionaires

Alexandre Ricard

Now the Bacardi family is very disciplined, borrowing if necessary to fund its acquisitions (over US$2 billion in 2004 for Grey Goose, then reputedly the largest purchase price in spirits business history for a single brand, and now a cool $5.1 billion for Patrón), but the equity isn’t sold. Much the same story could be told about Suntory Holdings, still controlled by the Saji and Torii families.

Elsewhere, public listing to raise capital hasn’t entirely removed family control as the tight grip of the founding dynasties at Davide Campari SpA, Brown-Forman and Rémy Cointreau SA clearly demonstrates. The Ricard family still retain 16% of the giant Pernod Ricard operation. It’s no coincidence that one Alexandre Ricard is both chairman and CEO, even if activist US investors Elliott Management are pushing to shake things up.

So, the reality and scale of family control is something to ponder as you part with your hard-earned cash. As you raise their brands to your lips, the question can’t be avoided: ‘what are the drinks billionaires sipping tonight?’

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Celebrating Speyside!

The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival kicks off next Wednesday, but even if you don’t have a ticket you can still enjoy the spoils of the historic region. Speyside is…

The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival kicks off next Wednesday, but even if you don’t have a ticket you can still enjoy the spoils of the historic region.

Speyside is home to some of the best distilleries in all of Scotland and to some of our favourite drams. From Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glenlivet and more, the region boasts some of the industry’s biggest names as well as a variety of styles – not just the classic honeyed and sherried single malts (though it does have plenty of those, and they are mightily marvellous, of course).

With The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival on the horizon, it seemed only right that we took the time to celebrate the most prolific whisky-producing region in Scotland with a selection of some of its most magnificent whiskies. Enjoy!

The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak

Macallan produces some of the most revered, sought-after Scotch whiskies in the world that can sell for eye-watering sums. The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak might not grab the headlines like some its older, rarer drams, but it’s one of the most impressive bottlings around in its age group and makes for a perfect introduction into what has become the modern Macallan style.

What does it taste like?:

Sultanas, fresh apple blossom, tropical fruits, golden syrup, hot pastries, barley sugar, marmalade and a solid oaked notes.

Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask

A terrifically tasty and well-rounded single malt from The Balvenie, the distillery perhaps best known for its use of secondary maturation (or finishing). This bottling was initially aged in traditional oak casks before it was finished in casks which previously held a select blend of Caribbean rums chosen by malt master David C. Stewart MBE, imparting additional notes of toffee, spice and dried fruit.

What does it taste like?:

Tropical fruits, creamy toffee, sweet vanilla, apples, baking spice and mangoes.

Scallywag

Scallywag from Douglas Laing is a blended malt made from a host of whiskies sourced from some of Speyside’s finest, including Mortlach, Macallan and Glenrothes, many of which were matured in Spanish sherry butts. Some bourbon cask whisky is also in the blend for balance, making this a go-to expression for many Scotch whisky lovers. Also lovers of dapper little Fox Terriers. It’s wearing a monocle for goodness sake!

What does it taste like?:

Icing sugar, sultanas, candied ginger, vanilla, cinnamon, oak spice, nutmeg and cereal.

Tomintoul Tlàth

Tlàth (pronounced “Tlah”) means gentle or mellow in Gaelic, which gives you a clue as to what to expect from this non-age statement whisky which was matured in ex-bourbon barrels. The Speyside distiller’s Scotch is often described as ‘the gentle dram’ and this expression boasts plenty of distillery character and makes for a perfect introduction into all things Tomintoul.

What does it taste like?:

Sweet toffee, toasted vanilla, shortbread citrus peel, hints of mint leaf, lively white pepper and some oak-driven spiciness.

Mortlach 12 Year Old

The Mortlach distillery is known for its robust, muscular malts which proves a delightful reminder that Speyside is as varied as it is spectacular. Its 12-year-old expression, drawn from bourbon and sherry casks, features the subtitle The Wee Witchie, which comes from the name of the tiny still that distils a portion of the whisky.

What does it taste like?:

Warming oak, damson, soft raisins, toasted almond, cinder toffee and heavy barley with some lingering citrus oils cutting through.

Tamdhu 10 Year Old

Since its return to the Scotch whisky scene, Tamdhu has established a principle of ageing all of its whisky exclusively in Oloroso sherry seasoned oak casks. That distinctive, well-sherried profile, and the fact that it’s rather lovely, makes Tamdhu 10 Year Old the perfect go-to dram for those who desire a classic sherried Speysider.

What does it taste like?:

Dried orange peel, red wine, pecan, soft red fruit, brown sugar, chocolate-covered Brazil nut, crystallised ginger, cacao, spicy clove and raspberry jam.

Speyside 26 Year Old (That Boutique-y Whisky Company)

That Boutique-y Whisky Company independently bottled this 26-year-old single malt from the Speyside distillery in the Speyside region. Imagine celebrating The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival with a dram of Speyside Scotch from a distillery actually named Speyside. That’s commitment, people. Oh, and it’s a seriously delicious whisky, in case you were wondering.

What does it taste like?:

Lemon peel, chocolate, oily barley, honey, strawberry jam, clove, ginger and apple strudel, topped with brown sugar and cinnamon.

Glenfarclas 25 Year Old

Last, but certainly not least, is a classic of the genre. You say Speyside and many will immediately think of this long-time family-owned distillery and its magnificent 25-year-old single malt. Glenfarclas 25 Year Old, which spent its entire maturation period in 100% Oloroso sherry casks, is a refined, complex and delicately peated dram that’s sure not to disappoint.

What does it taste like?:

Sherry and creamy barley, hints of gingerbread and nutty chocolate, oak rich, smoke and cocoa.

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Whisky Advent 2018 Day #18: Glenfarclas 105

Behind the 18th door of Drinks by the Dram’s Whisky Advent Calendar lies a classic sherried Speyside single malt bottled at cask strength… In this ever-changing world of whisky, where…

Behind the 18th door of Drinks by the Dram’s Whisky Advent Calendar lies a classic sherried Speyside single malt bottled at cask strength…

In this ever-changing world of whisky, where it seems that not a week goes by without the announcement of a new distillery, and drinks companies are constantly consolidating, amalgamating, and mutating, Glenfarclas is an anomaly. Just look at those labels, they haven’t been anywhere near a Shoreditch-based graphic designer. What worked in the 1940s works now. Visiting the distillery is a similar experience. It’s not glitzy and polished, the equipment is neither antique nor brand new. It’s the same attitude: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Glenfarclas is one of the last distilleries in Scotland to use direct-fired stills, and all its whiskies are aged the traditional way in ex-oloroso casks in a dunnage warehouse.

This immunity from the whims of fashion has a lot to do with being in the hands of one family, the Grants, since 1865. The current chairman, John Grant, is the fifth-generation family member in charge. This continuity extends to stocks as well. The family are able to offer very old whiskies as well as vintage-dated expressions dating back to the 1950s.

These whiskies are some of the most highly-regarded in Scotland. Along with Macallan, Glenfarclas is the apotheosis of the sherried Speyside style. And despite all that tradition, the family isn’t immune to a spot of innovation. In the 1960s it was one of the first distilleries to shift business away from supplying blends to bottling its own single malts.

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#WhiskySanta’s Glenfarclas 1956 (cask 1767) Family Cask Super Wish!

#WhiskySanta’s really pushed the boat out for his final Super Wish of 2018. Fancy a whisky distilled waaaayy back in 1956? What about one described as ‘age- and logic-defying’? This…

#WhiskySanta’s really pushed the boat out for his final Super Wish of 2018. Fancy a whisky distilled waaaayy back in 1956? What about one described as ‘age- and logic-defying’? This week’s mega super-duper Super Wish is… Glenfarclas 1956 (cask 1767) Family Cask Spring 2015 Release!

Ho, ho, ho, my marvellous, merry chums! I’m in exceptionally fine spirits this glorious Monday. Not only did my elves cook me a terrifically tasty early Christmas dinner yesterday (I need to get my strength up in the last week before the Big Day! I’m still working my way through my mega Santa sack of gifts worth £250,000! Keep wishing on social and buying those boozes. You never know what I might slip in with your order… I might even pick up the entire tab!), but I have a right treat in store for my final Super Wish of 2018.

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