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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Glenfarclas

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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The most marvellous Christmas gifts

Make this the most holly, jolly Christmas ever with this sensationally seasonal selection of spirits! Christmas is perhaps the best time of year to enjoy a well-earned tipple. It’s the…

Make this the most holly, jolly Christmas ever with this sensationally seasonal selection of spirits!

Christmas is perhaps the best time of year to enjoy a well-earned tipple. It’s the perfect way to wash down all the fabulous festive food you’ll stuff yourself silly with and helps you to relax, wind down and take your mind off the ongoing game of charades/horde of children running amok/rubbish Christmas TV schedule. It makes an ideal gift too. Maybe you know a special someone who deserves to be spoiled this year with a great bottle of booze?

Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find all manner of boozy delights to suit all tastes here, each appropriately seasonal and utterly delicious!

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Brilliant boozes for Bonfire Night!

Remember, remember the Fifth of November fondly this year with these cracking tipples… Bonfire Night, or as those who own cats and dogs presumably call it, National Scare the Crap…

Remember, remember the Fifth of November fondly this year with these cracking tipples…

Bonfire Night, or as those who own cats and dogs presumably call it, National Scare the Crap out of My Pet(s) Day, has come around again. This is great news because Bonfire Night is brilliant. Countless fireworks lighting up the sky. Heaps of amazing autumnal food. Plus there are the actual bonfires, carrying that fantastic scent and welcome heat through the crisp night air.

For some people, it’s all about the festival atmosphere at parties and displays. For others, it’s all about wrapping up warm and snug at home, enjoying the spectacle from afar. Ultimately, we’re all going to take advantage of another perfectly good excuse to indulge in some spectacular seasonal spirits. Right?

For those nodding enthusiastically in agreement, we’ve decided to round up some of the best Bonfire Night boozes and fireside beverages, each with an appropriately smouldering serve. Enjoy!

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Our Selections for Sherried September Treats

If you’ve been thinking about breaking out the sherried whisky from its summer slumber, you’re in good company. We’ve got a whole bunch of ace sherried whiskies to enjoy during…

If you’ve been thinking about breaking out the sherried whisky from its summer slumber, you’re in good company. We’ve got a whole bunch of ace sherried whiskies to enjoy during the chillier months…

As the fiercely mild September weather continues to cause a polite ruckus outside the window, we’re diving into autumn head-first. Everyone is wearing about five sweatshirts. We’ve spruced up the halls of MoM Towers with decorative gourds. Nobody is daring to go outside to forage lunch items for fear of frostbite and the bite of frostcrocodiles. It’s all very thrilling. However, none of this compares to the excitement of unearthing our favourite sherried whiskies from the cupboards where they sheltered from the harsh rays of the sun.

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It’s Glenfarclas 105 Day!

  Sunday 15 April is the 105th day of the year – aka Glenfarclas 105 Day! To celebrate with our friends at the distillery, we’re taking 10.5% off Glenfarclas 105…

 

  • Sunday 15 April is the 105th day of the year – aka Glenfarclas 105 Day!
  • To celebrate with our friends at the distillery, we’re taking 10.5% off Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength just for today (geddit?!)
  • That’s £5.14 off a bottle of the superb cask-strength whisky you lot describe as ‘absolutely beautiful’, ‘well-crafted’ and ‘boss stuff’!

 

It’s that magic time of year again, pals! The 105th day of the year is upon us (we know, how is that possible?!), and the perfect way to mark the occasion is to pick up a bottle of Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength.

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Whisky Advent 2017 Day #23: The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak

It’s 23 December, which means that after today, there will be just one lonely dram left in Drinks by the Dram’s Whisky Advent Calendar. #WhiskyAdvent is almost over! As #WhiskyAdvent…

It’s 23 December, which means that after today, there will be just one lonely dram left in Drinks by the Dram’s Whisky Advent Calendar. #WhiskyAdvent is almost over!

As #WhiskyAdvent draws to a bittersweet close, you’re probably eager to get straight to the point and savour what’s behind window #23.

I’m going to let you do just that! And this one is just what you want on a chilly evening as you persistently bat the cat away from the dangling decorations on your tree – a dram of reliably excellent sherried Scotch single malt from The Macallan!

Which Macallan would that be, per chance? Why it’s… The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak!

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