Last night (Tuesday December 3), I attended a tasting of Balblair vintages. We tasted five whiskies, 2003, 1997, 1990, 1983 and 1969, prefaced by a glass of Balblair’s base spirit.
THE GRANT NAME carries some heft in Scotland. It’s a pretty common surname – but when you’re a Grant in the whisky business, that’s something else. No relation to William Grant, George Grant is the sixth generation of his family to work at Glenfarclas. You’d expect me to introduce him as master distiller, right? Wrong. George Grant is director of sales.
“I like the distilling side enough but I like people and doing tastings and presentations. I suppose you could say I get a buzz off a deal, too – whether it’s selling £20,000 worth of whisky to one person or a miniature to someone who has never tried whisky before.” Though the family-owned company doesn’t talk numbers, it seems Grant’s not bad at sales. “We had a record year in 2010 and in 2011 we had reached 2010’s total by October.”
Like many a tale told by a member of “the family”, Grant cut his teeth at a different distillery. “It’s an unwritten rule that you work for another distiller – my father spent three years at Teacher’s.” Then he jokes: “Better to make your mistakes somewhere else.” In fact The Glenlivet master distiller Alan Winchester started at Glenfarclas as a tour guide, aged 16.
Although Grant’s father, John – currently Glenfarclas company chairman – organised his son’s tenure at Inver House Distillers, Grant maintains there wasn’t any pressure to go into the family business. “There was never any expectation from parents,” he says. “But from the outside world, there was.” There isn’t a hint of drama in the way Grant says this and when I ask what he would be doing for a living if his surname wasn’t Grant, he playfully says: “Being a journalist on Drinks International looks like fun.”
He’s not a bad storyteller, either. When I ask him about bars, he smiles and regales me with a tale about a bar he’d heard about in Chicago. “It’s called Delilahs and the taxi took about $40 to get there.” The cab sped off, leaving Grant in a neighbourhood he wasn’t sure about.
“I thought, well, I’ll have to go in the bar to call another cab.” As he approached the door, a bouncer emerged with a punter in arms and turfed him on to the pavement. George entered cautiously, to find pictures of naked women on the wall. “I later found out they were part of a constantly changing exhibition,” he says. As Grant approached the bar, eager to get the hell out of there, a familiar old face looked up from the stool next to him. “It was Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell.” The pair enjoyed a few drams from the bar’s 400-strong whisk(e)y collection and Grant doesn’t mind revealing that Delilah’s was one of his votes in the World’s 50 Best Bars survey.
Enough tales. We take up Grant’s story again and, after Inver House, he makes his way to Bordeaux to learn about wine with Mähler-Besse, before jetting off to Hong Kong to sell the stuff. This was in 1998 and he says: “We were mainly doing wine, vodka and gin sales. There was very little whisky.”
On the subject of Hong Kong itself, Grant says that when he was there, people were leaving. He says: “There were fewer ex-pats and big salaries so it was a tough sell. To a degree, it wasn’t so important. Shanghai and Singapore were much more important.” He adds that, when it comes to breaking the Asian market, Macau is important as a gateway. “Hong Kong is coming back now, “ he adds. So does Glenfarclas sell in China? “We’ve sent three or four orders there,” Grant says. And he’s cautiously optimistic about India, too, though the 150% tax levy is an obvious barrier. “It means a bottle of 12 year old is £100.” (UK-based Master of Malt sells it for £34.45).
Now based in Speyside with his wife and two daughters, aged five and three months, Grant can say that, for Glenfarclas, the real growth markets have been in Europe – France, Germany and the UK in particular.
“The brand is becoming much more well known in the UK,” he says. “The Family Cask range was grasped by press and consumers and it won awards.”
The brand also celebrated its 175th birthday in 2011 and whisky writer Ian Buxton penned a book to commemorate the occasion. Buxton says of 35-year-old George Grant and the future of the distillery: “There is a young team at Glenfarclas, poised for the next 20 to 30 years. George Grant symbolises that: content in introducing the name Glenfarclas to new audiences and continuing to build sales for the future.”
And what can we expect from Grant in the future? Well in 2012, he will set about selling a Glenfarclas 43 year old, matured in cognac casks. There will be 150 bottles and they will go to the UK market. There will also be a new expression of the 105 brand – a 20 year old. Grant says the plan is to release a different 105 expression every two to three years.
When it comes to new expressions, limited editions, special bottlings and fancy packaging, Grant has a strong view – and so does his father, who has just joined us at the dinner table. “We released a 40 year old as part of our standard range. There were 1,500-1,600 cases of it and we sold it for £350 a bottle. “We wanted it to be drunk, not sit and look pretty.” Grant Snr adds: “We understand the collectors’ market is important but consumers buy something again.”
He also suggests that the industry should take a leaf out of the wine trade’s book and he called upon the Scotch Whisky Association to get rid of secondary packaging and cut the industry’s carbon footprint. “You don’t see Bordeaux bottles in boxes,” he says.
Grant’s father has joined him in London to celebrate his son’s inauguration into the Worshipful Company of Distillers and Grant tells me that, in 2013, Glenfarcas is to launch a 60 year old whisky. The Grants haven’t yet decided on a price but George and John are quick to say: “It’ll be affordable. We make whisky to drink, not for collectors.”
Although Grant’s job title is director of sales, he’s also a brand ambassador – the kind every brand dreams of, really. He was born into it, after all. And, though not on the production side, he tells me he did select the casks for the 60 year old. Well, his name is Grant, after all.