Messages began pouring into the magazine’s inbox from enthusiasts, bartenders, brand ambassadors, and members of the Speyside community – it seems that everyone has their own story to tell about how Dennis has touched their lives in some way. If anything, one correspondent remarked, it was almost incredible that no one had thought to commit the story of his remarkable life and career to film before.
Undeniably one of the Scotch whisky world’s great ‘characters’, Dennis had the unusual – or perhaps fateful – honour of being born in a ‘little house’ on the site of the distillery he would one day manage and later return to as master distiller. Perhaps it was destiny, or perhaps he is simply one more example of the recurring pattern that sees those who enter the world of Scotch whisky seldom leave it.
Certainly, when Dennis was born in 1946, Scotch whisky was not only the life blood that flowed through the heart of the Speyside community and the small town of Rothes but the bond linking successive generations of a great many families.
“There were five distilleries, 1,500 people, and four pubs, and we thought that was a perfect balance,” Dennis says of the Rothes of his youth, describing a close-knit community united by shared history and experience. Of those not employed directly in the production of whisky, the remainder could be found swinging hammers in cooperages, tending the abundant fields of barley covering swathes of the Laich of Moray, or using their hands and wits to keep those industries turning over. In the summertime, some would be occupied with cutting fragrant peat in the hills, as the malted barley used in Speyside was often lightly smoked at the time. “The men all received one tractor-load of peat to keep their fires and keep them warm during the wintertime as well,” he adds, conjuring up an image of a time when burning peat in the home was practicality, not a novelty.
For Dennis, though, his early years were spent playing rounders or “20-a-side” football on the Rothes playing fields, tooting a bugle in the Boys Brigade band, fishing for trout in nearby streams or rollicking in the grounds of The Glen Grant. “We used to get chased out a lot,” Dennis admits with amusement, before telling of how he and his friends would “go on safari” around the grounds and sneak into the many greenhouses that once stood on the site to ogle at the unfamiliar fruit grown there while being careful to avoid detection by the distillery’s gardener.
His memories of the distillery mansion house – occupied by the imposing owner of The Glen Grant, James ‘The Major’ Grant, until he died in 1931 – is of an intimidating space that spoke of the late proprietor’s eccentric Victorian character. With every surface covered in exotic souvenirs and every square inch of wall space occupied by hunting trophies, Dennis recalls it being a somewhat scary place to venture as a child, but these recollections are sharply contrasted by his warm memories of The Major’s former butler, Biawa Makalaga, who lived out his days in his private rooms in the mansion, by then divided into apartments. Though now demolished, the stout wooden doors that were once the portal to The Major’s home now guard the entrance of Dennis’s own house, located up a path and a few dozen paces from the distillery’s production buildings.
Dennis’s grandfather started his working life at The Glen Grant Distillery in 1919, beginning over a century of association between three generations of the Malcolm family and Rothes’s first single malt distillery. At that time, there was a standing offer from Douglas MacKessack, then the owner and master blender at The Glen Grant, that any employee’s child could, on coming of age, find work at the distillery.
“When I started, there were four fathers and four sons at Glen Grant, and I’m not saying just sons,” recalls Dennis of those early days. “There were girls that worked in the office as well. It was for everybody, you know?”
Upon completing his education at the school in Rothes, at age 15, the time came for Dennis to decide whether he would continue his education at the nearby Elgin Academy, or follow his father up the path to The Glen Grant. Though accepted into the academy, Dennis chose to pursue a life in whisky, specifically as an apprentice cooper.
“When I started, I got £2.50 a week!” Dennis recollects with a grin. “I’d go to work on a Saturday for that as well. And you didn’t get holidays off. At that time, you’d get two hours off on Christmas Day so that you could have a late lunch and listen to The Queen’s speech.”
Nevertheless, Dennis feels he got the best end of the bargain. In 1961, after donning an apron made from a used barley bag and picking up a hammer made to fit his palm by the distillery carpenter, Dennis began learning how to take five imported bourbon barrels – delivered as ‘shooks’ of staves – and turn them into four hogsheads.
“When you’re making casks, every cooper has their own identifying mark, you know? They’d mark the casks so that if one had a problem you’d have to fix it,” explains Dennis, telling of being called up once by the head cooper about a cask he’d made a few years earlier. “‘Here nipper’, he’d say – he called me ‘nipper’ because I was the wee’est at the time, I suppose. ‘That cask down in number four warehouse, level three, section two is leaking and it’s your een.’ He’d known by the marks, and you’d have to go down and fix it.”
A great many sherry casks were also delivered, but these were whole and only recently disgorged of imported oloroso or cream sherry, the latter often from Duff Gordon. Dennis recalls how the “gentleman distiller” Douglas MacKessack, who inherited the distillery from his grandfather, The Major, would nose each sherry cask individually and pick the very best for his own private stock. It was a time when almost all of The Glen Grant’s whiskies incorporated a healthy proportion of sherry cask–matured spirit. It is fitting then that a sherry butt, just like those favoured in the early days of Dennis’s career, was chosen to be bottled at 60 years of age to honour the master distiller’s 60th anniversary.
Dennis was an apprentice cooper for five years, before transferring into production in 1966, where his father and grandfather worked before him. “I was young, super fit, and wanted to know everything about everything,” says Dennis, remembering how he was mentored by The Glen Grant’s veterans. “They were all in their 50s and 60s, but, between them, they’d hundreds of years of production experience and they were quite prepared to tell me all the ways to do it so they wouldn’t have to! I had the energy and they had the experience, so it was a perfect fit.”
Dennis spent six years going through the different processes of whisky making, before being appointed as brewer (production manager) in 1971, at the age of 26. In those days, the distillery manager focused on running the books – the business of ordering materials, buying and selling casks, dealing with bottling and the like – and was ultimately responsible for the nearly 60 employees working for Glen Grant and its sister distillery, Caperdonich (or Glen Grant II, as it was also known). Dennis, however, had full control of making the whisky, from managing the floor and drum maltings to cask filling, not to mention responsibility for production personnel.
In 1972, exactly 100 years after The Major had doubled the size of Glen Grant, Dennis managed an expansion of the distillery that saw its capacity doubled again – all without stopping production. It’s an achievement of which he is rightly proud, and the still house now stands as just one of the many lasting marks Dennis has made on the distillery, The Glen Grant brand, and the world of Scotch whisky. During his time, Dennis saw the phasing out of peat use, on-site maltings and direct firing of the copper pots, but maintains that the distillery’s fruity and mellow house style – which he feels owes much to the purifiers attached to the necks of The Glen Grant’s tall stills, its traditional wooden washbacks and use of dunnage warehousing – remains as it was the day he started.
Speaking to those who know him best – past and present colleagues, peers, friends and protégés – it’s clear that Dennis’s meteoric rise to management was inevitable. Without prompting, all speak of his energy, irrepressible curiosity, passion for The Glen Grant, and, particularly, his commitment to the people working with and for him. In time, these qualities saw Dennis shape the fortunes of a great many distilleries in Speyside, before fate brought him back to The Glen Grant when it was purchased by Campari Group.
“Everyone talks about production, but the most important thing is the people,” concludes Dennis, musing on what made his 60 years working in whisky fly by. It’s a sentiment that anyone who has spent a little time with Dennis, one of Scotch whisky’s living legends, is sure to agree with wholeheartedly.
Whisky Magazine’s documentary film,
A Life In Whisky: The Dennis Malcolm Story, can be viewed in full for free, on demand, here.