A tale of two glens

A tale of two glens

Whisky brands often like to keep it in the family and with Glenfiddich and Glenfarclas, it’s proven to be a good idea

Interview | 06 Dec 2019 | Issue 164 | By Greg Dillon

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Working for the family is a privilege, not a right, “I earned my way in through hard work, and I feel very fortunate to be working in such a fantastic, dynamic and fun industry. I think sometimes we forget just how special it is. It’s passion, commitment, dedication – from family members and old hands alike. This spirit and shared pride is rare and it is certainly translated in the quality of the whisky we produce,” says Kirsten Grant Meikle, US commercial strategy director, William Grant & Sons.

Many whisky brands started as a family endeavour and it was not uncommon for distilleries to start as family businesses, a lot of distilleries actually started as farms or local grocers who expanded into distilling and then passed the businesses down from generation to generation. Over time many of these were sold off or changed hands enough times to end up as part of a bigger whisky company, but with Glenfiddich and Glenfarclas, things have ended up a little differently.

The Glenfiddich Distillery was built by the legendary William Grant and his children in 1887, and it has remained in the Grant family hands ever since. The Grants were a pretty big family, which consisted of seven sons and two daughters, so there were plenty of hands on deck to get the distillery built through a harsh winter in time for the first spirit to run from the stills on Christmas Day. 

The brand, along with the Grant’s blended Scotch whisky brand, and products grew through ingenious endeavour and innovation and in 1957 the company’s reins were passed to William Grant’s great-grandson, Charles Gordon who brought in some new changes that brought the distillery back to more traditional processing, such as having a cooperage and coppersmiths on site. His innovation was followed by Sandy Grant Gordon, who championed single malts, and made Glenfiddich one of the first brands to do so.

Explaining her family history, Meikle exudes pride as she summarises that, “...Our founder, my great great-grandfather William Grant, had the courage to follow his dream and create a new business from scratch at the age of 46. He literally built the distillery by hand, brick-by-brick. His brave and pioneering spirit has been passed down through generations of my family. We have always been forward thinking and that has certainly spurred the business on. As an example, despite flat sales during Prohibition, my ancestor Grant Gordon persuaded the company to actually increase whisky production rather than reduce it. This stood us in great stead and has meant we were ready to meet a global surge in demand in the early 1930s. My uncles Charles and Sandy were the embodiment of pioneering spirit. The single malt whisky category was essentially established by Sandy Grant Gordon and in 1963; we actively marketed Glenfiddich whisky outside of Scotland, something no other distiller had ever done before.”

Essentially we see ourselves as custodians of the brand for the next generation, not just the next generation of the Grant family, but also the next generation of single malt enthusiasts as they discover our fantastic single malt for themselves.

Glenfiddich has been one of those brands that has always been synonymous with innovation including the first distillery visitor centre, taking a new perspective on bottle design with the pioneering ’tround’ bottle shape introduced for both the Glenfiddich and Grant’s ranges (and some very old Balvenie releases if you find them) and the use of a Solera ageing system for their 15 Years Old single malt. 

Meikle states that today the ‘pioneering spirit’ still remains and that, “Ideas are valued and innovation is encouraged. It is our agility and independent mindset that leads to interesting and innovative projects, and we do things differently. We take a long term view and in a race, a family run business bets on the tortoise, not the hare, which is why we’re always looking to the future with an unrivalled collection of whisky stock”. 

Fiercely independent, the company thrives on ’the family’ being involved, making decisions and not answering to shareholders as they do things very differently to their competitors who are at the mercy of external personal and institutional investors and all the reporting of why certain decisions have been made and enforced timelines to meet share targets, revenue targets and cuts where appropriate. 

“Keeping our business independent is critical to us as a family and is always front and centre. I am fifth generation, and sixth generation family members are now crafting their roles and coming fully on board. It is very important to us to ensure the next generation are wholly involved in the family business. Essentially we see ourselves as custodians of the brand for the next generation, not just the next generation of the Grant family, but also the next generation of single malt enthusiasts as they discover our fantastic single malt for themselves.

“Being a family owned company certainly has its advantages; for example speed and being able to adapt at a moment’s notice. Having that one person who can make immediate decisions is certainly a massive benefit. Knowing family companies is incredibly important, our distributors around the world are also family-owned, as we know the basis of how each of our companies work and also, much the same as ourselves, can get an answer much quicker,” says George Grant of Glenfarclas.  

While they might share a surname, let’s be clear that the Grants of Glenfarclas and the Grants of Glenfiddich are not related. Glenfarclas Distillery was bought by John Grant for £512 in 1865, the equivalent of £30,274.15 in today’s money, which, according to the National Archives, would have equated to the wages of roughly 2,560 days work for a skilled tradesman, alongside Recherlich Farm. He was a well known cattle farmer in the area and already owned a farm at Glenlivet. He passed the distillery on to his son George in 1889, but unfortunately George passed away pretty soon after. It was then passed on to George’s children, conveniently named John and George. Their history has quite a few Johns and Georges, the Grant family are very into passing on distilleries and names. So George (the second one) took the distillery on alongside his brother John and together they formed the Glenfarclas-Glenlivet Distilling Company.

Our difference is that we own all the whisky from the day we put it into the cask until the day it is sold, which is unusual

They entered into a partnership with the Pattisons of Leith, and as any discerning whisky nerd will know, the Pattisons were pretty ill-fated in their whisky selling. The Pattisons happened to have a lot of marketing power but very little else and eventually they caused the whole whisky industry to crash in Scotland, pulling down a lot of good distilleries with them. 

The Grant’s were enterprising and through hard work and determination, they made Glenfarclas into a very successful brand. George went on to have two sons, who were called, to nobody’s surprise, John and George. George (the third one) went on to take over the distillery and saw it through some pretty difficult times, including prohibition and the Second World War. He passed it on to John L.S. Grant, who then brought in George S. Grant and the two remain in charge to this day.

Grant muses on the changes his family has seen, “There have been lots of ups and downs, for example, in the 1950s when they changed the law so you could mash and distil in the same day, in the 1970s with the introduction of visitor centres at distilleries, even factors like the advent of mains gas. The last two generations – my father and grandfather – have seen the most change overall.” 

Despite being family owned, the two companies do things very differently, from their approach to business to their family history, the approach is unique to each, but both businesses work perfectly for the respective families who own them. 

“We still direct-fire heat all the stills. Still mature nearly exclusively in Oloroso sherry casks”, says Grant, adding that, “Our difference is that we own all the whisky from the day we put it into the cask until the day it is sold, which is unusual. It’s a big plus point for us. At the end of the day, we want people to go buy a bottle and then buy another one. We don’t want people to be worrying about whether they can afford to open the bottle on their shelf.”

Scotch is often entwined with myth and legend, and having a family history to back up any brand gives an extra edge

Glenfiddich and William Grant expanded massively, building and buying new distilleries and constantly pushing their brand further. The effort has paid off, and they are now one of the biggest selling Scotches around the world. While Grant & Sons has become a company with many other brands under its name, Glenfarclas is not owned by any other company, nor have they bought any other brands.

Glenfarclas, while also very popular, especially in Scotland, are not quite as big. It is understandable that they shunned future partnerships after the disaster of the Pattison crash and today are entirely independent, one of the few distilleries that are. “[Family ownership] is important – you can only sell something once, so why would you sell it? We’re doing a good job, exporting to 100 countries around the world and growing,” notes Grant.

“The fact that we are still family-owned and are independent. We are who we are, and a well-recognised and well-respected brand around the world, and trusted by our peers within the industry as well as the general public.”

But several things unite the two businesses too as while they may have different outlooks to how they approach marketing and expansion, both are very successful and both insist on keeping it in the family.

For good reason as well, since this means they are able to capture a more traditional feel for their brands. Scotch is often entwined with myth and legend, and having a family history to back up any brand gives an extra edge. It means there is more of a legacy to uphold and something for future generations to look back on and use as a foundation for future endeavour.

Both brands have been able to find great success by relying on family, and with Scotch becoming increasingly popular, it’ll be interesting to see where they go next.
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