E-pistle #18/07 – An Interview with George Grant

Luc Timmermans, Belgium

Dear Maltmaniacs Epistle readers… Today I would like to present you the interview I recently had with George Grant, the sixth generation of Grant’s, son of John, owners of the still family owned Glenfarclas distillery. The story of Glenfarclas Distillery, established in 1836, is as rich and colourful as the great Glenfarclas Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky itself. It is the story of one Scottish family, the Grants, who since 1865 have been united by a single vision – the creation of the perfect malt whisky, the ultimate taste of Scotland. Now this ultimate taste of Scotland is for what Glenfarclas is concerned still sherried whiskies. Very faithful to their sherry profile and real purveyors of the after-dinner profile of their malt whiskies have they been producing a vast range of different aged single malt whiskies. But has this profile changed over the years? Do they still have access to good sherry casks? Interesting questions that needed an answer… so hence my interview with George Grant. (*)

* After I sent the interview to the other malt maniacs they added a few questions of their own.

1) Luc: George, could you present yourself to our readers?
What is your current position at Glenfarclas and how long have you now been involved in the business?

In 1997 I worked with Munton’s malt for 2 months before working with Inver House for 1 year in all aspects of the business from mashing to warehousing, I worked shift patterns. After this I went to work in Hong Kong working with my distributor who also sold Inver House products along with Bowmore, Isle of Jura and many more single malts Whiskies. Since coming to be based at Glenfarclas I have also worked in various departments, now very settled as the Glenfarclas Brand Ambassador.

2) Luc: Which are the different markets you are predominantly working on?
I predominantly work with America, Germany, France, Spain, South Africa, Andorra and Portugal.

3) Luc: Which is the most important Glenfarclas market and why?
The most important Glenfarclas Market is the end consumer we want them all to be happy, and proud to be drinking Glenfarclas.

4) Luc: Now, about the profile of your whiskies. Could you denominate that profile or do you have a kind of holy Glenfarclas bible describing the flavours/aroma’s you are pursuing with your whiskies?
That would be telling wouldn’t it…………

5) Johannes: Well, this is an ‘interview’ after all, George 😉
I actually have a burning question that deals with ‘markets’ and ‘profile’. To me the ‘Family Reserve’ bottlings that are available in Germany seem to have a more sherried profile than the regular Glenfarclas range – or at least until recently. Do you tailor the profile of certain releases to local preferences on certain markets?

Simply, yes. I do spend a lot of time in Germany and also speak at length to the German consumer, so therefore we do adapt things for the German market, also in the same style with the Vintages in Spain. This is also beginning to become apparent in France with us about to release a 3 bottle collection, of First fill olorosso, Manzanilla and a refill Port Pipe. All around 10years old.

6) Luc: I presume that the vatting of your standard range (8yo – 30yo) is different for every age expression.
Could you elaborate on that ?  What is the percentage sherry & non-sherry casks?

No all the same 60 sherry to 40 Non. But you must remember we bottle the 10yo 4 to 5 times a year whereas the 30yo normally gets bottled once every one or two years. Therefore we have a larger base of casks to pick for the 30yo and can be much more selective.

7) Luc: We maniacs have seen changes in these expressions.
The newly released 105 was very different, richer than any previous version.
Is this intentional and what are the causes?

The biggest change in the 105 was making it 2 years older, whereas before it was 8yo it has now become 10yo.

8) Davin: Why is there no age statement on the 105?
Why did you change the 105 from an 8yo to a 10yo and can we expect further changes in the future?

There is no age statement on the bottle however on the back of the tin in the text it clearly says it is 10 yo. We changed it to 10yo to make the whisky more mellow, and to also to make it easier to balance the marriage of the casks out at “105” every time.

9) Luc: We have seen also changes in the recent 15yo Glenfarclas.
Same reasons here, or are there other factors influencing this increase in quality?

We started work with a new Bodega (Jose and Miguel Martine) in 1990 and we are now starting to see these casks emerge, 3 years ago in the 105 and now in the 15yo. It is not necessarily an increase in quality; these casks are however giving a much darker colour.

10) Johannes: Well put, George – ‘quality’ is like beauty: in the eye of the beholder.
Be that as it may, the eye of this beholder likes what it sees. I have a taste for rich, sherried malts so I really enjoyed these latest batches. As I understand it the shift in profile could (almost) exclusively be attributed to the casks from the new bodega. If we assume that the profile of a whisky is shaped by three factors (raw ingredients, distillation process and maturation), how important is each factor for the profile of Glenfarclas? (For example: 30% ingredients, 30% process, 40% maturation).

Simply they are all 100% each if the ingredients aren’t correct, then they will not work in the process, and so on.
Here we want everything to be correct from the start, if we use shoddy malt then that will be picked up in the process and then in the maturation and then worst of all in the bottle.

11) Davin: Luc, Johannes and Michel noted a significant change in the flavour profile of the 15yo and you attributed this to a change in cask suppliers. Why did you change bodegas? Price? Quality? Volume?
We wanted consistency, where as before we were buying casks randomly from many different cask suppliers, we now buy from one supplier who knows what we want and is able to deliver again and again.

12) Michel: At your new sherry bodega, is it possible to choose a selection from offered casks?
Or is the situation more like ‘take what’s on the shelf’?

Yes we can pick, my father still goes down every year or so to select the casks.

13) Davin: Among whisky anoraks, the reputation of Macallan began to slide in the late-1990s with the changing sherry profile then it took a huge nose-dive with the introduction of the Fine Oak line. Are you taking the same risk switching bodegas and thus changing your flavour profile? And, have you moved deliberately to fill the gap Macallan left behind?
No, no risk just a continuous supply of good wood. No not done this to fill the Macallan void, we have always produced whisky like this, only now more people are starting to notice. “Best Sherried Whisky 12yo” Sweden.

14) Luc: What is your opinion on the current evolution of Scottish whisky to move away from sherried expressions? We have seen Macallan shift to fine oak. A lot of distillers claim sherry casks are not the best to use, bourbon casks are better?
Some whiskies do mature better in Sherry casks some better in bourbon casks, we don’t age any of our whisky in first fill bourbon for the reason it does not improve our whisky. Sherry casks are also very expensive and some distillers may not want to lay down such a large amount of money, but here at Glenfarclas we are here to produce the best and we need our sherry casks to do that.

15) Michel: Why is it that certain spirits mature ‘better’ in sherry casks?
Do they allow the distiller to be more flexible during production with regards to variables like distilling time, middle cut, etc.? (I do not mean the ‘masking effect’ of a sherry cask!)
Honestly don’t know, not a chemist. Could hazard a guess. Will try and find out.

16) Davin: Does the change in suppliers mean that the profile of all your whiskies will change in time as these new casks move through the system, or is this limited to the changes noted in the 15yo and the 105? Could some of the change in the 15yo be due simply to batch variation?
For the older ages you may very well see a drought of colour in years to come although I doubt it, as for the older ages the bottlings are much smaller and therefore not affected the same as 12,12,15 and 105.

17) Luc: You have a vast stock of old casks, probably even the biggest stock of old casks in Scotland.
What are your plans with these? And what do you do if one of them drops below the 40% level?

This year we are starting a major project of bottling a cask from every year, from 1952 to 2000 and hopefully beyond and time goes by. As a vintage runs out we will bottle another cask. We have been very lucky so far that we have not found any casks below 40% some very close, but we just keep an eye on them and ensure we bottle them before that happens.

18) Davin: Will your cask series, from 1952 forward, be released simultaneously or sequentially?  When can we expect to see these on the market and what price ranges are we looking at?
10 will be released this year the rest next year, ball park figures in UK £100-£2000 per bottle.

19) Luc: Would you ever use old casks to actively colour your malts, like some distillers used to do in the past?
No. Not all our old casks are first fill sherry. Also if we did this we would create an amazing whisky we could not sustain. We just won Distiller of the year from Whisky Magazine for consistently producing a good product. Also adding old whisky would be very expensive.

20) Luc: Will you have sufficient stock good sherry casks (and/or access to them) to keep your distillery profile going?
At current levels of growth, yes.
If everyone in China wants a bottle of Glenfarclas, we may struggle!!

21) Davin: How much of your stock is used for blending?
If the popularity of Glenfarclas takes off in China, as you mentioned, will Glenfarclas find itself in the same position as Macallan – having to bottle as a single malt, whisky that was really intended for blending?

If whisky takes off in the way some people are predicting in China then everyone in the whisky industry may all struggle. Things never do happen how people predict!!! None of our whisky is laid down for the intention of using it for Blending if we are selling it for Blending then we sell it straight away as new spirit. So everything we have could be used for Glenfarclas. We currently do a product in France called Heritage for the Supermarkets, this is Glenfarclas whisky but just not the same ratio of Sherry casks to plain casks. 

22) Luc: I presume you like whisky too.
What is your favourite Glenfarclas expression and why?

I love the taste of the 21yo in the standard expression. Because it is so smooth and elegant and a whisky I can drink at any time of the day or night. I also love the 50yo because I hand selected the cask, we did this bottling to celebrate the birth of my Great Great Great Grandfather. I think that is pretty cool!

23) Luc: Now, we all know peated whisky are in high demand. I think you must have been tempted to produce some peated Glenfarclas as well. Have you ever had any plans to produce peated Glenfarclas or will you in the future?
No and No.

24) Davin: You have a lot of whisky maturing in ex-bourbon casks.
Have you ever thought of ‘finishing’ some of these in port/rum/wine casks?

“NO”, we are quite anti finishing here.

Many thanks George for your time and effort you have put in answering our questions.  Perhaps we can elaborate in another interview some more about the production process and more in particular about the changes that were done at your production process over time.  I’m sure we will share more drams together and talk about our mutual passion. Keep up the good work and keep on presenting us the best sherried whiskies.

Luc Timmermans (and some other maniacs)