Private tour of the Glen Grant distillery with Dennis Malcolm

On Tuesday 12 June 2018 I woke up to a delicious Scottish breakfast of haggis, black pudding, eggs, mushrooms and bacon; much needed sustinance to fuel my final day in Speyside. With the packing done, we said our farewells to the friendly proprietor of our fabulous B&B, the Cardhu Country House, and drove our Mini Cooper up the road to Rothes for a private tour of the Glen Grant distillery with Dennis Malcolm.

History of Glen Grant

In 1840 two brothers, James and John Grant, took out a distilling licence and they established the Glen Grant distillery by the river Spey in Rothes, Scotland. After the death of James and John, James “The Major” Grant inherited Glen Grant from his uncle John in 1872. James was just 25 at the time.

Twenty-five years after inheriting Glen Grant, The Major constructed a second distillery across the road from the Glen Grant distillery. Obviously struggling to find a name for this new distillery, it was named “Glen Grant 2”. Later, it was a bit more creatively named Caperdonich after the well from which both of the distilleries draw their water.

The major died in 1931 and his grandson was his successor. Fast forward about 75 years, in 2006 the Italian company Gruppo Campari acquired Glen Grant and set upon re-building the brand. Glen Grant is now one of the world’s most popular single malts, with France and Italy being its leading markets.

The Gentleman Master Distiller

When we arrived at the Glen Grant distillery we were greeted by its Master Distiller, Dennis Malcolm.

Dennis started working at Glen Grant in 1961 as an apprentice cooper when he was just 15 years old, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather who also worked at Glen Grant. Dennis has worked at other distilleries in his 57 year long career in whisky, but he speaks about Glen Grant with such pride that it seems clear the distillery is his rightful home. Understandably so, because he was born in the distillery grounds in 1946.

After Gruppo Campari purchased Glen Grant in 2006 Dennis was appointed its Master Distiller, and with the reigns firmly in his grip he has built up quite a reputation as one of the industry greats.

He has received a number of accolades and awards, and in 2016 he was awarded the honour of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (an “OBE”). But, you woudn’t know it when spending the morning with him. During my time with him, Dennis proved to be very down to earth and a true gentleman who had time for everybody he passed. He is people focused and seems committed to producing a quality product that speaks for itself. There was no marketing mumbo jumbo from Dennis, just a great sense of humour and a genuine passion for making great tasting single malt.

Glen Grant’s light & fruity spirit

Glen Grant is known for its light and fruity spirit, which to my palate is dominated by fresh crisp apples, green pear and soft malty flavours. Visiting Glen Grant provides the opportunity to gain an insight into how Glen Grant achieves spirit of this incredibly quaffable character (as an aside, I am writing this post from Ischia in Italy while sipping on Glen Grant 5 year old and it is far too easy to drink!).

Dennis first showed us the distillery’s mill, which crushes externally sourced malted barley into “grist”. He showed us how barley is manually inspected for quality and then the distillery’s on-site lab which tests barley. What became immediately clear was Glen Grant’s focus on the spirit, in an industry which is obsessed with wood and fancy finishes.

The grist is then placed in large mash tuns (pictured below) and mixed with water from the Glen Grant Burn, which as I understand it has its source from Caperdonich Well. This releases a sugar called “maltose” from the grist, and this sugar is soaked up into the water. That sugary water is called “wort”.

Dennis opened up a mash tun and showed us what was inside. The grist mixed with the water looked like porridge and it smelled very malty. Immediately, we were hungry and craving a big bowl of Scottish porridge (with whisky cream of course!).

The wort is then cooled and drained into large wooden vats called wash backs (pictured below). While in the wash backs, the wort has yeast added to it and fermentation begins. The yeast eats sugar in the wort and expels alcohol. After about 40 hours of fermentation, the liquid now contains alcohol of low strength and it is called a “wash”.

At Glen Grant the wash backs are made from Oregon pine, given that this type of wood does not have many knots and so it does not leak as easily as other types of wood.

I asked Dennis what his thoughts were on what appeared to be the contentious issue of whether bacteria in wooden wash backs influences the flavour of the wash. Dennis paused for a moment, and then agreed that wooden wash backs do influence flavour. He explained that wood fermenters swell over time because they are constantly wet, and the wood becomes fluffy and soft. This would seem to create suitable conditions for bacteria. Given that wood cannot be sanitised 100% like stainless steel can, Dennis said there will always be bacteria in wooden wash backs and the presence of this bacteria in the fermentation process adds to the character of the wash.

In the below picture you can see the bubbly Glen Grant wash. In addition to smelling malty, there was a fruitiness to the liquid together with its release of carbon dioxide.

Walking into the Glen Grant still room is quite an experience when the distillery is in production. The room is heated to almost unbearably hot conditions by gigantic copper stills churning out spirit that fill the large warehouse with a mouthwatering malty and fruity aroma. The stills tower their way upwards to the ceiling with their tall slender necks, and the sheer size of the stills is testament to the scale of the operations at the distillery. One cannot help but stand and stare at these huge stills, and wonder whether The Major could ever have imagined just how big his inheritance would one day become.

Glen Grant’s wash stills and spirit stills sit side by side. The wash stills have a window in their necks so distillers can see what is happening in the still. After the wash is distilled in the wash stills to produce low wines, the low wines are then distilled in the spirit stills to produce spirit of about 70%abv. Only the middle part of this second distillation is aged into whisky.

At Glen Grant the cuts are done electronically with computers. The distillery is equipped with computer rooms which resemble something you’d expect from NASA not a Scottish distillery, but this technology constantly monitors each stage of the process, from mashing to fermenting to distilling.

So, how do these monster sized Godzilla stills create the light, malty and fresh spirit for which Glen Grant is internationally renowned?

Glen Grant want to collect only the lightest alcohol vapours as spirit. Two features of the Glen Grant stills are designed assist with this aim:

  1. The stills are very tall and slender, so light vapours have the most chance of reaching the top of the still neck to then be condensed and collected.
  2. Large purifiers sit at the top of the still necks which send heavier alcohols back down so they are not collected.

The Major had actually installed Glen Grant’s tall slender stills and the purifiers after he inherited Glen Grant, and given the popularity of Glen Grant’s light character this gamble appears to have paid off handsomely.

In the below picture you can see a purifier which sits at the top of a Glen Grant still. Heavier alcohols are in effect “rejected” by the purifier, and they make their way down the thin copper tube instead of being collected.

Below you can watch a video of a Glen Grant purifier in action. When watching the video, observe the alcohol that flows down the thin copper pipe. That alcohol is the liquid which is sent back down by the purifier.

Although the whisky making process at Glen Grant is heavily computerised, the spirit is still nosed manually and checked for quality. No machine can quite replicate what a distiller’s nose and brain can pick up, and this demonstrates that whisky making is equal parts science, technique and art.

The spirit which is to be collected flows out of the stills through a spirits safe, which is locked by HM Customs and Excise, so a distiller needs to test the whisky using controls from outside the safe.

In the picture below Dennis is checking for impurities in the spirit.

The maturation

Once distilled, the selected spirit is diluted with fresh spring water and put into oak casks where it will be aged for at least 3 years.

The warehouse pictured above was built around 1845-1850. Unlike modern warehouses the older stone warehouses help keep temperature constant, and Dennis thinks this consistently cool environment is ideal for maturing whisky. It would cost a fortune to build these large stone warehouses these days, so they are a rare commodity indeed!

The whisky, the gardens and the water

At Glen Grant, enjoying the whisky was not just about drinking the liquid in a room; it was about immersing oneself with good company and in the beauty of the distillery gardens while savouring Glen Grant single malt whisky. At no other distillery was the whisky so intertwined with nature and water than it was at Glen Grant.

The distillery’s gardens were established by The Major in 1886. While the gardens had become dilapidated and overgrown after many years of neglect, in 1993 an extensive renovation of the gardens began and it took 3 years to restore the gardens to their former glory. The gardens are now strikingly landscaped in an elegant 19th century Victorian style.

The large stretch of gardens separates the distillery from a stream from which the distillery gets its process water, particularly for mashing.

Dennis took us across the gardens with a golf buggy and I was left speechless while admiring its beautiful lawns, trees and waterways.

Once we got to the end of the gardens, we were led to a quintessentially Scottish waterfall and stream. The clear pristine water in the stream flowed gently over mossy rocks. The air was fresh, cool and ozonic, and it reminded me of the smell of grass after a heavy rainfall in autumn or winter.

As we walked along a wooden path which had been built over the stream, Dennis stopped suddenly and rummaged through his keys. He found his desired key and proceeded to unlock a rusty metal safe which was fitted into stone. Once unlocked, the safe’s treasures were revealed. It contained a bottle of Glen Grant 170th anniversary edition and whisky glasses.

You know what that means. It was time for a dram!

Dennis handed me a glass and he poured me a healthy measure of Glen Grant 170th anniversary edition single malt. Cool from the running water flowing just a matter of feet below the safe in which it had been stored, the whisky felt like it had been taken out of a refrigerator.

That was perhaps the most memorable dram I have had. Not only did I get to enjoy a dram with an industry legend, but the whisky was savoured in an idyllic setting which had everything you would expect from a Scottish distillery. That setting was fresh, cool, lush, green and pristine.

Dennis then took some water from the stream using his copper dog, and he added the water to our whisky. He also gave us a glass of the water to try. We hesitated trying the water. Being city dwellers from Melbourne, we had only ever seen drinking water come out of taps and plastic bottles. Drinking water straight from a stream was something entirely new for us. Dennis then took the glass of water and drank it, showing us it was safe to drink. When I put the water to my lips, it tasted pure and fresh. I wanted to gulp down the whole glass of that water, and it had no chlorine taste!

I enjoyed a dram of the Glen Grant 170th anniversary edition with Dennis by the cave where The Major used to store whisky of his very own. The whisky was rich, decadent and full-flavoured, though I suspect endorphins and the environment which I was in probably made it taste extraordinarily tasty. It had the light, malty and fruity Glen Grant signature style, but with layers of Christmas cake and soft spice.

The Major’s cave is now caged off and inside it sits a barrel and bottles, which is symbolic of The Major’s practice of exposing barrels of maturing whisky to the elements. Though, don’t make any plans to visit the gardens with a copper dog of your own to try and get a freebie from the barrel, as I’m told the barrel is empty.

When we returned to the distillery’s visitor centre, Dennis gave us a dram of Glen Grant 10 year old and he sat down with us to keep chatting. The whisky was light and yet it carried a rich malty character which was a core component of its character, alongside caramel, vanilla and crisp orchard fruits. Despite having spent a decade aging in American and sherry oak, the whisky reminded me of the wash backs which I had smelled only an hour or so earlier – it was deliciously malty and full of soft clean barley, and the oak added some lovely layers.

Dennis then gave me a bottle of Glen Grant 10 year old as a gift and the tour came to a close.

Final thoughts on my visit to the Glen Grant distillery

My tour of the Glen Grant distillery with Dennis Malcolm was an unforgettable experience which highlighted that the distillery is defined by both tradition and innovation.

The distillery maintains tradition by continuing to use the tall slender stills and purifiers which The Major introduced to the distillery, and its Victorian era styled gardens and stone buildings take you back to the 1800’s. Yet, behind the scenes, its science labs test barley for quality and sophisticated computer technology monitors each stage of the whisky making process before the Glen Grant spirit is put in oak to age.

Despite Glen Grant’s global popularity, the distillery and its gardens were an oasis of calm where a dram could be enjoyed alongside quintessentially Scottish pristine waters and lush greenery. After a visit to Glen Grant, it became clear that single malt is best enjoyed with good company or in the midsts of nature.

Thank you to Gruppo Campari for arranging this tour.

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