Case Study in Entrepreneurism
First Society bottling 1983.
At a time when the Government seemingly wants to make entrepreneurs of us all, the history of Glen Grant offers an irresistible exemplum. Firstly we need to have a genetic predisposition to streetwise sharp-practice. Even before the distillery was opened in 1840 by James and John Grant, James, an Elgin lawyer, was buying up all the local , legally and illegally produced whisky and selling it all as 'illegal' to naive Lowlanders who thought they were getting a bargain. Another ploy was to carry in his pocket to all business transactions a £100 note to be offered in payment for goods - knowing that the seller was unlikely to be able to change so large a sum but in good faith would give him credit. John, similarly, before 1840, supplemented his income as agrain merchant by trading in illegal whisky.
These were men who relished living on their wits, but they also knew when to take the chance for bold investment. After six years' experience as joint owners (with others) of Aberlour Distillery, they leased land at the edge of the Morayshire village of Rothes and built Glen Grant. And when the venture showed signs of being successful, John became the largest shareholder in Morayshire Railways while in 1844 James became a member of Elgin Council to push for the completion of the railway network which would open up direct access to the lucrative southern markets.
Ruthless determination was, however, balanced by social responsibility. John was a director of the Elgin and Lossiemouth Harbour Company, founder in 1841 of the Rothes Rifle Corps and Elginshire Volunteers, and he provided in Rothes for the erection and endowment of a school for girls. In 1820, as a young man, James had taken part in the famous 'Raid on Elgin', the last clan rising in Scottish history. Both men were careful also to create good relationships with the distillery's work force and with the local community, a managerial approach which was to be continued through three generations By 1872, when James's son, at the age of twenty-five, inherited the distillery, Speyside was already dominating the industry. Known simply as 'The Major' or 'Glen Grant', he turned Glen Grant into a major player by rapidly expanding capacity.
In 1877 he doubled the malt barns, and added a new mill and fermentation tuns, to feed an additional two stills. Refrigerated coolers were installed and by 1886 the distillery was lit by electricity. In 1898 he purchased nearby malt-mills and converted them into a second distillery, Glen Grant No.2 (reopened as 'Caperdonich' in 1965), the product reaching the warehouse by the famous 'Rothes Whisky- Pipe'. He sold Glen Grant to the far corners of the Empire and by 1900 was pioneering the single malt.
Today up to 40% of Glen Grant's output is for single malt. The Major's energies seemed boundless. He fathered ten children, was a legendary hunter, shooter and fisher, built his magnificent baronial mansion next to the distillery and extended the garden to 20 acres, establishing orchards and supplementing native plants with the exotic discoveries of the most far-travelled Victorian botanists. He himself went on biggame hunts to India and Mrica, once intrepidly taking his young second wife into the heart of Matabeleland, 'shooting half a dozen snakes before breakfast and dispatching crocodiles at water holes'. Presumably his accompanying stock of Glen Grant was used to inoculate against the deadly malaria, yellow and black water fevers.
On this expedition he rescued two abandoned children and brought one of them back to Rothes. He named him Biawa Makalaga, Biawa because he was found by the wayside, Makalaga because that was how his tribe, the Kalanga, was known to Europeans. Biawa was educated locally and grew up speaking with a strong Rothes accent, eventually becoming The Major's butler and living on till 1972 in Glen Grant House. The Major had also continued the family beneficence to the local community, with donations to the Highland League football-team and. by providing a curling pond, as well as taking up his uncle's directorate responsibilities in the Morayshire Railway Company. Maybe flamboyance has its downside.
The Major was a somewhat tyrannical father to his daughters, three of whom survived him but none of whom he deemed capable of succeeding him. Instead in 1931 he sent for his grandson, a man who was to demonstrate quite different entrepreneurial skills.
Douglas Mackessack had been expensively educated at Rugby and Oxford, played cricket for Scotland, and was to be a prisoner-of-war in the 1940's. Running Glen Grant was not an occupation he sought, but one he accepted as his duty. Noblesse oblige, he introduced a private pension for the workers and took away the compulsion to retire at sixty-five. He turned Glen Grant House into homes for his staff or offered them a housing allowance.
He travelled widely in Britain, creating profitable relationships with wine and spirit merchants as well as retailers. He risked selling a
consignment of whisky to an Italian merchant, Armando Giovanni, and thereby laid the foundations for today's dominance by Glen Grant of the Italian Market. But Douglas Mackessack was not just a humane manager and shrewd salesman. He had the foresight to insure Glen Grant against a succession of post-war recessions in the whisky industry by setting up Glen Grant as a limited company, merging it first with George G. Smith in 1952 and then in 1972 with Hill Thomson and Co. Ltd. to become The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. Finally, realising the need for capital infusion to sustain expansion, he promoted the take-over by Seagram in 1978.
He died a much-respected man in 1987. Bob MacPherson, the recently retired manager at Glen Grant, brought me up to date on the development of the distillery. A small, quiet, even reticent man, he has a mischievous sense of humour and a fund of stories from the old days, particularly about compliant excisemen and about the ingenuity of the locals in thieving the whisky.
There were ways of filching from the 'whisky-pipe'; but more profitably, when the whisky was overnight in the railway sidings at Elgin, a different kind of entrepreneur bored up through first the wagon then the cask to pull off the spirit. While this was being sold at hospitable prices in Speyside, the gaugers were discovering some surprising discrepancies on delivery, Bob explained how Seagram had rationalised and expanded the distillery.
The company increased the wooden wash backs to ten and in 1986 built a magnificent new stillhouse, retaining only two of the old stills but building six new ones to exactly the same shapes and including the famous 'purifiers' (essentially more efficient reflux systems) which had been invented by John Grant for the Oliginal stills.
In the approach to the distillery, visitors can still see, perched over the Backburn which feeds the distillery, 'Wee Geordie', a riveted, originally coal-fired, spirit still which was partner to 'Geordie', Glen Grant's No.2 still named after the man who stoked its fire. The Major in his time delighted in taking visitors through his conservatories hanging with orchids, melons, peaches and grapes into the twenty-acre garden.
The conservatories are gone but the garden has been magnificently restored and should not be missed. We walked up past the Caperdonich Well from which water is piped for the mash, through a wide valley of native and exotic plants, flowers and trees, along by the lily-pond and up to the linn. There through a gorge the river-water collapses noisily down waterfalls to reach the garden. As in The Major's time, a reliable wooden walkway enables the visitor to climb to the top of the falls where embedded in the rock is a safe containing glasses and bottles of Glen Grant.
The clean pale-gold spirit can be consumed neat but it is magical when accompanied by the brown cold water trawled up by a rope from the burn. Glen Grant is sold as a five- and tenyear-old. Bob MacPherson doesn't mind what people do with the five-year-old: in Italy various mixers are applied to it or it is poured over ice. But he treasures the ten year-old matured in the dunnage floors of the distillery's own warehouse; and doesn't show preference to the versions of it which are matured for a lengthier time or are 'finished' in sherry casks.
Both are sold in the new attractive Visitor Reception area while, in a separate part of the distillery, has been recreated The Major's study from Glen Grant House, featuring a galaxy of menacing stag-heads and a leopard-skin stretched on the wall but also, more interestingly, a framed copy of Scott Skinner's 'James Grant and Gladstone Reel, a new highland Schottische and Strathspey". They don't make them like that any more. But let us give praise: they still make the whisky.
Gordon Liddell is a long serving member who enjoys writing about whisky.