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So you want to be a…whisky distiller

Suitably titled ‘The Living Landscape’, artist James Tapscott recently brought an artwork hosted at Loop Melbourne to life to capture the terrain and grandeur of the Speyside region for World Whisky Day. But what it reflected was so much more than just an installation it encompassed the uniqueness of The Glen Grant Distillery of Rothes, Scotland, a place of legacy for anyone who has ever ordered a Glen Grant title from behind the bar. To celebrate it from where we sit, we had the opportunity to speak to Glen Grant’s Master Distiller Dennis Malcolm, who currently holds the honour of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to business and the Speyside community. Dennis took us through how he ended up as one of the world’s most renowned distillers, translating the magic of The Glen Grant to other countries and what a good drop looks like to him.

How did you start out working as a distiller?

I was born on the grounds of The Glen Grant distillery, so you could say it was somewhat fated. Both my father and grandfather worked at the distillery, and I began work there in 1961 as an apprentice cooper. I have now been working at The Glen Grant distillery for over five decades, having had the opportunity to learn from the previous master distiller (Douglas Mackessack – grandson of ‘The Major’ – and owner of the distillery from 1931 to 1978). Under his guidance I learnt the knowledge and skills to eventually take over the role on 18 June 1971.

Was it what you always envisioned yourself doing or did you fall into the field?

As I mentioned, I was born at the distillery and was the third generation of my family to work there. I worked towards the goal of being the master distiller as it allowed me to express my passion for creating single malt whisky. I do enjoy taking visitors to the distillery on tours which include the grounds famous for the splendid gardens planted by ‘The Major’ over 150 years ago. So, I suppose I could have been a tour guide if my career had taken a different trajectory.

You’ve been working at The Glen Grant for decades – what makes it so special compared to other distilleries?

The heritage and history of The Glen Grant is very special. First of all, The Glen Grant was founded in 1840, by brothers John and James Grant. They located their distillery amid the stunningly beautiful nature of Rothes in the heart of Speyside, Scotland, near the River Spey, with barley fields close by. In doing so, the brothers realised they could craft their whisky from barley to bottle entirely in Rothes, keeping everything local kept a keen eye on quality and care.

In 1872 James ‘The Major’ Grant, inherited The Glen Grant from his father, James. An engineer and keen botanist, he travelled the world seeking innovations for the distillery, flora and fauna for his gardens and a few adventures along the way. It was this obsession with the details of Victorian engineering and his passionate love for nature that led him to introduce tall slender stills and purifiers to the distillery – innovations ahead of their time. By capturing only the vapours that ascend to the very top of the still, then passing them via the purifier, the lightest of vapours created a single malt with an elegant light fruity and nutty complex taste. The legacy of these founders makes The Glen Grant distillery a very special place to be a part of from the focus on quality to the approach to innovation and inspiration from nature that are core to the distillery’s approach to everything we do.

What is your advice to people who want to start their own distilleries or whisky brands?

I would say follow your dream and be creative because this industry has survived for hundreds of years based on tradition and innovation – and to continue it requires people with determination, pride and passion to succeed – always keeping in mind consistent product quality.

How do you bring the magic of The Glen Grant distillery to other markets?

Well firstly, prior to COVID my preference was to have people from all over the world visit the distillery. I could show them around the grounds, the distillery and the warehouses and share a dram if the opportunity presented itself. However, that has obviously not been an option for over a year now and I have instead been doing far more tasting sessions with other markets over streaming sessions. Our new product Arboralis was launched in Australia last year and I have been involved in many virtual tasting and education sessions with Australians since, including bartenders and passionate whisky drinkers. While it’s definitely not the same as visiting the distillery and having that face-to-face interaction, it does allow interaction albeit virtual.

In addition to that, I believe the magic of the distillery is captured in our liquid itself, the elegant profile is a result of the interaction between inspiration from nature resulting in innovations like our unique stills and purifiers to our dedication to quality. All of it leads to the liquid in the bottle so the essence of the distillery is captured in the bottle on the shelf.  

How do you ensure the quality of The Glen Grant output?

I have always strived to make the most consistent quality single malt, which embraces the profile style created by my predecessors and never compromises on quality for cost benefit. We grind premium Scottish barley onsite at The Glen Grant Estate. We take water from our own Back Burn, and we even bottle all our whisky onsite – not hundreds of miles away. This ensures that aroma and taste are always in complete harmony. This approach makes us unique: we are the only distillery on Speyside to craft whisky this way.

Before a single cask is selected for bottling any of our expressions, a sample is taken and checked for colour, aroma, and taste to ensure that we always maintain consistent quality. This is a pillar of everything we do – consistent quality. I repeat it all the time.

What’s the best way to celebrate a milestone like World Whisky Day?

With a dram of The Glen Grant, of course, and in good company! Whisky is a spirit to be savoured, so definitely don’t drink it too quickly or in excess. It’s also quite enjoyable to pair with food, from dried fruit and nuts to cheeses and chocolate – that allows you to explore and experience the different flavours in each whisky’s profile.

I enjoy my whisky neat and the reason I do this is to experience the aroma and taste as close to the natural way it is when maturation is complete. However, there is no right or wrong way to drink your single malt. I would recommend that you then add a little water to reduce the alcohol content, making it more gentle on the nose and release more aroma and taste. I would also like to suggest that you try adding ice cubes and you will discover from your first sip to your last that you have been on a journey of discovery of aroma and taste as they melt. Never be afraid to experiment because tradition and innovation is the heritage of The Glen Grant single malt.

Find out more about The Glen Grant here.