The Whisky Tasting Club

Whisky Tour, Spring 2010 Part 3 -Glen Grant

Thankfully I’ve been given the chance to wash away the Glenlivet experience of last week by returning to Speyside to visit one of Chivas’ former distilleries. Glen Grant was in a pretty shoddy state when I was last here some five years ago. It’s now owned by Campari and sitting here in Aberdeen airport after an amazing 30 hours in the company of master distiller and company director Dennis Malcolm and his Italian colleagues, I’m delighted to be able to say that not only is Glen Grant back in fine fighting form, but it’s well on its way to being a future heavyweight champion.

Mind you, the trip didn’t start well. Having over-slept and given myself five minutes to get ready for a 5.20am taxi, I ended up stuck in the airport with a two hour delay after the plane developed engine trouble.

The pilot told us this was a rare occurrence, which means that I’m not just a nervous flyer, I’m an unlucky one. This is the third time I’ve flown on an Eastern Airways flight with engine trouble. The first time we were halfway to Aberdeen when we had to turn back to Norwich, giving me a good 45 minutes to dwell on what was so bad that it was better to go back to home base rather than add an extra five minutes and continue to our destination. The answer was a fall in air pressure in the cabin. The second time we had to do a u-turn when travelling down the runway and after two more aborted attempts at take off we were off-loaded. We waited two hours for news but when the delightful Carol on the BBC breakfast news said there were strong winds over Orkney – my final destination – I lost my bottle and went home. The flight was finally cancelled late morning anyway.

I’ll be honest. I’m two hours late going to a distillery which I’ve never really bonded with. Part of me hopes the flight will be cancelled. How wrong can you be?

I’m two hours late to Aberdeen and the taxi company’s on a tight schedule so I’m not sure there will be anyone to meet me. No sign of a taxi rep but then suddenly a manic Scotsman charges forward. He is vaguely familiar but he is ranting and I seem to be the object of his attentions. He has red hair and a tartan hat which looks like one of those joke ones you buy in tourist shops and then I panic when I realise he is holding a sign with my name on it.

It turns out it is a joke hat and hair set and it’s being worn by Ronnie Cox, brand ambassador for Glenrothes and on his way to the distillery. Apparently he bumped in to the taxi company and offered to drive me to Rothes as he’s going there anyway and then went and bought the hat and hair.

Brilliant and it means I get to start my trip in the company of one of my favourite people, chewing over the whisky issues of the day and generally catching up. When I am in the company of someone like Ronnie, with all his family history in the whisky business, his years of experience and his passion and love of whisky and he talks to me as an equal I feel truly honoured. But the random way we have ended up on this journey, the sense of belonging you feel when you bump in to friends in a big city airport, and the cosy warmth that envelops me when I’m in the Speyside region all help to wipe away last week’s Glenlivet trip.

Neil from caskstrength.net

Ronnie drives me right in to the Glen Grant distillery where Dennis Malcolm is completing a tour and is about to go in for a tasting. So I tag along. This is more like it! Three whiskies including the quite delightful 16 year old. A bell goes off. Have I sold this distillery short in my forthcoming book? I fear I have.

And it gets better. We go for a walk through the gardens which were in a shoddy state when I last saw them but are now back to their full magnificence. They give us a glass of Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 25 year old and now I’m seriously concerned. The new book doesn’t do Glen Grant justice at all. Then they give us a little hip flask and we go up to a small cave where there is a small cask of 1961 Glen Grant – my birth year. We’re given a taste and Dennis fills our flasks. It’s stunning. Extraordinary. Up there with my 1961 Glenfarclas which was only 44 years old when I was given it and this is still in the cask after 49 years. The wood and sharp tannins come in strong late on but before then it’s a liqueur-like stewed prune, orange and berry delight. Awesome.

Jim Murray’s here to do the presentation this evening. Say what you like about him – and people do, which is fair enough as he is blunt about what he thinks about everything else – but if Jim’s around you know it’s going to be entertaining. All my journalistic radars switch on. He’s a walking time bomb and wait long enough and you’ll get a good story to tell.

He doesn’t let us down. He’s here to explain to a very multi-cultural guest party why Glen Grant is special and to introduce the new 170, to mark the distillery’s 170th anniversary.And he does a great job until he tastes the whisky and says that it is disappointing because it is sulphury.

“Is it a great whisky?” he says. “No. Is it a good whisky? Yes. Would I have another one? Er, yes.”

Jim is known for his independence and honesty and Dennis Malcolm responds by praising Jim and saying he respects him for these traits. But Dennis is a saint and he must be spitting inside. Because there’s a problem: no-one else can find any trace of sulphur. I’m sensitive to sulphur. Like the Germans, I quite like it. I find it when many others don’t. And I don’t get it here.

But even if it was here in a tiny trace, it doesn’t dominate the malt or detract from it. So why mention it? It’s like going to someone’s house for dinner, drinking their finest champagne and malts, feasting regally on their food and enjoying their hospitality. and then publicly commenting that there was a trace of pooh on the toilet bowl. You just don’t do it – particularly if you’re the only one who can see the pooh.

The 170 is a delight, and the 1992 is even better. After all this excitement and a pleasant dinner sat next to Jim, I pass on the ceilidh and head back to the hotel. I’m getting sensible in my old age.

It’s sad these trips always end up in an airport, especially if you’ve got four hours to kill on your own and the pub’s shut for refurbishment.

But what a great trip. Dennis Malcolm is a wonderful guy, bursting with pride and passion and totally at ease with his job and the people he is working with. Campari’s representatives are a delight and the company approach – slowly and surely – is the right one. The restoration of Glen Grant is embodied in the beautiful gardens and visitor centre. It’s a pleasure to be able to report that the distillery is not only in safe hands, but it’s on the way to being a major force. Dennis tells me the aim is to be best in class.

You really wouldn’t bet against it.

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