Christmas presents an occasion (and the odd excuse) for many things, but one such is to savour the pleasures of a single malt or three. This festive season, Sophie McLean heads to Speyside where a particularly special selection presents itself…
On the same morning as certain media outlets announce the Isle of Skye as ‘most desirable place to live in the UK’, I am flying over another equally stunning part of Scotland. Beyond the newspaper print that rubs off on black fingers, snow-capped mountains and dark fir trees give way to today’s highlander rather than islander setting. At a little after dawn we sweep gently over Aberdeenshire’s mineral-coloured rivers and mirror-like lakes whilst the sun slowly rears its head over the horizon. Orange speckled forests sprout from the ground like clusters of wild mushrooms and provide blocks of coloured mosaics in amidst the green.
Over the next 48hours we will visit Glen Grant – one of the 50 distilleries set up here in Speyside, and whose own legacy stretches well over 170 years. Under crisp, blue, winter skies we first battle it out for the Glen Grant Shooting Championship Cup 2016, one that I sadly am not a top contender for but a happy participant no less in this most thematic of outdoor enterprises. Against a backdrop of nothing but wide-open space, fresh air, miles upon miles of brown and golden bracken and the sugar-dusted peak of Ben Rinnes in the distance, we aim at our clay targets with cool determination. Back at the wooden cabin, now out of the icy air, we warm ourselves on cups of coffee and celebratory drams of Glen Grant Single Malt 12 year old. This, a golden, sweet-spiced, banana infused drop, also provides means to toast the winner of the competition and our time – as yet short, spent here altogether. A lunch of Aberdeen Angus beef, jacket potatoes and winter slaw fills our bellies and provides fuel for our continued conversation. The silver of the winner’s Quaich – Scotland’s own cup of friendship – dazzles against the bottle and our own stories of other whisky tastings since gone by.
With ice-breaker chat over, and warmers for all but the drivers, we wind our way back from this silenced, charming wilderness, into relative urbanisation. As our Landrover Discovery carries us there, the aromas through the air of pine and earthy landscape are perhaps more intoxicating than the whisky itself. Lungs open and eyes widen. This is Scotland living as well as Scotland bottled: Scotland decomposed. Soon, we arrive at Rothes, a small town outside of larger nearby Dufftown – home alone to seven other well-known stills. There’s no denying the deeply bucolic nature of life here, the local inhabitants long-entwined with their local industry, some who have given their life careers to the cause. Shortly we meet one such person.
On first acquaintance, Dennis Malcolm OBE comes across as nothing more than a charming, chatty, humble man. That he surely is, but in a more magnified examination of his role, this master distiller who has presided over the Glen Grant estate for more than 50 years proves just how intrinsic he is to the whole operation – a suggestion he makes without force or provocation, and something evident alone from his all-encompassing knowledge on the subject and minutiae of local operations. Throughout a tour of the distillery Dennis’s long-lived acquaintance of the operation extends to every bolt, screw, barrel and body that has come into existence here since he first started.
“What changes have you seen?” I ask him – a man with soft grey curls, tinted-lens glasses and who is dressed in a well-used pinstripe suit and colourful tie on both days that we meet. “I’ve seen a forklift,” he answers, simply. Legacy here seems intrinsic: grandson of a prior employee, whose father also worked in whisky, one-time cooper apprentice Dennis started working here in 1961, soon working his way up to taking over the helm. If Dennis’ experience is unrivalled, it is also unmeasured. Back then “you had a trade, you had a craft,” he comments. “We are a craft.” It is hard not to feel consumed and positively wowed by his affection and dedication to the cause. This man has stayed through rounds of changes and of glory – a considerable virtue in today’s perhaps more disposable ‘careerist’ society. And yet, he also maintains, “the most important ingredients are people. It is people whose passion make the product.”
A stickler for excellence, in recent times the Glen Grant distillery has been awarded 5 stars by Visit Scotland, but in continued challenge to his own standards and those with whom he works, instead of accepting the award and praising the marketing department, as perhaps many a company would, Dennis instead wrote to ask why they didn’t get the full number of points. “Cleanliness is close to godliness” he says when showing us the floor of the copper-swan necked main distillery. Perhaps it is this keen attention to detail, this utmost respect for his position and those who work with him that resulted in this inimitable character being awarded an OBE by Her Majesty the Queen just a month ago.
As we tour the pretty Victorian gardens that stretch up around the back of the distillery later that day, we are reminded yet again of history and legacy. It is a beautiful frosty day and the ambience as such is altogether fictional in essence. By the garden’s stream we stop at the ‘dram hut’ to taste the Major’s Reserve, a dry, nutty, light but toffee, creamy, lucid reminder of where this distillery has come from and where it still continues. The water below us runs an iodine orange – a colour drawn from the local peat, although it is not since the 70s that has been a deliberate, or obvious Glen Grant flavour.
Next to stunning crab apple trees littered with winter moss, and every colour of bright rhododendron in the riverside beds, we listen once more to this most forthcoming of Scotsmen. “What I’m doing for my life is for generations in front of me, and what they [the previous ones]did was for me” the gardens of course symbolize this perfectly – with well-planted grounds that have taken time to develop, future generations will enjoy what those behind have left in gift. And that is whisky, full-stop.
Top Glen Grant whiskies for Christmas:
10 year old
Awarded continuously for 5 years in a row by esteemed whisky writer Jim Murray, this multi-decorated whisky shows off oranges and tangerines, it is salty not nutty, and is smooth and alive.
12 year old
Dry and nutty and fruity, this has a spiciness to it that the 10 year old doesn’t. Using Bourbon wood only (no sherry casks), this whisky arrives purely on allocation. In Dennis’ own words, it is “like crunching into a toffee apple when you’re a wee boy or a wee girl.” An IWSC ‘Best Speyside Whisky’, and Glen Grant signature, this is nothing but pure and delicious.
16 year old
This whacks of honey, sweet raisins and sultanas. It is floral – with notes redolent of gorse and honeysuckle, bees and flowers, and facilitates imaginings of sitting in a garden bothy. Quite complex and sweet with spice but a floral savoury character shows through on the palate along with a woody ginger spice.
18 year old
Floral notes dominate, wild dry flowers, herbal and pretty, dry (and dusty). Old bourbon casks are used to supply oaky overtones coupled with a lick of bright citrus on the finish. Warming and good.
Different casks are used for this as well as a somewhat unusual solera system. Slightly peated, there are notes of candied fruits, cherries and fruit peel. This has a wonderful toffee finish, with further chocolatey or torrefaccion appeal.
Floral hot caramel sauce, charcoal notes come from sherry casks and base blends from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s. A lovely texture of sweet raisins is lifted from the sherry and with a splash of water it transforms to buttery, bread and butter pudding, or creme anglaise. “Like the heartbreak of listening to a pop song for the first time.”
If top whisky is a waiting game, Glent Grant funnels those who are most graceful.
For more information visit www.glengrant.com. Whisky fans can also benefit from a special whisky concierge service at Farringdon’s Scottish Malt Whisky Society until December 29th.