Glenfiddich: Notes from a distillery tour

GLENFIDDICH’s Dufftown distillery lies at the heart of whisky country - Ray Philp discovers how Scotland’s national drink is made in Speyside, and why the firm treasures its traditional family values so dearly

Peter Gordon, William Grants great-great-grandson. Picture: Glenfiddich
Peter Gordon, William Grants great-great-grandson. Picture: Glenfiddich

It is not uncommon to hear of someone ‘working themselves into an early grave’. This may be more true of William Grant than most.

By the time the founder of William Grant & Sons had opened the Glenfiddich (Gaelic for valley of the deer) distillery in Dufftown in 1887, he had spent nearly 20 years at the nearby Martloch Distillery as their office manager, working and waiting. His wife, Elizabeth, had seven sons and two daughters, all of whom were groomed to be a part of the family business (all nine were sent to school and university). Two of their eldest sons, John and James, were already earning wages. Most, if not all, of this money flowed straight back into the distillery.

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Save for the assistance of a single stonemason, the distillery was built solely by Grant and members of his family old enough to help. Those that were too young were employed as runners, ferrying messages to and fro across the family’s large estate, cushioned between the gentle inclines of Speyside’s heather-topped green and auburn hills.

Mixologist Roman Foltan prepares Glenfiddich cocktails. Picture: Glenfiddich

In achieving the stillness that now permeates the distillery, the tireless head of the family paid the greatest price. In 1906, after working without rest for close to two decades, he suffered a stroke that made him blind. His youngest daughter Ella cared for him until his death in 1923.

Peter Gordon, William Grant’s great-great-grandson and the company chairman, suggests that William Grant would not have had it any other way.

“The Scotch whisky business is in your lungs, it’s in your blood, it’s in your genes,” he says.

“Because you put so much [Scotch whisky] into warehouses you..... financially, commercially, you’ve got to be really sure about what you’re doing and spend a lot of time ensuring that the liquid you make is as good as it can be.”

The Scotsman's Ray Philp, third from right. Picture: Glenfiddich

Making whisky is a famously slow process, but in an age of smartphones and tablets it is also a thoroughly anachronistic enterprise. That’s especially true of Glenfiddich. The distillery is a large, low-lying space with gleaming, metallic surfaces protecting oversized, strangely shaped structures. A pair of mash tuns - bulbous, pear-like copper-coloured containers - are two imposing signposts to the first stage of the process. Most distilleries only have one mash tun - it speaks to the volume of whisky produced, and the inherent success that suggests, that Glenfiddich has two. Since Glenfiddich only produces single malt Scotch whisky, malted barley is the base ingredient from which uisge beatha (water of life in Gaelic) is made.

A coffee-coloured liquid called wort is produced from the mashing process, where crushed malted barley is soaked in water from the Robbie Dhu spring and mashed to encourage fermentation. Yeast is added to the wort, cooled to 17C, and then transferred to large wooden vats called washbacks. This is where the sugar becomes alcohol, and a rich nine per cent beer is produced. The beer, or ‘wash’, is heated in a wash still almost to boiling point and a vapour emerges from this, which is then condensed to make a 21 per cent liquid called ‘the low wines’. This liquid is then condensed again in a spirit still.

The distillate produced, which is separated into three parts, is either sent for maturation (‘the heart of the run’), or redistilled until it’s pure enough (the ‘feints’ and the ‘foreshots’ are redistilled). From here, the maturation process is what gives whisky the bulk of its character. The distillery, in the main, uses American oak casks and Spanish Oloroso sherry butts. They will hold whisky for years, even decades, in one of the distilleries’ 46 vast warehouses.

The marrying process that takes place thereafter, which Glenfiddich insists on (“a step that you cannot afford to miss out”, says Ian Miller, the firm’s jovial global ambassador), harmonises the whisky to iron out inconsistencies. The whisky is emptied into giant Portugese oak marrying tuns, and then spring water is added to adjust the alcohol content. It’s an extremely finnicky method, one which requires exacting standards and a lot of patience. Many parts of the process are more complicated than they perhaps ought to be, but Glenfiddich’s traditions are held in such high regard that they wouldn’t - daren’t? - change a thing. Steps that can be automated are instead done by hand. Virtually no part of the process is mechanised. It’s something the distillery takes a great deal of pride in; it’s the slowest of them all in the whisky arms race.

Later, we arrive at the cooperage, where barrels are made and mended. It’s the least salubrious of all of the pit stops our party of journalists and whisky lovers finds itself in (we’ve been shuttled to dining halls, various warehouses, and an onsite art gallery, among other places) but it’s by far the most interesting because it offers a glimpse into a part of the process that few know. The cooperage is a low-lying, rain-beaten warehouse building, like many before it. As we approach it on the bus, we drive past palettes stacked with barrels, some as high as 20, 25 ft. They look like continents of wood.

“Believe me when I tell you, that is a hard way to earn your living,” bellows Brian Robinson, shouting to make himself heard over the hammering, sawing and grinding inside the warehouse. It’s dry and dusty. The expansive floor below us is strewn with casks, pieces of timber, machinery and toolboxes. Where most of the chaos happens at a molecular level, the cooperage is a handy visual shorthand for the intense effort otherwise unseen during the distillation of whisky.

“Most distilleries use independent cooperages,” Robinson explains, lifting his voice a few octaves. “At these cooperages, the coopers are on piece work. Even today, they are paid by the cask they repair. Ours are not. If a cooper gets a cask back to his bench, and says ‘this is not of the requisite standard for maturing Glenfiddich’, he can roll it over to the scrap pile and he is not penalised.”

A large blue machine called a hoop driver rests in the corner of the facility. It represents the only major piece of automation on the entire Glenfiddich estate concerned with making whisky. It’s a relatively recent innovation, and it does much more than make life for coopers a little easier.

“Now, the chaps can knock the hoops on with their hammers hard enough,” Robinson says, “but what’s gonna happen by the time they get to 50, 55 years of age, their shoulders will be destroyed. It detracts nothing from their craft to roll a cask over and just drive the hoops a little harder in the hoop driver. A piece work cooper wouldn’t do that because it takes too long to get it over there. That’s tough, tough work. In the height of summer, this is a very, very brutal environment.”

Glenfiddich is wedded to its tradition, but it’s also expanding into new territory with some urgency. Its arts programme invites artists from around the world to create portraits, sculptures, fabrics and other works inspired by Glenfiddich whisky. Each summer, the firm invites an artist to take residence in Dufftown. Defying the received wisdom that whisky is bestenjoyed neat or with a few drops of water, it’s also finding itself on cocktail menus. Glenfiddich is, slowly but surely, modernising elements of itself. “It’s a natural tension, [between] revelling in the legacy of how we’ve been doing it and innovating,” Gordon says. “We have a tradition of innovating. And, so the call from my uncle and from my father was ‘be brave’. I think we have a balance by having quite a large number of people who have been here for a very long time, and they kind of know what are the critical thing that one needs to hold on, and whether it works or not I don’t know. So far so good.”

Glenfiddich’s ubiquity doesn’t necessarily lend itself to notions of being fashionable. It produces one of the best-selling single malts in the world, shifting nearly a million bottles a year: being popular bring success, but not necessarily excitement. The majority of Glenfiddich’s range is comparatively smooth on the palate, eschewing peaty finishes for sweet, spicy flavours and aromas balanced with anything from oak and cinnamon to orchard fruits and floral scents. Refreshingly, its slightly old hat reputation is not something anyone onsite seems overly concerned about.

On my way to the distillery, I sat in the back of a Land Rover with Chen, a mature student from Taiwan studying distilling and brewing in Edinburgh. He had lived in neighbouring Elgin for a few months to visit the town’s neighbouring distilleries, and was familiar with a number of them in Speyside. He told me, in all seriousness, that Glenfiddich was the best single malt whisky in the world. I didn’t appreciate the enormity of that at the time.